Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1984 – Celebration: The Beginning of Labour, by Pauline Cummins

The artist’s mural celebrating childbirth proved controversial in a country still coming to terms with the death of a teenage girl in Granard and the Kerry babies case

Celebration: the painting that Pauline Cummins used for her mural at the National Maternity Hospital, on Holles Street in Dublin. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Cummins

Celebration: the painting that Pauline Cummins used for her mural at the National Maternity Hospital, on Holles Street in Dublin. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Cummins

 

Artists need publicity, although it may not always be directed towards furthering their careers. Pauline Cummins likes to remember that, as a young artist, not long returned to Ireland from Canada, her photograph made it on to the front page of The Irish Times. She was tying pink and blue ribbons on to the railings of the National Maternity Hospital, on Holles Street, in 1984, as part of her entry for the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about ribbons on railings, but Cummins’s project was controversial.

Cummins had lived in Africa as well as in Canada, and now, back on her native soil and recently the mother of two small children, she was acutely aware that Irish culture did not celebrate childbirth. The Irish, it seemed, saved their commemorative energies for military and political activity. So when she was selected for the Irish Exhibition of Living Art Cummins proposed that she might create an artwork in honour of women in childbirth, based on a painting of 1983, and approached the National Maternity Hospital for permission to paint a mural in its courtyard.

The location was doubly important. Cummins was not only anxious to maximise attention for an important part of the lives of Irish women but also, like many other artists of her generation, determined to bring art to the wider community rather than just to select exhibition-goers in Dublin.

The then master of the hospital approved the painting as the basis for the mural, and Cummins got to work. It was inevitable, then, that she would erect her scaffolding and start to paint in full view of all those coming and going through the courtyard and along the street outside. At a time when the country was still recovering from the death of a teenage girl in childbirth alone in a churchyard in Granard, Co Longford, and when it had just come to terms with the Kerry babies debacle, there was considerable interest and even participation from passing members of the public.

But it was only when it became clear that Cummins’s upbeat and light-hearted treatment of the process involved two naked female figures, exultantly carrying aloft another naked and pregnant woman, that the hospital began to question it.

Cummins generously remarked later that “perhaps maternity hospitals are not used to seeing naked women”. She didn’t help her case by driving her car, packed with ladders and paints, into the consultants’ parking area – which had the only vacant spaces in the hospital. And the style in which she had made her painting was deliberately comic, so authority in the form of traditional taboos on women’s bodies, the gallery’s control of how we see art, and the modernist tradition were all gently challenged. It all proved too much for the hospital. Without consulting the artist, the work was painted over a month after it was begun.

Although her first love was painting, Cummins went on to make artwork in a variety of new ways, using new media and especially using her own body, either alone or in collaboration (itself not a traditional approach) with other performance artists, and all of it about aspects of the lives of women. Inis Oírr: Aran Dance (now in Imma’s collection) follows the act of knitting a jumper for her male partner through all the emotions surrounding nurture, protection, sexual attraction and arousal. Writing of this work, the American writer, artist and feminist May Stevens remarked that it reminded her of “Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, in its frank admission and celebration of women’s sexuality”, but Cummins’s comments on attitudes to the body in modern Ireland did not stop there.

She is now looking sympathetically at the experience of men in contemporary Ireland – and, happily, a decade after the Celebration controversy the hospital had moved on and invited her to return to make a new artwork.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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