Notebook: Rauschenberg’s “Mother of God”

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On a recent trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was struck by a Robert Rauschenberg piece I had never seen before, and which has, in a way, haunted me since. Mother of God, created in 1950, is a simple yet powerful mixed-media piece consisting of collaged city maps, a white disc painted amidst them, and a small magazine or newspaper excerpt pasted in the bottom right hand corner. Because it holds such an early place in the artist’s career, this work is often neglected (I have yet to find a monograph that includes a plate of it) and interpretations of it are brief or even inaccurate. I find the fundamental image of the piece, of absence and void, is something discussable on That’s Not It, and would like to present a compilation of interpretations I myself see possible as well as those I have found in other sources.

To begin, there are two possible readings of the title: as the Virgin Mary, or as the expletive provoked by a witnessing of the sublime. Both aspects of the dual-reading are supported by the work, and Rauschenberg creates an interesting dialectic through the painting’s emphasis on what is absent, missing, lacking, destroyed, or forgotten.

Before I continue, I should include the caveat that I cannot remember whether the circle is entirely painted over the maps or if it is created by the maps’ border. Most articles I have come across say the former, but my instinct is to say that the maps themselves were gone. As the image remains the same regardless, I do not know why this should be such an important point, but to me the nature of the white circle, whether it is superficial or intrinsic, determines its potency.

The most immediate response to the piece, given its date of creation, would be its resemblance to the destruction of an atomic bomb. The radius of a blast drawn out on a city map would not be an unfamiliar image of the Cold War and the sublime of such mass destruction would surely warrant the exclamation, “Mother of God.” I believe that this interpretation is the one most directly visible in the piece, but at the same time, I believe that Rauschenberg, in giving the piece a title with such multiplicities of meaning, did not intend that interpretation to constrain the others, of which, we will see, there are many.

The white void is, for all intents and purposes, the subject of the work. The art’s meaningfulness is gained by Rauschenberg’s reversal of positive and negative space, and so the negative space becomes the central content. A very simple way of connecting the Virgin Mary with the piece would be to say that the void is a womb, which would also signify the unknown, unknowable origin of God. This in turn also plays on the paradox of Mary’s position as “Mother of God:” that she is the human mother of God’s son, his incarnation on Earth, who is also one with God Himself, yet she has no supremacy over the divinity of God, nor therefore of God Himself. Exactly what she can be praised for — for Christians wish to praise her as something more than a mere vessel — is often contradictory to this notion. This paradox contributes greatly to power of Rauschenberg’s image.

“He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”

This line from an ancient Christian hymn implicates Rauschenberg’s painting in the question of what can contain what the entire universe cannot contain. Can a void contain what a map of the world cannot contain, can a painting contain it? I don’t think that this is a religious artwork in the sense of being devotional, but I do think that that Rauschenberg is accessing the idea of God as an unknowable supremity and I also believe that the realm of this work is the realm of awe. Theotokos is a Greek word which literally translates as “god-bearer,” but which is, by convention, translated into English as “Mother of God.” During the middle-ages, Theotokus icons (paintings or murals depicting the Virgin Mary with an infant Jesus) were an artform widely dispersed among Christian Europe. These icons share a common compositional style, as evidenced in these examples.

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photoshop.jpgObviously, there are no figures of the mother and child in Rauschenberg’s Mother of God (nor do I think Rauschenberg ever expected anybody, like me, to add them), but perhaps that is what the picture is truly lacking. Gold leaf was often used in the background of medieval religious art as a way of signifying a heavenly setting. Here we have lusterless city maps, which signify a purely earthly setting. The oddest compositional aspect of Rauschenberg’s work is that the circle and the maps which inscribe it are elevated on the campus, above an empty space. This raising of the main elements of the painting puts the circle at the same level as the halo in the Theotokos icons. It is not hard to imagine one of the Theotokos virgins superpositioned over this modern-day setting. Our void now becomes a halo, but what is a halo if it crowns no one?

The little snip of paper at the bottom right of the piece contains an excerpt of text that reads:

“An invaluable spiritual road map. As simple and fundamental as life itself — Catholic Review.”

Rauschenberg often includes snippets of text, comic-strip panels, of advertisements like this as a way to play off the meaning provided by other parts of the work as well as the larger image itself. Here, the quote almost even seems like a punchline to a joke. The maps are not connected except by force and none leads anywhere. They are noise surrounding a peaceful source. The dialectic created between the void and this quote reminds me very much of a line from Stevens’s essay “Concerning a Chair of Poetry” (library) where he states “the Chair would be either a brilliant center or pretty much nothing at all.” Mother of God is, in fact, both.

David Feil

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