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.


19 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Visuals of Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion ‘Memorial’

  1. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

      • Guys. It’s a Christian sculpture about an unborn child’s spirit forgiving her Mother. She is ghostly looking… because she is dead. The Mom isn’t. You want to know what’s actually disturbing? This craven reaction to a sculpture made by a Christian for other Christians to process regret and grief over their dead offspring. Some here have purported that there are women for whom abortion is welcome deliverance. You find a woman that loves having abortions, and they certainly do exist, and I will show you the ugly self-hatred filled underbelly of our broken, postmodern society. A normal woman with an unwanted pregnancy might feel relief after an abortion, but she sure as shit isn’t going to be happy about it. I have seen plenty of sick women praise abortion with demented joy, and its fucking wrong. I don’t care if its impolite to impose my morality on others, in fact, its our prerogative as a society to uphold and impress our morals, whether it be suffrage, gay rights, or the rights of the unborn.

        It is perfectly apparent that the only reason this sculpture seers your soul is because you inherently know how wretched and morally bankrupt elective abortion is, and you aren’t one of the sociopaths pushing for fourth trimester abortion. At least I hope not. Thank God its on the decline with the rise of birth control and sex ed.

        Oh, and don’t worry, everything I said is valid because I have a vagina.

  3. 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.

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

  4. 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.

    • Belenator, as a woman who’s been thru this, I concur with your assessment. This sculpture embodies my feelings fittingly, and I find it to be wonderful.

  5. 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.

    • Funny that this beautiful sculpture has the “political “ meaning of Anti Abortion, cimments on the artist , Christianity etc.
      When I saw this , I wept, for myself , for my husband, for my other sons , I wept because out critically ill, incredible son, my baby, our heart , died at 18 years of age. He was a gift , a miracle, a child of God who suffered but had the gift of love, life and laughter.
      He shared those gifts with so many people.
      The sculpture for me depicts a child who has passed letting his mother feel his presence and love through God. I have been blessed to feel my child’s presence and have been comforted.
      May Gods blessings comfort y’all.

      I’m not responding particularly to whoever’s post this is attached too , I just went to the reply spot.

  6. The artist is male. So he cannot have compassion with mourning women?
    You write about this peace of art like it was a political act. That is unfair.
    When I read this text I get the shivers because the author behind it seams like a very hating and judging person. A person that denies healing for women that seek healing. It makes me believe that she in her inmost beeing is denying herself healing for whatever reason. Maybe she fears her own pain. Maybe her heart is bound by shame and rejection. She might not agree, maybe she will be angry by these suggestions.. the answer to my question why she took this un-nuanced, fanatic route is blowing in the wind. It must be a real pain in the ass to have her worldview and read mideaval books, especially catholic? It triggers my curiosity what motivates her this battle. I am a women that sees nothing but beauty in this piece of art. My only request would be that the artist would do another… one where the man is the sorrowing and comforted part. Because although some men take advantage of abortion by putting pressure on the woman to abort his unwanted child, some are in sorrow for their lost children that the woman aborted without consent. Finally – before you judge out all christianity – why dont you read the Gospels and look for yourself how Jesus treated the women he met – during a time in history and in a Roman culture that was extremely hostile towards the feminine sex. I do hope you dont hate me.

    • And by the way – as an artist you are free to let what you find appealing to the eye communicate without being trapped into representing a long culture of oppression. And in case you are against mideaval Christian praying poses, are you then against praying poses from for example Buddhism or Hinduism? All religions have ideas how you should bend your body to pray or meditate in a better way. Consider Yoga for example, is it very discriminating according to you? Jesus himself lifted his arms and eyes to the Heavens and was against all kinds of religious hypochrasy. But there is a difference between that and easthetic values of beauty.

    • Well, it was a political act. You will see that if you look up the artist and read his comments on it.

      Not that it is relevant, but I am both Christian and enthusiastic about medieval Catholicism – but both of those things give me an insight into the kind of visual vocabulary that is being used here.

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