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Birth paintings get a queasy reception

An artist's attempt to capture the moment of childbirth proved too strong for gallery staff

Keren David,Mark Rowe
Saturday 05 July 1997 23:02 BST

Is Birth the last taboo subject in art? The response to Jonathan Waller's paintings inspired by the arival of his daughter suggest that it may be. One picture of a woman giving birth was considered so shocking by the staff of a London gallery that it was removed from an exhibition on its opening day.

Waller's pictures are striking in their graphic detail and absence of sentimentality. They show a scene hardly ever presented realistically - and only witnessed by fathers since the relatively recent arrival of the New Man in the delivery room.

It has taken four months to arrange another showing since one of Waller's paintings from his series Birth was withdrawn from London's Flowers East gallery in February. Last week, visitors to the New End gallery in Hampstead, north London,where the work is being displayed until 20 July, ranged from delighted new parents and health professionals to, Waller says, "the odd person who scuttles past the gallery saying 'Is nothing sacred?'"

He is still upset at the response of the Flowers East to his work, especially as he had been a featured artist at the gallery for eight years. "I was told that the work was too much of a surprise for the public,'' he says. "In England people find anything to do with the genitalia difficult."

His experience supporting his wife, Ruth, through the 37 hour birth of their daughter, Eva, was his inspiration. The couple attended National Childbirth Trust classes, and hoped for a natural birth at home. "In the end everything in our birth plan went by the board, and we ended up in hospital with every type of intervention going. But we had terrific support from the midwives, and that was one of the things that I wanted to capture in these pictures."

His paintings contain none of the paraphernalia of a hospital birth, but concentrate on women being supported by other women throughout the different stages. Many show graphically the stages of dilation as the baby's head emerges.

"The drawings to me depict the real strength of women,'' he says. "Some women have expressed surprise that they were painted by a man. People have called them 'new man' pictures. That's fine by me, as I am a new man. Ruth and I cut childcare right down the middle.''

The paintings were first seen by the public when he took part in an open studios show in the East End. "Ninety-nine per cent of people were positive. One or two came into the studio, spluttered and backed out quickly.''

Then he presented the work in a talk at Coventry University where he is a part-time lecturer. Afterwards he was approached by a woman mature student: ''She told me that she found the work difficult and offensive. She wouldn't have wanted her husband to see her like that. I found her response fascinating, as I felt it showed a real generational difference in attitude.''

Matthew Flowers, who runs the Flowers East gallery with his mother, Angela, had seen the work in progress and invited Waller to exhibit a painting in a group show in February. Waller chose one of the strongest images. "They seemed uneasy with the choice, but hung it for a few days. Then it caused such a fuss with the gallery staff that they voted to take it down. The first I knew about it was when I arrived at the gallery for the opening. It was very embarrassing, and I was naturally upset." He met Matthew and Angela Flowers two days later. "I had to respect their wishes. They felt too uncomfortable with the work."

Matthew Flowers said they had never had such a strong reaction to a piece of work from the staff, some of whom had been upset by the painting. "I don't have any difficulty with the subject matter but I don't think it is a good work - certainly not one of Waller's best. The image is very painful.

"The birth painting was one of a series and being taken out of context without the others did not help it. I would support the showing of the whole series of paintings in public."

Flowers East is still selling Waller's work, but he is not included in the gallery's summer group show. Depressed by the rejection, he searched for another gallery to show the work, backed by a pounds 3,000 staff development grant from his employers at Coventry University. It found a place at the recently opened New End gallery, which is particularly interested in contentious art. Waller is now hoping to show his work in Germany and take it on tour around Britain.

"This is an area that has hardly been touched by the art world,'' he says, "but I feel it should be confronted in a public arena.''

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