Jo Spence’s Libido Uprising I and II (1989) is profoundly grounded in the time, place and political climate of its context of production – Britain in the late twentieth century. Looking at it, however, it is clear that much older themes and associations are at play. The exploration of a prototypic relationship between parent and child, the proposition of the opposing female stereotypes of Mother and Whore and, above all, the potency of blood as both symbol of and catalyst for change, with sex, consumption and transgression all at its heart, drag the viewer hundreds of miles away, to the 500 year old art of Catholic Europe.
Approaching Spence’s work it its current position at Tate Britain, the religious connotations of its display are impossible to ignore. Opposite the door, and confronting the entrant viewer, the cruciform order of the collected images lends to the small parts a greater scale. Despite each element being only approximately 60cm tall, as a whole the arrangement dominates the room, drawing attention away from the aisle-like attendant images and artefacts arranged on the side walls. The telescopic effect of folding altarpieces – their ability to grow within the space, enveloping and drawing in the viewer – is replicated in the very form of this work, particularly its strong horizontal axis, which seems to stretch consciously across the space, attempting to ensnare those even at the very edges of the room. As with the St George Altarpiece, executed around 1460 by the unimaginatively named Master of the St George Altarpiece, on display at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the vastness of the work and its isolation in space – the feeling that it was waiting for you to arrive – seems to insist on the viewer’s full engagement, a meditative exploration of parts. Nonetheless, the arrangement of the pieces and their similarity in form remains the least intriguing compariSon between the two disparate works of art.
Both works take as a central theme the relationship between parent and child. In the altarpiece, the child – in the form of Christ – becomes the most prominent focal point. Though he is accompanied by one parent, the Virgin Mary, the focus of his identity in relation to a parental bond is in fact focussed on the invisible, but still present, Father. The figure of God is not expressly manifest in this work, though the existence of an alternative space in which he resides is suggested by various otherworldly elements, such as the attendant cherubim, and the unreal rendering of the main scene. Like Zeus courting Danae, the artist suggests the active presence of God in the central panel with his inclusion of gold leaf. By having the greatest profusion of angels cluster around Christ, already framed in kingly colour, the artist proclaims the inherent connection between divine parent and earthly child. Though we can only actually see one, both are manifest. Rather than separate entities – as are Christ and the Virgin – Father and Son are shown to be two sides of the same coin, where the sight of one acts as guarantor for the presence of both. This in itself is at the crux of the power of the Trinity: God is undefinable, unknowable, unthinkable. The Son allows us to comprehend and connect with the Father, bridging the gap between mortal and eternal, then and now, here and there.
In Spence’s work, the pairing of parent and child is a little more pedestrian. There is again no visible father, but here there is no suggestion of such a perSon either. Rather than focussing on the patriarchal bond between father and Son, the theme of Libido Uprising I and II centres around the symbiotic yet confrontational relationship between modern Mother and Daughter. Rather than operating as one being in two forms, the protagonists of this work are shown as being antithetically opposed. The dowdy Mother occupies the edges of the composition, interrupting the central line axis where the ecstatic Daughter holds court, adding a reproachful coda to her bliss. Where the child is characterised visually by disorder – her stained flesh, her messy hair, her delight in it all – the Mother symbolises the buttoned-down order always prescribed to define the older generation. The two are shown to be binaries; the very narrative of the work seems to suggest we have caught the two of them at the moment of schism between their two roles, the moment of the Daughter’s proclamation of self. Nonetheless, the division between the two is not absolute. For the most part, the Daughter occupies the middle register, the Mother the above and below. However, both claim territory in the other’s zone, suggesting an overlap, a meeting and melding. Despite the work’s triumphant yell that Mother and Daughter are unique, there therefore remains a whisper that their connection remains. Just as the human form of Christ acts as a lens through which mortals can comprehend the mystery of God, so does our voyeuristic gaze at the Daughter’s abandon suggest we might also catch a glimpse at the true nature of the Mother.
For some, the conclusion the Spence’s Mother and Daughter are just as alike as the medieval concepts of man and God will seem a little hard to swallow. The Daughter and Mother both embody two traditionally opposing concepts of womanhood, which we have be trained to believe never mix, only that one will be obliterated by the other. We find echoes of these types – the Mother and the Whore – of course, in the iconography of Christianity. At the centre of the crucifixion scene, we will always find the Virgin Mary; she is a key character in the scene and one of Christ’s principle mourners. Painted in insistent ultramarine, she stands out as a model of demure suffering; existing only for her child, but still with enough decorum in the face of tragedy to not cause a scene. Hidden within the same panel, we also have her antithesis, the tart with a heart of the New Testament, Mary Magdalene. Though at this point she is very much a reformed follower of the gospel, the artist does not take any chances in his depiction of the two women, making it clear which we should aim to emulate. Whereas the Virgin stands out from the scene, tall and monumental in her geometric drapery, the Magdalene remains diminutive, crouched at the foot of the cross, visibly worse for wear due to the events of the day. For all her finery, she seems to shrink into the background, half hidden in shadow. Even her attribute – her salvific pot of oil – is made insignificant in comparison to the skull at her feet. The message is clear: virginity is a paradigm – the wage of sin (sex) is death.
The symbolic characterisation of Mother and Whore is extended in Spence’s composition. The Mother does where a pink striped shirt but – in the higher register – it is her blue apron that identifies her, in contrast to her Daughter’s red shoes and nails. Furthermore, where the Daughter crouches and sits in the central register, the Mother stands tall and proud; like the weeping Virgin she is insistent on her position and role. Spence draws attention to these techniques of establishing a boundary between the two roles, of marking the erotic and the domestic as fundamental separate. With the figure of the Daughter, as with the crouching Magdalene, the focus is on parts of her body, not on her form as a whole. Lynda Nead notes that the upper register reduces both women to “a good pair of legs”, though it may be noted that – in the case of the Mother – this attempt at objectification is blocked by the presence of a true object, the Hoover. Whereas the Magdalene has her pot of oil and her promise of damnation, the Mother here holds her attribute of the Hoover as a talismanic symbol of her identity. Where the Daughter/Whore causes it the coil coquettishly like a snake in Eden (as the Magdelene coils around the cross), the Mother masters the beast, and the temptation it signifies, transforming it into a child surrogate which further cements her difference from the abortive undertones of her gambolling progeny.
Despite the overt sinful implications of Spence’s child, however, both artists focus on the symbolic power of blood draws a clear connection between the bacchanalian Daughter and the chaste flesh of Christ. The Daughter’s rebellion from her Mother is portrayed in terms of the blood with which she marks herself. In the second image, the slight smear on her thighs suggests a sexual awakening, the coming of age signified by menstruation. As the flow refuses to stem, however, so that the Daughter can all but cover herself in scarlet, the blood comes to suggest a kind of violence or transgression. Is her rejection of the Mother role being manifested by staging an abortion? Or is the blood simply a symbol of primal abandon? Whichever, here the transformation and change of state in the child is given potent emphasis by Spence’s decision to use blood as a certificate of experience. Similarly, this theme also has resonance in Christian mythology. Both within and without of Crucifixion scenes Christ is frequently shown to bear the marks of his experience in the form of the stigmata. Indeed, within the New Testament, his disciple Thomas will only accept that the stranger revenant is the risen Christ once he has touched with his own hands the still weeping marks of the ordeal. In the case of both characters, it is Spence’s theme of ‘uprising’ which the blood acts to certify. For the Daughter, this is the more commonplace definition of the word as ‘rebellion’; in Christ, it is the more literal sense: ‘rise’, or ‘ascend’. In either case, the artists proclaim the change the children’s state by marking them with vital fluid.
Blood becomes, however, not just a symbol of the occurrence of change, but the catalyst which provokes it. In the Crucifixion, the Master of St George depicts the prelude to a key salvific moment: the gathering of the lifeblood of the Saviour in the Holy Grail. The Last Supper has already taken place; Christ has already instructed his followers to consume his body and blood to grain eternal life. In the act of communion, the blood cleanses the sins and immortalises the believers, changing them irrevocably from the damned to the saved. The blood which acts as souvenir of transition on Christ’s flesh, therefore enacts a further change within the bodies of his disciples. In Spence’s work, a simple tilt of perspective can assure us of the same; the blood is not a symbol of liberation – it is the means by which liberation will occur. Menstruation, loss of virginity, fertility or abortion – all are suggested both as symptoms and means of a change of state. Whereas blood made Christ more godlike (more like his parent) here it only separates Daughter from Mother. Spence seems to further pun on the idea of the Eucharist in the higher register of the piece: the red clawed hands of the Daughter clutch a diaphragm – its round shape and pale colour reminiscent of the life-giving wafer. Where the followers of Christ consume in order to change, the modern woman, it seems, must consummate. Regardless of time and place, animal acts are shown to be ultimately transformative. Spence’s visual and linguistic pun therefore makes use of the most potent aspect of Christian salvation imagery, in order to suggest the need for an embrace of the erotic by women in Britain in the 1980s.
Due to the overt formal elements previously explored, it is unlikely that the ease with which Libido Uprising I and II and the St George Altarpiece (indeed, almost any altarpiece) can be compared is accidental. In evoking Christian shapes and themes, Spence challenges a myriad of accepted Orthodoxies. The lines drawn between Mother and child, the roles of women are shown to be – literally – medieval. The assumption that the child will refer foremost to its parental prototype is shown to be limited to Our Lord and Saviour. Knowing that this kind of art was destroyed, vandalised, hidden, devalued and essentially proclaimed as false shortly after its creation during the turbulence of the Reformation, apparent truths – religious, political, cultural – are shown to be merely fragile convention. By maintaining a link to the role of blood however, and the primal urges to eat and copulate, Spence suggests a vitalism of essential human experience, which links even the most alien of medieval religious panels to her stark and feminist statement.