The Mother and the Weaver
Nancy Nesvet

Maria Lassnig: Selbstportrait weinend (Selfportrait crying, 1994).

The Foundling Museum in London presents Art from the Ursula Hauser Collection on view from 22 September 2023 until February 18, 2024.
Not too long ago, destitute women, unmarried women, prostitutes, and other women unable to support their children had little choice but to abandon them. A sympathetic gentleman, with a heart of gold and pockets of silver founded and financed a hospital where foundlings could be left to be cared for. That hospital building now houses the Foundling Museum whose permanent collection documents the history of the hospital and how representations of mothers, their hopes, struggles and realities have developed. The museum lobby opens to an entrance wall featuring names and circumstances of foundlings, abandoned, intentionally or not; all but one fictional children. It begins ‘Heathcliff was a foundling’ going on to list Harry Potter, whose parents died, Becky Sharp who was orphaned, Dick Whittington orphaned as was Asajj Ventgress, Cinderella fostered, Dorothy Gale adopted, Han Solo orphaned, Harriet Beadle, a foundling, Rapunzel fostered, Romulus and Remus foundlings, Jane Eyre fostered, Hercules adopted, Scarlett O’Hara orphaned, Superman a foundling, Oliver Twist, Jean Valjean and Ram Mohammed orphaned. Oedipus was a foundling. Snow White was adopted. The list goes on, and I wondered why so much fiction, including children’s stories have been written about foundlings, adopted children and those who lost their biological mothers. Are children whose mothers have abandoned them, voluntarily or not, resulting from death or other circumstances forced to make decisions affecting their own lives and well-being resulting in a great story, or one of braveness and survival? The list, so prominently displayed, creates a fictional community of abandoned children reflecting the histories and predicaments of actual children that the Foundling Hospital was created to rescue and care for. The museum tells that story. Featuring artwork and ephemera including pieces of fabric, children’s jewelry, and other forms of identification of babies left at the hospital, the visitor becomes acutely aware of the mothers’ hope that they might one day return for their children and identify them by the artefact left. In paintings and objects throughout the museum, that hope was never abandoned and felt by everyone visiting the museum.
At a special exhibition, The Mother and the Weaver, art by women in Ursula Hauser’s personal collection illustrates the emotions of mothers, as contemporary artists often draw on personal experience to show empathy with those who have gone before to this building. Art from the Ursula Hauser Collection, personally chosen by Mrs. Hauser whose mother died when she was 22, features 40 artworks, sculpture, painting, textiles, video and works on paper by seventeen women including Rita Ackermann, Ida Applebroog, Louise Bourgeois, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Marlene Dumas, Sonia Gomes, Sheila Hicks, Luchita Hurtado, Nichola L, Maria Lassnig, Anna Maria Maiolino, Carol Rana, Pipilotti Rist, Amy Sherald, Lorna Simpson, Sylvia Sleigh and Alina Szapocznikow relating to the emotions, ideals, hopes, attachments, and birthing process of women, which according to the introduction to the exhibit ‘explores motherhood, maternal absence, and childhood experience within the unique context of this museum, focusing on unseen female identities and experience. They reveal the complex interplay between bodies, relationships, life experiences and personal artistic identity.’

Mothers often left tokens with the baby

The show title, The Mother and the Weaver, derives from the spider sculptures of Louise Bourgeois for whom the spider was seen as both threatening and protective of her children. Bourgeois writes in Ode a ma Mere, (1995 with accompanying drypoint etchings) here exhibited, ‘Why a Spider?’ ‘because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid’ inquisitive embarrassing personal questions.’ perhaps like those asked of women who often reluctantly and tearfully abandoned their children to the care of the Foundling Hospital. Taya Barton, Curator of the exhibition notes in her introduction; In Bourgeois’ work, ‘the spider becomes a complex symbol of motherhood and of creativity through the act of weaving. The spider is at once an image of her lost mother, a seamstress.’ Bourgeois described the spider as a sculptor who makes artwork directly from her own body, connecting artwork shown in this exhibition with the purpose of this museum. A common answer to why women were not included in the Canon used to be that they could not create great art because they are able to create children, actual human beings. The artists whose work is displayed in this exhibition clearly defy that statement, making great art about that very ability of women to create life.
Brilliantly alluding to themes in the museum, Sonia Gomes’, an orphan herself first cared for by her black grandmother contributes Trouxa, (2004) made with pieces of discarded textiles, referring to the abandoned babies that took on new lives and identities and to her own mixed identity as she later was cared for by her white family. That fragmented history, so common to those foundlings, is shown in the fragmented scraps of fabric, lace and small metal parts bound up in a spherelike form, held together with crocheted and sewn threads. Those textiles might also refer to the ‘tokens’, often fabric pieces left by mothers to identify their children should they return to the Foundlings Hospital for them. Textile work by artists including Sheila Hicks also references those bits of cloth saved by the hospital. So much of women’s lives is bound up by caring, shown as textile art keeping their lives together. Luchita Hurtado’s acrylic painting, Birth (2019) shows childbirth from a mother’s literal perspective, while Amy Sherald’s painting, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers, (The Little Bird, 2021) is a representational portrayal by a black woman painter. Marlene Dumas’s Diagonal Child pushes up against a treelike form, exhibiting strength that pushes against the parameters of the canvas, and perhaps her world. Lullaby, signed LB, is a sheet of paper covered with a musical staff but no score allowing that each woman sings her own lullaby. Louise Bourgeois, The Good Mother sculpture features a tree growing from the neck of a woman, standing supported by her cane, the tree’s limbs flowering and supporting a home for birds. Her Spider V, (1999) brings the weaver and protector of her children to the show, overseeing all. Bourgeois’ paintings of the birth process, The Birth (2007), in red against a white background displayed as a group look as if they are painted with watered down blood, with sterile sheets behind the anatomical female forms of pelvis’ and legs open to deliver the child.Nicola L shows a female form, lying down, its shiny vinyl covering of many hands recalling the many hands a mother must have to complete all her chores, this one now exhausted as she finally lies down. A portrait of a woman painter at her task, a clearly tearful portrait of a woman, three beautiful and proud nude women in a painting by Sylvia Sleigh show the varied moods and activities contemporary women, mothers may today pursue, and the emotions, tears and joy that result.
Considering how artists protect their private identities while exhibiting publicly, artists here question how they can be attentive mothers while pursuing artistic careers, as does Carol Rama’s Seduzioni (1984) and Rita Ackermann’s Mama, I love you (2010) referencing decisions made by women who left their children in the care of the foundling hospital with no choice if they had to work to survive, and could not have afforded or were unable to bring up their own children.
It is a difficult show to see, knowing the decisions made by woman who delivered their children to the home. Yet both mothers and children survived and thrived because the mothers unselfishly gave their children a future they could not provide that the Foundling’s hospital could, perhaps the most selfless act that exists. It is this reminder of the unending fabric that forever binds children with their mothers that is illustrated in both the permanent collection at the Foundling’s Museum and in Ursula Hauser’s collection. It is the contention that women still struggle, with the birth process itself, with the push and pull of emotions and time that their children and others who depend upon them demand that goes into their art and which is shown in this generously lent collection.

Nicola Leuthe: Giant Woman Sofa (1970-1990) The hands are pillows