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The Hirshhorn's real breast problem: There aren't any

February 8, 2011 - 03:04 PM
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Yves Klein's 'Untitled Anthropometry.'

When a breastfeeding mom was asked to leave the Hirshhorn to take care of her baby's needs elsewhere, it seemed an especially ridiculous request from an art museum. The entire history of art is filled with naked women, after all, from the Venus of Willendorf to Manet's "Olympia."

"That this could happen … in an art museum (where breasts and nipples and even the act of breastfeeding are often the subject of sculptures and paintings) clearly means we have more work to do," said LJ Pelham in a Facebook invitation for a nurse-in that she's organizing at the museum this Saturday. Pelham encourages mothers to bring their babies to the museum and publicly exercise their right to feed their children in public, as federal laws permit.

But at the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian's modern and contemporary art museum, the breasts, nipples and breastfeeding on display won't come from the art, but rather, the nursing moms of Saturday's demonstration. In the museum's current exhibits, abstract and minimalist art prevails over paintings with skin, and this reporter counted only five paintings that contained bare breasts. All five of them were DeKooning's monstrous paintings of women, so they were barely recognizable as breasts, anyway. In short: You will not see a single realistic nude at the Hirshhorn right now unless you attend Saturday's nurse-in.

John Currin
John Currin, "The Pink Tree."

It hasn't always been this way. The Hirshhorn's 2008 show Strange Bodies was full of flesh. There, John Currin's buxom ladies of "The Pink Tree," in quite possibly the Hirshhorn's most mammary acquisition ever, were on display. For equality's sake, there was also a very large naked man: Ron Mueck's popular sculpture "Untitled (Big Man)." Go back a few more years and Ana Mendieta's bared breasts adorned gallery walls for her retrospective in 2004. More recently, a film of Yves Klein's performance art featured naked women slathering blue paint on their breasts and pressing themselves to a canvas to create work like "Untitled Anthropometry" (above).

The Phillips, National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, and Corcoran all have work with bare breasts in their collections, as well – and to this reporter's knowledge, there haven't been any incidents of women getting the boot for breastfeeding there (but moms, feel free to correct me). A cursory search of the National Gallery's limited online collection reveals several naked ladies on display, from François Boucher's "The Bath of Venus" to Augustin Pajou's sculpture "Calliope." To take a giant logical leap: Perhaps guards who spend more time around art with nudity are conditioned to be less squeamish about a woman's right to publicly breastfeed?

The Hirshhorn, of course, has apologized to the mom who was treated rudely at the museum, and publicist Erin Baysden tells our Amanda Hess that the museum welcomes the nurse-in demonstration this weekend. Since the apology has been accepted, the moms should frame it as a giant piece of performance art. It has many of the elements of such already: Public nudity, an elevation of the mundane, ephemerality, and a direct communication with the audience. And for two hours, it will show more flesh than the Hirshhorn's entire collection.

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