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Opinion: The controversy of Genesis

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Jacob Epstein's Genesis has returned to Bluecoat for the first time in 86 years, as part of the exhibition In the Peaceful Dome. ...

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Opinion: The controversy of Genesis

Jacob Epstein's Genesis has returned to Bluecoat for the first time in 86 years, as part of the exhibition In the Peaceful Dome. When first exhibited it generated controversy amongst visitors, in part due to its representation of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. Here Julia Johnson (of Messy Lines) explores the statue's significance alongside other depictions of pregnancy from popular culture. 


The oldest human-formed figurine is of a woman. Discovered in 2009, the Venus of the Fels Cave is 35,000 years old. It’s extraordinary evidence that the idolisation of the female form, particularly its fertility, is as old as art itself.    

Fast forward to 2017, and idolisation of maternity is widely seen as somewhat reductive.  Society has come far since the only appropriate role for a woman was motherhood, and so the return of Jacob Epstein’s Genesis to Bluecoat is causing some debate. The question is, is admiration for the mother figure intrinsically at odds with feminism? The most famous image of pregnancy of our time suggests not. 

Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement in February 2017 was an image the world paid attention to. Genesis’ critics may have been disappointed by the strong, independent Queen Bey’s decision to depict herself as a traditional Venus. But scrolling through her subsequent Instagram feed, there’s no doubt she was entirely in control of this imagery.  She celebrates her impending motherhood whilst ensuring that the conversation is about her as a person, not just a mother-in-waiting. Beyoncé has given the ancient themes of Genesis a 21st century update: motherhood is simply one aspect of what makes women worth celebrating.

If this sounds like this should be obvious, it’s worth considering that it’s not so long ago that a similar picture was labelled indecent. When Demi Moore posed pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair in August 1991, the magazine was sold in paper bags to avoid the picture causing offence. Echoes of this outrage still resonate in contemporary debate around public breastfeeding. The idea of motherhood is one thing – the pure, elemental idea represented in Genesis, part of our subconscious for the millennia since Venus of the Fels Cave - but the physical reality is still culturally distasteful.  Yet the fact that Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement is the most liked picture on Instagram ever (11 million likes and counting) surely says something about how far society has come in accepting the reality of womanhood. 

Image: The photos were shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/AP 

In August 2017 Serena Williams made her own statement when, in a clear echo of the Demi Moore controversy, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Williams is a woman whose body has been the subject of scrutiny – mostly by men, mostly unkind, occasionally racist – for her entire career.  With this picture, Williams is making sure that she is the one defining the narrative around her own body.

While Genesis may be read as a representation of outdated ideas about femininity, it is not included in In The Peaceful Dome to be a defining depiction of what a woman is. In our age, where these social conventions are being challenged in both art institutions and Instagram, it should instead be seen as a striking starting point for continuing debate.

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Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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