Inspired by The Virgin and Child (‘The Madonna with the Iris’) Workshop of Albrecht Dürer, National Gallery, room 65
Read by Sarah Feathers
So I’m just back from maternity leave and I’ve been asked to give this talk on authenticity and art. My baby isn’t sleeping – I’m not sleeping – it’s all a bit crazy and when I was trying to get my thoughts together, you know, to actually prepare something, well, my baby sicked up all over my notes. And not just any old sick. Nothing you could just magic away with a wet-wipe. Oh no, I’m talking projectile soakage.
And by ‘my’ notes, I mean the notes I borrowed from a colleague who has given talks like this before, so it’s not like I had a back-up copy or anything and she’s on holiday and isn’t responding to e-mail, and so well, here I am.
Here I am, and here we all are, and although I feel like I should admit to you right here and now that I’m no big expert on art or art history or attribution or anything like that, when it comes to the painting I’m going to talk about, ‘The Madonna with the Iris’, I have a hell of a lot to say about authenticity.
Right, so let’s get the facts out of the way. The painting’s full title is listed as ‘The Virgin and Child (The Madonna with the Iris)’. It’s oil on lime, thought to have been produced somewhere between 1500 and 1520, and is said to be from the workshop of Albrecht Dürer.
The Art Fund bought it in 1945, and even then there were questions about its attribution: the minutes from the Board Meeting in which its acquisition was discussed state, “The Board must not purchase it as an authentic Dürer”. Then in 1959, it was accused of being, and I quote, “almost suspiciously full of Dürer motifs” by curator Michael Levey.
It’s one of three paintings with the same composition, but the only one of the three to include a monogram, and it’s been discovered that under that monogram, there’s a layer of a type of varnish – Manila copal – not available before the 18th century. It was probably added in order to make it look like an original Dürer. Later analyses using infrared reflectography and improved X-radiograph methods have told us a lot about the painting’s origins and subsequent history. Our best guess now is that most of the painting came from Dürer’s workshop and was probably painted shortly after his death, but then a few little bits and pieces were added in later for various reasons.
There you go. Now before you accuse me of not attributing my own sources, I did, of course, get all this from the National Gallery’s website about half an hour ago, and it’s about the sum total of everything I know about this painting from a technical standpoint, though I can point you to some papers where the experts go into great detail about all of this. They are fascinating reads, I am sure, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to read everything, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have remembered a word of it by the time I got here. Have I mentioned that I’ve not been sleeping much?
Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, there’s plenty of time left over to take a closer look at this painting and talk about real authenticity. I mean, the kind of authenticity that really matters. The kind that I feel fully and unconditionally qualified to talk about. Here we go.
Okay, first off, have a look at the very centre of this painting. That baby is not wearing a nappy. I know it’s the Lord Jesus and all, but babies are babies, and all babies poo. Sure, the Virgin has a puny little muslin cloth draped across her lap, but that baby’s business end is aiming directly at a sleeve attached to a rather elaborate dress. One misfire and the whole thing has to go in the wash. Asking for trouble. That dress certainly wouldn’t fit in any washing machine I know of, unless the cape-y bit is detachable, and then it would require two loads and would probably still be a squeeze. I bet it takes ages to dry. Likely as not, it’s dry-clean only.
And even if were some super-holy self-cleaning garment, it can’t possibly be comfortable. I think I wore the same pair of pyjamas for the first three months after giving birth, and I still feel I’m looking pretty swish if I manage to put on, you know, something without an elasticated waistband. Who wears stuff like that when looking after a baby?
Still, props to the Virgin for finding a breastfeeding outfit that is somewhat fashionable. For whatever reason, the only nursing clothes I can find are either annoying wrap-around tops that never stay tied shut and gape open at the chest, or shirts with horizontal stripes. Who wants horizontal stripes when one’s stomach still protrudes with an enormous bump that is now filled with chocolate instead of baby?
Which leads us right in to the complex issues of symbolism and composition. Looking at the image, we have some beautiful irises, modelled on Dürer’s drawing now in Bremen, possibly symbolising the sword of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin. We have a wall that we know through infrared reflectography was redrawn after the painting was underway, and extended over to the left to include that archway. Near the Virgin’s head, a rose had been underdrawn, but it was not included in the final painting. All of this is well and good, but what I don’t see in this painting or in the underdrawings is a plate of biscuits. Or, if the Virgin’s a health nut – which, given her figure, is a real possibility – a granola bar.
IR reflectography has shown that the figures of mother and child were planned very carefully. They were underdrawn in great detail using black liquid pigment. The artist knew what he was doing: he planned this image. Therefore, he could have planned in some biscuits. Or a cosy armchair. Or, for that matter, a nap. A nap would be good. The artist could have just painted the Virgin in her bed, eyes closed, in some comfy pyjamas, the baby curled up next to her. The side-lying position works brilliantly for breastfeeding, let me tell you. He could still put in some lovely, drapey, fabricy folds, but in the bed-sheets instead of the dress. I’m just saying.
Instead, there’s the Virgin, sitting upright, good posture, cradling that baby in her arms. She’s outside, her top pulled down, idyllic, aware of nothing but her baby – perfect, golden hair flowing down over her shoulders. Which raises a question: how the hell does she get away with that hairstyle? I think I kept my long hair until what, six months post birth before the choice became all too clear: either I had to chop it off or have it pulled out bit by bit, feed by feed, by tiny, grabby hands. My hair was falling out quickly enough anyway due to lack of sleep, so I went with the hair cut. I certainly did not let it flow tantalisingly over my shoulder. What was the artist thinking?
And another thing, although the Virgin is outside, she doesn’t look the least bit self-conscious. Must be because the baby’s not popping on and off her chest, getting distracted by the wind and the birds and that funny thing on the cloud in the middle of the sky. (What even is that thing on the cloud?) No need to furtively glance left and right to see if she’s being observed with her boobs exposed and sagging in a nursing bra that doesn’t fit, doesn’t offer any support because heaven forbid that breastfeeding women wear a bra with an underwire. The Virgin doesn’t seem to have a bra at all, actually. Does her dress have built-in support, or do her breasts just float because God loves her? Enquiring minds want to know.
It’s not just Dürer – or the workshop of Dürer, though. A lot of artists don’t give their lady subjects supportive undergarments. Just have a peek at the Titians in Room 6 or the Poussins in Room 19. Breasts floating around everywhere in there, once you start looking. Either they were filled with helium back then, or there’s something fishy going on.
So many breasts, but you never see any cracked nipples, or mastitis. I bet the Christ child had a perfect latch, sure, but there’s not even any one-side-bigger-than-the-other, no unexpected let-downs of milk, none of that sort of thing.
And it’s not just her breasts that are perfect: the Virgin looks showered, rested, carefree. Her skin is flawless. So is her figure, unless that’s some sort of 16th-century slimming wear she’s got on, in which case, we need to import some of that to modern times. You can’t see her teeth, but I bet they’re brushed and I bet her breath smells like, I don’t know, irises. Where are the bags under her eyes? Where is the dirt under her fingernails? Where is her oily hair, her greasy skin, her spots? Where is the spit-up stain on her shoulder, the poo stain on the baby’s swaddling cloth? Where is that baby weight she hasn’t managed to shift? Oh, authenticity, where art thou?
I mean, I sound like I’m complaining. I’m not, exactly, don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad, motherhood – it’s not even mostly bad. Lots of it is quite good. Wonderful even. Sometimes there are moments with my daughter that are just...perfect. I feel on the inside just like that Madonna looks on the outside – radiant, blissful, varnished. But behind all that that is an undeniable underpainting of anxiety; and over the top is a definite patina of exhaustion.
I’d like to end by addressing any artists who may be here.
Are you an artist? Are you? Are any of you?
Look, artists, I am not saying you can’t idealise. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, you know, paint what you want to paint. It’s your canvas, your brushes, your, well...paint.
But what I am trying to get at is that if you’re painting a mother and child and you’re interested in things like authenticity, well, forget the idyllic archways, the glamorous couture, the funky clouds. And if you really, really want to honour your Madonna, for God’s sake, give her a plate of biscuits. Or an ipad. Or better yet, some sleep.
Thank you very much.
(c) Ingrid Jendrzejewski, 2016
Winner of the Bath Flash Fiction Award, Ingrid Jendrzejewski (left) likes cryptic crosswords, the game of Go, & the python programming language. She hails from the US Midwest, but currently spends most of the year in Cambridge. Links to her work can be found at ingridj.com & she occasionally tweets @LunchOnTuesday.
Sarah Feathers (right) trained at East 15. Theatre work includes All You Ever Needed (Hampstead Theatre), A Hard Day’s Month (Rose Theatre, Kingston), 26 (BAC), Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse) & The Winter's Tale (Courtyard Theatre). Film includes Coulda Woulda Shoulda, Feeling Lucky & More Than Words. TV: The Real King Herod.