Deconstructing the Visuals of Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion ‘Memorial’

'Memorial for Unborn Children' by Martin Hudáček

‘Memorial for Unborn Children’ by Martin Hudáček

You may well have seen this image – it’s not newly out there – but the other day a friend of mine mentioned it again, and I wanted to take a minute to pin down what’s so disturbing about it. Obviously, it’s easy to get angry at the basic message, the idea that a male sculptor has decided to guilt-trip women in this particular way. It’s also easy to take shots at the twee aspect – the toddler touching the crying woman on the head is cheaply emotive, designed to provoke a cascade of sympathetic reactions before we read what the subject matter is. But I wanted to go deeper than that, to explain why I find this so particularly disturbing in its connotations.

There’s a visual vocabulary here that’s subtle and manipulative.  If you know Christian art, you know that the child’s gesture isn’t merely affectionate – it is a ritualised gesture, a gesture of blessing or forgiveness. The woman kneeling before a child who raises his hand over her head is a Christian trope: it’s evoking the sinner Mary Magdalene kneeling at Christ’s feet, or the baby Jesus with his mother Mary. Implicitly, the statue invites us to parallel the child’s figure with the saintly, the holy.

Notice how the woman isn’t really sobbing in a realistic way, but kneeling with her back straight and her head bent, and propped up on her knees with one foot supporting the pose? That’s not a casual posture, but a ritualised use of the body. In Christian culture, from the early centuries, men wrote manuals describing the proper postures of prayer, the way the body could be disposed to function more effectively as a channel for prayer and penitence. I’ve read medieval books with drawings of how one should kneel or prostrate oneself, and they still exist today. Such images came to have a reciprocal relationship with aesthetics of prayer and penitence, so that the famous images you will have seen of people kneeling in prayer are shaped by this body of work. In this image, the woman’s body is deliberately unrelaxed – imagine taking on that posture and you’ll see how much bodily concentration it requires. It would quite quickly become painful. Her emotion is not spontaneous, but physically disciplined.

There’s something duplicitous about this, then: the sculpture purports to reflect an outpouring of emotion – and there’s an idea of spontaneous, unconsidered action and long, considered regret in the anti-abortion narrative – but it does no such thing. In the context of abortion, it is telling that this is, visually, a woman doing with her body exactly what the Church tells her, positioning her body in the posture of grief dictated by this tradition.

Women have been saying for a very long time that we should be able to talk more about abortion, and I’ve heard claims that this sculpture facilitates that, that – even if you disagree with its anti-abortion message – it has value in that it might allow some women to own their emotions, to express feelings. But, because it is imposing not only the aesthetic and ideology of one man (the sculptor), but also of a long tradition behind him, its effect is erasing. Rather than expressing loss and regret, the statue subtly conveys the message that a female body should be scripted in a tradition of discipline and concentration, dedicated to holding its uncomfortable posture and telegraphing its inferiority.

There’s an obvious level at which any male attempt to represent what is a uniquely female experience is going to be an appropriation, and potentially an erasure of genuine female experience. When that goes hand-in-hand with propaganda designed to control women’s bodies, it is grotesque, and you might feel that knowing about this (largely historical) tradition of disciplining the body through prayer is far from the worst thing about this image: and that’s fair. But, I find it the more disturbing, because it is subtler: it displaces real women’s emotions and renders them unreadable to many viewers. Reading the sorts of sites that approve of this sculpture, I find both men and women approvingly labelling this posture and image as a representation of female ‘anguish’ or ‘heartbreaking’ pain – they cannot even recognise the difference between reality, and ritualised performance designed to control the kneeling female body.

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About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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13 Responses to Deconstructing the Visuals of Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion ‘Memorial’

  1. Lady Andrea Marshall, DSc says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Deconstructing the Visuals: Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion
    (aka “Esther…”)

  2. I very quickly googled his name and came across this quote from him on what the statue represents: “Memorial for Unborn Children, expresses hope which is given to believers by the One who died on the cross for us, and showed how much He cares about all of us.”
    By this he states it is meant for Christian believers, so that is why the prayer stance is included. It is not meant to be subtle, it is to be the response to the matter.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Yes, I know why the prayer stance is included, and I have read what he has to say about it. I am trying to explain why that makes me particularly uncomfortable: the fact is that this posture was a mode of prayer that was intended to make you concentrate on your body, to make you discipline yourself into keeping your body in some discomfort while you concentrated on prayer.

      That might be fine for prayer, but it takes on very unpleasant connotations when it is read – as people read this statue – not as a man sculpting a woman in a restricted and ritualised pose, but as a female embodiment of spontaneous grief. It’s certainly not that. And I think you are perhaps over-simplifying if you conflate his intentions (which, I agree, are unsubtle) with the nuances of that visual image.

      • I think I understand what you’re trying to say, but it seemed within the original piece that you didn’t address his Christian stance correctly. I didn’t want it being overlooked, that’s all.

      • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

        Well, I am unsure how to ‘correctly’ address a ‘Christian’ stance like his, to be honest – I find it extremely hard to see anything very Christian in it. But, yes, when I wrote about the Christian imagery of the statue, that is what I was talking about.

  3. Along similar lines: the “discussion” of abortion has become so scripted that expressions of regret for having had one are almost de rigueur; they are, as it were, forced on women, like this pose of sculpted “spontaneous” grief. Not everyone regrets, or grieves. I would not deny the pain of women for whom the choice is anguished, but neither should pain be foisted on those for whom abortion is a welcome deliverance.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Yes, I agree with that strongly. Though, I think there are differently scripted narratives – I have also been in contexts (UK universities spring to mind!) where the script is the opposite, and it is not really acceptable to express regret, either.

      What’s needed is more open debate – amongst women.

  4. Deborah Peifer says:

    A very thoughtful essay, and I thank you. The use of the forgiveness gesture by the sculptor is something I noticed, but I needed you to clarify the details of the kneeling posture. I read it as guilt and begging for forgiveness from what I assume the sculptor intended as the murdered child. I may be overreading, or it’s so obvious you didn’t need to mention it, but the child looks translucent, ethereal, while the guilty mother is solid and so in Chrsitian iconography, sullied. Again, thank you for your close and careful reading.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      YY, completely agree about the solidity (and sullied) quality of the mother figure. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Belenator says:

    You see what you are not what it is.
    I came across this image on Instagram just moments ago. Haven’t seen it before. I saw a beautiful emotion brought to life: that of a mother who had lost her child. A very meaningful and respectful way of showing the grief and pain that women go through when losing a child.
    Then I google it, I came across the artist explanation, and I ended up here: such a beautiful piece tainted but debates of who’s right and wrong.
    Well I choose to see the light on it.

  6. I’m sorry that the artist chose to taint such a beautiful work of art with a politically controversial subject. It would have meant more if he had dedicated it to all children who have died of ANY cause. Someone had told me it was a tribute to the children lost at Sandy Hook. Obviously, that is not the case. This sculptor is very talented, but I can’t look at his work anymore because its subject disgusts me. In his male, misogynistic way, he made the woman the villain and the child the victim.

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