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Love

Catalogue entry

From:
Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).

Titian, The Virgin Suckling the Infant Christ (NG3948), c.1565–75, oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, The National Gallery, London, Mond Bequest, 1924

There are no haloes. Mary does not wear a radiant blue cloak. There are no angels or other saints. It is not known why or for whom Titian painted this quiet and tender meditation on the Holy Family.1 Christ does not offer a blessing, does not meet our gaze, does not display a perfect infant body. His dynamic pose emphasises eager hunger for his mother’s milk. The canvas is rough, amplifying the paint’s free‐flowing quality.2 When it first arrived at the National Gallery, it was catalogued not as an image of the Virgin Mary and Christ, but simply as Mother and Child.3 The Virgin Mary’s protective hand embraces her son with tenderness and strength. Mary’s left hand, so prominent in the picture, is mirrored in the position of Christ’s right hand, which he uses to draw his sacred mother’s breast to his mouth. This painting, like the nature of Jesus himself as fully divine and fully human – holy God and vulnerable little boy – transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary across every detail of its surface.

Not long after it arrived at the National Gallery as part of Ludwig Mond’s bequest in the 1920s, the Gallery Director Charles Holmes remarked that this rendition of the Virgin and Child is ‘lit as it were from within by murky and fitful fires’.4 The way in which Mary and Christ connect so deeply yet so simply, delighting in their unbreakable bond of body, heart and soul, is a representation of Christ’s dependence on his mother. Perhaps inspired by a design by Michelangelo, Titian’s painting is a meditation on unconditional love.5 It is also a meditation on the body as sacred: Mary’s body, especially the womb that carried the Saviour of the World, her sacred milk feeding her little boy and the holy touch of her hands, tenderly embracing Christ’s body.

Titian blends flesh and fabric, intensifying the embrace.6 The art historian Maria Loh has emphasised the importance of touch in Titian’s paintings, focusing on the touches of his brush that could ‘destroy and reconceive truth’ because of the way he blended philosophy, art and beauty by working at the edges of a ‘nebulous in‐between’.7 Titian scholar Jacqueline Lichtenstein agrees, describing how Titian’s approach to painting creates a desire in us to touch it. She says that our eyes and Titian’s brush participate in the same thing: ‘a caressing way of touching the object without touching it … a nontactile perception possible only when the gaze is really affected by what it sees’.8 In a sense, we touch mother and child with our eyes, longing to be closer to both figures.

In Ernst Neuschul’s Black Mother, different kinds of desire and love may rise to the surface. In the eyes of both mother and child, the injustice of racism is critiqued clearly and boldly. Painted in Berlin in 1931, their gaze raises urgent questions for us in the twenty‐first century about white privilege, Black identity and belonging in white supremacist spaces. These figures are entitled to the same tenderness, dignity and love as Titian’s mother and child. In Christena Cleveland’s account of her pilgrimage to see a series of powerful medieval Black Madonnas in France, God is a Black Woman, she speaks profoundly of the Sacred Black Feminine, Black dignity and the beauty of Black bodies.9 Jesus and his mother were not white, though European Christian imagery imagines them as white. In the loving tenderness of mother and child, both paintings represent the nourishing love that gives every person life and does so abundantly. Black Mother can and should be seen as a Black Madonna and Child. As the Song of Solomon proclaims, ‘I am black and beautiful.’10

Black women and children face discrimination in countless aspects of life. No Black person should ever feel unsafe or unloved, and yet many do. In Germany in the 1930s, Black people were also persecuted and sterilised. The presence of the child in Neuschul’s painting is defiant in the face of racism and fear. Christians believe that the love of God conquers all fears and embraces all people. Interpreted theologically, the defiant gaze of mother and child in Neuschul’s painting is a sign of the hope of God’s love for all. The latter is expressed in a different way in Titian’s painting. The juxtaposition with Titian’s painting not only encourages us to see the Black mother and child in 1930s Berlin as a representation of a sacred Madonna and Child, but also rightly questions the depiction of Jesus and Mary as white. The love of mother and child is universal and vital, and the juxtaposition of these paintings reminds us how vital equity is too.

One of Titian’s last paintings, this image appears to be a very personal response to the medieval tradition of the ‘Madonna Lactans’, depicting the Mother of God providing sacred food for her divine Son. The wide sweep of loose brushstrokes and intense intimacy combine to create a serene effect, even as the infant’s legs sprawl out in hungry joy. The empathetic connection between mother and child invites the viewer to contemplation and devotion, as the soft folds of the curtain on the right frame the scene in its ambiguously dark interior. Perhaps this was a prayer in paint for Titian, too. Titian scholar Patricia Meilman explains that his brush had ‘boundless freedom’ and that his brush could ‘speak for him’.11 As an empathetic exploration of the relationship between love and liberation, in its subject and in the way Titian painted it, this nursing mother and child brings the jazz singer Nina Simone’s wisdom to mind: ‘I’ll tell you what freedom is: no fear.’12

Mark A. Simmons

Ernst Neuschul, Black Mother, 1931, oil on canvas, unframed, 100.5 × 65.5 cm, Leicester, Leicester Museum & Art Gallery. Purchased from Campbell and Franks Ltd with MGC/V&A Purchase Grant Fund assistance, 1978 (L.F453.1978.0.0)

Ernst Neuschul’s painting Black Mother is a profound image of a mother and child in a park in Berlin. Unlike the dark and intimate interior in Titian’s image of the Madonna and Child, Neuschul’s subjects are outside on a bench, framed by the tree to the right. There is a fresh light green glow surrounding the mother, intensifying a sense of this moment as somehow sacred even though it is an everyday modern scene. At the National Gallery, Kendall Francis, who is a Paintings Conservator and a Black British woman, spent time looking at Black Mother. These are her reflections: I can see the pride and celebratory strength in her eyes, which for Black and ethnic minority women is vital. Seeing ourselves and in power within historical artworks is rare. But I can also see fear, eliciting the problematic stereotype of the ‘strong, angry Black woman’ who is not as sensitive to pain and in need of less nurturing and protection. For me, this artwork also brings forth the centuries of Black women and enslaved women forced to be wet nurses for white children, and the continued fatal discrimination Black mothers and babies still endure to this day.

The Jewish artist Ernst Neuschul produced this painting in Germany in the 1930s. He made a bold statement about dignity and identity during a traumatic and violent political era. Neuschul was born into a middle‐class Jewish family in Aussig, a small town in what is now the Czech Republic.13 As a young man, he moved to Prague to follow his ambition of becoming an artist. As a pacifist, at the outbreak of the First World War, he initially avoided conscription by starving himself and feigning epilepsy to appear unfit to military doctors. When this failed, he fled to Vienna, and eventually moved to Berlin.

In 1926 Neuschul joined the Novembergruppe (‘November Group’) of artists and became a radical socialist. Through this association he was mentored by fellow Jewish artist Arthur Segal on expressionist composition, and became friends with Ludwig Meidner, who painted expressive and highly emotional figures and subjects, often with religious themes. These influences, combined with the tense atmosphere of Berlin in the Weimar years, created Neuschul’s distinctive style. With others, he founded the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’) art movement, in which intuition and emotion were combined with realism to make the truth of the world visible through art. As Neuschul’s son, Khalil Norland, would later explain, his father felt this new way of understanding drove him to create ‘starkly drawn confrontations with reality’.14 The results were powerful, provocative paintings of industrial workers, marginalised women, Black people, the travelling community and the unemployed. By subversively celebrating these people in his pictures, Neuschul advocated for equality and dignity.

Black Mother was the culmination of his beliefs. Painted between 1929 and 1931, it is a unique example within Weimar visual art of a Black nursing mother, wearing fashionable clothes and a cloche hat, posed like an archetypal Western ‘Madonna Lactans’ (‘Nursing Madonna’). Her baby is dressed in light green, similar to the fresh hue of the trees in the background. The red ribbon, keeping the baby’s bonnet in place, echoes the red band on the mother’s hat. This painting would have been shocking to the German Right’s twisted concept of motherhood, with its racist and eugenicist aims, and was even more scandalous due to the artist’s deliberate reference to traditional, stylised images of the breastfeeding Madonna and Child. Black Mother is a realistic modern scene, in which the mother and baby lock their gazes with the viewer, perhaps in defiance of what others might think.

Khalil Norland’s letters reveal new information about the creation of Black Mother. Neuschul’s practice was surreptitiously to take photos of people in everyday surroundings with his Leica Camera. He would then use these photos as references to make a wholly new vision. Khalil recalls: ‘… he would make sketches from life and photographs, usually at the same time, and then take those back to his studio and choose the photos that struck him as suitable for the paintings of themes that interested him … without the use of a model.’15

Work in progress photos, in Khalil’s possession, show that Neuschul made several changes to the composition of Black Mother during its painting, including changing the direction of the mother’s gaze to meet that of the viewer. He notes: ‘It makes a strong ideological point to show mother and child startled by the viewer’s intrusion and mother proud and defiant!’16

Neuschul painted few Black subjects. Those he did included a composition of a family of four which partially referenced the same photograph he had previously used for Black Mother. Known only from an image of the picture in progress, this depicted the same mother and child, but this time gazing lovingly towards each other, and bracketed by standing figures of a man and a young boy. Unfortunately, this companion to Black Mother seems to have been one of the many Neuschul works which were seized and destroyed by the Nazis in 1932.17 In 1937, two of Neuschul’s paintings on exhibition in Aussig were slashed and vandalised overnight with swastikas. Neuschul was now in danger due to his race, his leftist politics and his art. Together with his wife and child, he escaped the Nazis on the last train out of Czechoslovakia. Gaining a visa through the assistance of the Welsh MP Davis Rhys Grenfell, the family arrived in Britain just days before war was declared on Germany.18 Ernst’s wider family were less fortunate, with many, including his mother, being murdered during the Holocaust.

Most of Neuschul’s paintings from before the Second World War are now lost. Fortuitously, Black Mother was amongst Neuschul’s most beloved possessions which accompanied him on his escape to Britain in 1939. The work was eventually acquired in 1977 by Leicester Museums & Art Gallery, with the assistance of the MGC/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.19

A Response from Leicester Museums & Galleries Social Media Channels

In spring 2022, Mark A. Simmons, Principal Manager at Leicester Museums & Galleries, opened up new conversations regarding Ernst Neuschul’s painting Black Mother, by asking questions about it on Leicester Museum & Art Gallery’s social media platforms. Here are some of the questions the museum decided to explore:

  • What does love between a mother and her child mean to different people?
  • Is Black Mother a positive artwork depicting an expression of pure maternal love, or does it show an intrusion into a private moment?
  • Is the love shown in the artwork protective, or nurturing, or defiant?
  • How do the subjects make you feel?
  • Do you think these feelings were also those that the artist wanted to express?

This project will continue throughout the duration of the Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart exhibition.

You can take part by visiting www.leicestermuseums.org during the exhibition, or by joining in with the conversation at @leicestermuseums on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Responses will be displayed at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery alongside the painting itself, using a regularly updated digital label to present a changing range of different interpretations and responses.

Over the last two decades in Leicester, Black Mother has been celebrated as a symbol of the growing empowerment of women, and for showing the importance of women’s right to breastfeed in public. The painting has been used to promote International Women’s Day, and it has acted as a talking point for the promotion of breastfeeding and childcare. In 2010, it was used as the main image for promoting Black Heritage Month across the city of Leicester, when huge images of the woman in the painting gazed out from billboards, bus shelters and notice boards across Leicester. Many recognised and were moved by the strength and presence that the work of art embodies. With the vital importance of Black Lives Matter and the urgent need for racial justice, the power of this painting’s depiction of family, love and tenderness between mother and child is more significant than ever.

Additionally, for members of Leicester’s Jewish community, this painting and many others in the Museum’s German Expressionist collection are very important. The collection, primarily created by refugees from Nazism, reminds us of the importance of remembering the Holocaust, as well as the profound loss and displacement experienced by refugees, past and present. Every person has a duty actively to promote love, tolerance and understanding both between individuals and within communities.

People experience Black Mother in very different ways. During recent community engagement activities at the Museum, for example, some Black and Asian people responded to the work by seeing the mother’s expression as being one of fear and terror. Others from these communities and heritage backgrounds perceived it as an expression of Black pride. These differing views are a reminder that different life experiences affect the way every person sees images and interprets them.

By opening up new conversations about Black Mother on social media in 2022, Leicester Museums & Galleries aims to listen attentively to multiple voices and views about this unique image. There is also an exciting opportunity to gain new insights from a wide variety of people about the meaning of love.

When the Museum invited people on social media to offer their responses to Neuschul’s Black Mother, no historical background or other interpretation was given about the painting. This decision aimed to ensure that viewers’ responses would be personal and rooted in the encounter between themselves and the image without mediation through the Museum’s own interpretation.

A selection of the responses we have received up to mid‐June 2022 are given below. They demonstrate a breadth of perception of many of the aspects of this challenging and powerful painting:

‘An emotive painting expressing motherhood in its most natural form.’ (Roshni)

‘If I identify with the artist, I see a brave portrait going against the norms of the time. In 1931 the Nazis had already made significant gains. When I identify with the lady, I am less sure. Is she looking alert and threatened? Or is she defiant and proud? For me, I see fear and anxiety. I imagine she was very afraid of having her portrait done at this time, especially since she is in such a vulnerable position, breastfeeding her child. Try looking from the different perspectives of the artist and the sitter and see how you feel.’ (Sadiq)

‘A mother breastfeeding her baby is a display of a strong intimate bond. I was captivated by the baby’s innocent and curious eyes and the mother’s sassy facial expression. Black Lives Matter ♥ xx.’ (Patricia)

‘It reminds me of Mommy and feeding my little brother and sister. Makes me feel embarrassed that someone would paint or take a picture of a women breast feeding. It’s not the breastfeeding that is embarrassing it is the fact that someone would take a picture. I think it’s fine in real life but not as a picture.’ (Tate, aged 10)

‘I love this painting because it challenges the viewer. It cannot leave you uninvolved. It provokes questions. Is the woman startled? If so, why is she startled? Is she in Germany? I don’t think of 1931 Germany as having a Black community. Was she going to face disapproval for breast feeding in public? Did she and her baby survive the war? What is the painter trying to communicate? Such a beautiful painting and so many questions.’ (John)

Through crowdsourcing responses on the theme of Love as depicted in this painting, we aim to involve our diverse visitors directly in the exhibition, and to encourage a deeper exploration of all the themes and works encompassed by the Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart exhibition.

Notes

2. Penny 2008, p. 282. (Back to text.)

3. Penny 2008, p. 268. (Back to text.)

4. Quoted in Hope 2003, p. 162. (Back to text.)

5. The composition appears to be based on a Michelangelo design, now at the Casa Buonarroti. I am grateful to Matthias Wivel for this observation. (Back to text.)

6. Meilman 2004, p. 72. (Back to text.)

7. Loh 2019, pp. 32–33, 240. (Back to text.)

8. Lichtenstein 1993, pp. 162–63. (Back to text.)

10. NRSV 1989, Song of Solomon, 1:5. (Back to text.)

11. Meilman 2004, p. 74. (Back to text.)

13. Neuschul anglicised his name to Ernest Norland in the 1940s. (Back to text.)

14. Leicester Museums, Object File L.F453.1978.0.0, Khalil Norland, unpublished correspondence to fine art curator Adrienne Avery-Gray, 2004. (Back to text.)

15. Collieu 1989, p. 21. (Back to text.)

16. Neuschul once stated that the Nazis particularly hated his family portraits; see Talbot 2002, pp. 50–52. (Back to text.)

17. Leicester Museums, Object File L.F453.1978.0.0, Khalil Norland, unpublished correspondence to fine art curator Adrienne Avery-Gray, 2004. (Back to text.)

18. Talbot 2002, p. 49. (Back to text.)

19. Sold by Campbell and Franks in November 1977, on behalf of a private owner. (Back to text.)

List of archive references cited

  • Leicester Museums, Object File L.F453.1978.0.0, Khalil Norland, unpublished correspondence to fine art curator Adrienne Avery-Gray, 2004

List of references cited

  • Cleveland 2022
    Cleveland, Christena, God is a Black Woman, New York 2022
  • Collieu 1988
    Collieu, Julia, Ernest Neuschul 1895–1968: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Leicestershire Museums Publication, No. 97, Leicester 1988
  • Ferino‐Pagden 2007
    Ferino‐Pagden, Sylvia, ed., Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting (exh. cat. Accademia, Venice and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Venice 2007
  • Hope et al. 2003
    Hope, Charles et al., Titian (exh. cat. National Gallery, London) London 2003
  • Lichtenstein 1993
    Lichtenstein, Jacqueline, trans. Emily McVarish, The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Style, Berkeley 1993
  • Loh 2019
    Loh, Maria, Titian’s Touch, London 2019
  • Meilman 2004
    Meilman, Patricia, ‘A Lifelong Passion: Titian’s Religious Art’, in The Cambridge Companion to Titian, ed. P. Meilman, Cambridge 2004, pp. 58–74
  • NRSV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
  • Penny 2008
    Penny, Nicholas, National Gallery Catalogues – The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume II: Venice 1540–1600, London 2008
  • Rodis 1969
    Rodis, Peter dir., Nina: An Historical Perspective (1969)
  • Talbot 2002
    Talbot, Kathy, ‘The Painter and the Politician: Ernst Neuschul and D.R. Grenfell, MP’, Journal of the Gower Society, vol. 52, 2002, pp. 48–57

About this catalogue

This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.

The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.

The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.

Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.

About the authors

Ayla Lepine

Revd Dr Ayla Lepine was Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery (2021–2) and is now Associate Rector at St James’s Piccadilly in London. Following her PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she held fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale, and was Lecturer and Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex. Her publications include co‐edited books on monastic architecture and modern visual culture, as well as articles on art and theology in Architectural History, the Sculpture Journal and British Art Studies. She is a trustee of the UK charity Art and Christianity, a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and a member of the Visual Arts Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Mark A. Simmons

The archaeologist and social historian Mark A. Simmons has worked professionally in the arts and museums sector for over thirty years. During 2005 he curated The Curiosity Shop, the UK’s first touring museum project based in empty shops, receiving several awards for both his individual and collaborative work. He joined Leicester Museums & Galleries in early 2021, where he is the Principal Manager responsible for the service’s public programmes, covering learning, engagement and exhibitions. His role also includes leading on the care and interpretation of the museum collection, on community heritage and on public arts initiatives across the city.

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