The late American writer Christopher Largen once said: “Birth is an experience that demonstrates that life is not merely function and utility, but form and beauty.” If that is so, why has childbirth been such an unusual subject for modern and contemporary artists?
Motherhood is a relatively common subject in Western Art, from depictions of the Virgin Mary to the domestic scenes of Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt; from images of breastfeeding mothers to freshly newborn babies. Yet childbirth – that most commonplace of miracles – remains strangely absent from modern and contemporary art. In the rare instance where childbirth has become an artistic subject, it tends to be within the domain of feminist and conceptual artists like Judy Chicago or Mary Kelly. That is why I was astonished to see a remarkable set of prints that tackled this lofty subject, made by a male artist and farmer working in rural 1970’s New Zealand.
John Foster’s Forceps Delivery (1978) is a set of lithographs depicting the emotional, messy, exhilarating birth of his first child in a rural birthing unit in 1972. It was a difficult and risky birth which proved traumatic for both Foster and his wife Pat, but their daughter was eventually delivered successfully with the assistance of forceps. As he described:
“The contortions of the mother-to-be in labour, then the moment of birth and this screaming little purple bundle impressed me tremendously. […] Until the moment the baby began to cry, there was the sense of not knowing if everything was going to turn out well. […] The experience was traumatic for both of us and a most significant event in my life. I did not know until then how much love and respect I had for my wife and child.”
To the chagrin of his labouring wife, Foster dealt with his anxiety by continuously sketching her throughout the long and difficult birth. These initial sketches later resulted in a large mural and an accompanying suite of prints based on the experience. Employing a purposely naive style, Foster uses thick, expressive lines to capture the emotional intensity of the birth, set against clinical imagery like masked doctors and medical equipment.
John Foster (1942–2003) was an artist and farmer based near Wellsford, who worked on the fringes on the New Zealand art scene for over 30 years. He was a largely self-taught artist whose subject matter focused on everyday life in rural New Zealand, including sheep shearing, cattle auctions and family beach trips. However, he attended several summer courses at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland in the late 1960s and 70s, and counted Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon among his tutors and correspondents. It was McCahon who advised the young Foster to ‘go big’ with his art, and he certainly took the advice to heart, producing thousands of prints and paintings arranged into enormous murals. Foster’s style also seems have been influenced by the primitivist style of McCahon’s early religious paintings, with their flattened perspective and boldly outlined figures. Foster also had a keen interest in European artists like Cézanne and the Italian Primitivists, building up a small library of books on international art which he often consulted.
However, despite working obsessively and producing an astonishingly large body of work (while also making a living as a farmer), Foster remained mostly outside the art world throughout his entire life. The massive scale of his paintings often posed insurmountable challenges to galleries who might have been interested in displaying his work, and his uncompromising attitude alienated him from the few dealers he came into contact with. His work is still relatively unknown today.
Nonetheless, Foster did indeed have moments of brilliance in his artistic practice. Works like Forceps Delivery show his willingness to engage with unexpected and sometimes taboo imagery that almost never appears in New Zealand art of the period, injecting it with a sense of raw emotion that reflects the authenticity of his experiences. The strength of this series is not in the individual images, but in the sum of its parts: the mother’s hand clenched on a pillow; the sense of quiet anticipation between contractions; the wild crescendo of pain and emotion as the baby crowns; the wonderful little alien creature with her head misshapen from forceps. Foster’s direct, expressionistic style evokes something really raw and true about the whole experience of childbirth.
Te Papa purchased 12 prints from the Forceps Delivery series late last year, but you can also see the full suite and the related mural on Foster’s website here. This is the only artwork I’ve ever encountered about the experience of childbirth from the father’s perspective, which I think is really remarkable – if you know of any others, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!