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You are what is most beautiful about me. Really?

Barton, D.K. You are what is most beautiful about me. 2008

Barton, D.K. You are what is most beautiful about me. 2008

I came across some new work of Del Kathryn Barton’s this week which I will talk about in another post at another time. But it reminded me of her 2008 Archibald winning portrait and I thought it was worth pulling apart some of the ideas contained within it.

What is of interest to me in this piece, apart from the energy of the line and the feast of detail in pattern and colour and symbolism, is that it’s essentially a self-portrait about motherhood.

When you think about the title You are what is most beautiful about me you can see that Barton defines herself as beautiful in reference to motherhood. The beautiful that Barton refers to is not physical beauty, but rather essential beauty; she is saying that her children’s beauty, as in their existence, legitimises her.

An extraordinary stance in many ways, especially when made by a successful female artist; independent, modern, living and dealing in a world after feminism (perhaps the advent of this piece tells us there is no such thing).

And while some of you might think this is an extreme interpretation of the title, the work itself supports this reading. The children stand between the open legs of  Barton as direct reference to both the birth process and the Hindu god Vishnu, god of incarnation, birth and death.

The three figures are entwined by multiple versions of the umbilical – as vines and strings that twist and tumble around each figure, linking them, conjoining them. This provides a background for the dotting Barton has appropriated from modern indigenous work which she has softened and relaxed and let wander around her canvas in a quietly rampant way, evoking a fecundity characteristic of Barton’s work.

Personally I am ambivalent about the work, though I recognise and appreciate the intimacy of its sentiment, it still makes me uneasy. I am surprised by the ideas this piece embodies Рit reminds me that women are never far from their roots as the wombs of the world, never far from their identity as mothers (which means -good and kind and worthy) and never far from feeling unworthy when straying from this territory.

But regardless of my personal opinions about the work, it’s an excellent modern day example of one of the age old and accepted paradigms women use to portray ideas about self. That motherhood defines and legitimises us.


One Response to “You are what is most beautiful about me. Really?”

  1. Its oddly disturbing and beautiful at the same time.

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