Before I was a mum (and before I began my little business Outie) I was an art history obsessed Art History teacher (I also taught English and Art). My Masters thesis was on the construction of childhood as a ‘Denkbild’ or ‘thought picture’ – an imaginary picture of childhood that we carry in our heads and hearts. I wrote screeds on the works of Loretta Lux and I added filter upon filter of philosophy and theory writing myself into a memory-filled labyrinth.
But I was also writing as a non mum.
My theory on how we construct childhood (in a nutshell) was that we construct memory anew each time we remember something. And each time we remember something of our childhoods, we take something of the present with us. So if you are looking at a painting, for example, that makes you remember something of your childhood, then that painting will now be forever part of the path that builds that childhood memory.
What’s new for me now, though, is that I can’t ‘undo’ my mother-ness. ‘Mother’ is at work reconstructing everything I remember and think. Every thing that I look at, remember or process, is now filtered (and stongly so) by the fact that I am a mum.
And yesterday I stumbled upon this painting ‘Kids in Bathtub’. I couldn’t find a date but I am guessing 1920s.
As an Art History teacher (pre-mum) looking at this painting I would have spoken about the diffused use of light to show the yellowness of the electric light bulb and the use of single point linear perspective and how the fashion of the mother figure is typical of its time yet also indicative of class. I would notice the discarded toy boats as a compositional device and how they aid the viewer in finding a focal point. I would also notice how there is an unheard dialogue framed by the reflected architecture that the woman is not involved in and how the painter has allowed her to be unaffected by it – how she stares adoringly at her children.
This painting is a domestic illustration by an American/Canadian painter called Norman Wills Price (1877 – 1951).
There is a new filter that I bring to it now. And I only really became aware of it yesterday.
The new filter is me looking at it as a Mum.
What I see now is the delicate sentimentality of the approach.
I see the idealism of the painting and how it adds a rose tinted filter to a simple daily task.
I see how the mother is dressed up yet she chooses to be in the bathroom with her kids.
I see how the fallen toy boats are a part of the whimsical detritus of parenting and childhood that the painter has carefully chosen to include.
I see how the electric lighting is rose tinted and casts a warm glow on the scene that matches the warmth of the observed (or remembered) event.
I see how the dialogue in the reflection doesn’t even affect the mother because she is absorbed in the moment with her kids.
I also see how she smiles thoughtfully holding a towel ready to embrace them, wriggling and all.
My ‘mum filter’ makes me see how idealised this painting is – but it also reveals how sentimental it is.
There is no dressed up mummy in heels at bath time at our house.
There is no maid to cook the dinner while mummy indulges in a romantic moment.
But the rose-tinted stuff is still there.
Because becoming a mum has changed me in ways I could never have known.
Love Katrina (Outie)
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