the making of Pregnant woman 2002
It is a fundamental belief of mine that the history of art is a continuum. It is the story of the constant search for creativity, finding new ways to give expression to the power of ideas in human imagination. These ideas are realised through our senses, and in true works of art, they have an effect on our emotions.
Ron Mueck takes his place in the tradition of those who have tried to make objects which are very real. Terms such as Super-Real and Hyper-Real have been used to describe those artists who have attempted extreme verisimilitude. Ron Mueck seeks to achieve perfection, the precise demonstration of reality as he finds it.
Mueck’s work is always out of scale from reality. His figures are either oversized or undersized. They strive for super-realism, but there is a psychological confrontation between these two contradictory realities, the effort to deceive by perfection, and the obvious discrepancy of scale. Ron Mueck’s work is sculpture. He does not make models, giant or tiny puppets. He employs all the techniques of technological advance to create works of art.
For quite a few years, the National Gallery of Australia has searched for a work by Ron Mueck which would be a major contribution to the collection of the National Gallery in his native country. He was born in Melbourne 44 years ago of German parents who had emigrated to Australia. The language of his boyhood home was German. His parents were toymakers, and Ron loved to assist in this enjoyable activity.
He left Australia after school, moving to the west coast of the United States of America and then to London, working in both places in the film and special effects industry. In particular, he worked with Jim Henson, the much revered maker of shows such as The Muppets. Mueck was especially involved in the major Henson production, the film Labyrinth.
Mueck’s move into a career as a practising artist came about in the mid 1990s after nearly 20 years in the special effects industry. He had married a daughter of the artist Paula Rego, who achieved considerable public attention when she became artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, London, in Trafalgar Square.
In 1996 Paula Rego wanted to make a painting about the story of Pinocchio, and she invited Mueck to make a model for her. The model happened to be seen by the entrepreneur and art collector, Charles Saatchi, and he was so impressed that he invited Mueck to make a number of works for him on commission. One of these works, Dead dad, made Mueck’s reputation. It was featured in the controversial exhibition, Sensation, which featured works from the Saatchi collection, and was shown to huge audiences at the Royal Academy in London.
Dead dad was a hyper-realistic sculpture of Mueck’s dead father, naked, lying on the floor, so that you could easily trip over him, especially because he was only three feet long. This extraordinary work had huge emotional power, and many visitors remembered it well. Mueck makes work very slowly, taking on average four weeks for each work, although Pregnant woman took much longer, being his most ambitious work to date. By 2002, when Pregnant woman was made, he had created only 30 sculptures in total.
More than anything, Mueck is a perfectionist, with a passionate and dedicated approach to verisimilitude.
Among the works which gained Mueck his growing reputation was Angel, an undersized boy seated on a stool with two huge angel wings, made from goose feathers. Mueck was inspired to create this work by the painting by Giambattista Tiepolo which is in the National Gallery, London, on the theme made famous by Handel, the Triumph of Virtue, Time and Truth.
It is great that Pregnant woman is in close proximity to our work by Tiepolo [Marriage allegory (Marriage allegory of the Cornaro family) c.1737–1747], whom Mueck so admired. Mueck is an intensely private man, never wishing to even be at his own exhibition openings, but there is an intensity of engagement in his work which shows his strong interests. He enjoys music and often has it playing in the background while he is making his work. He does not wish to tell us stories about his work, because it is for us to bring our stories to them.
In 2000 Mueck’s massive Crouching boy, the size of a double decker bus, was perhaps the most laudable feature of the Millennium Dome created in London to mark that moment in date history. The work subsequently was shown in the first gallery of the Venice Biennale of 2001, where it created quite an impression along with a number of smaller Mueck works.
Detail of 'Pregnant woman' showing the process of inserting hair. Image still from 'Ron Mueck' video © Ron Mueck Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
In mid 2002, I went to London to Mueck's studio, taking Anna Gray (our Assistant Director of Australian Art) with me. I had been told by Mueck’s dealer, who knew of the National Gallery of Australia’s interest, that he was completing a major work on the theme of a pregnant woman.
The work was extraordinary, the hairs at the time of our visit being punched individually into her head, books on pregnancy lying around the floor, especially near a mattress where the artist had sought some late night sleep during forays of art making into the early hours.
There were other sculptures in the room but the giant scale of Pregnant woman was awe inspiring. At first she intimidated, and as with all objects which have aspects of the grotesque about them, drew me further in while also causing me to feel cautious.
After some time of being with the Pregnant woman, various thoughts came into my head, as I went through the artistic process of having been affected in my emotions, continuing to perceive with my senses, and beginning to explore the ideas evoked by the sculpture.
Pregnant woman makes a powerful impact. For men of my vintage, it has been typical to be in attendance at the birth of children. Not so for men of a previous generation. For women who have had children, lost children, had to cope with disability, or trials of pregnancy, so many thoughts can arise. This is a very emotional work to someone who has lived through challenging pregnancy, never been pregnant or failed to be pregnant. Mueck knows all this, and it is why I believe Pregnant woman will continue to be an important work into the future.
In 2001 Mueck, like Paula Rego before him, was made an Associate Artist (the fifth) at the National Gallery, London. The two year post allows artists to make their own work in a studio provided on site, in the company of the marvellous Old Master collection of the National Gallery itself.
While there, Mueck found himself not particularly engaged with the collection in terms of it making an impact on his own work. Its influence was more subtle, and he found that as he prepared for the exhibition which concludes the residency, he began to think of new sculptures. The theme of the Mother and Child came through very strongly in the National Gallery’s collection, and Mueck decided to explore this in a number of works. There are, however, no works of a pregnant Virgin Mary in the National Gallery collection, although some exist in the history of European art. The theme of pregnancy became an obsession for Ron Mueck. This was the beginning of Pregnant woman.
Ron Mueck in the studio working on the maquette for 'Pregnant Woman' Image still from 'Ron Mueck' video © Ron Mueck Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
Mueck began the process of making a sculpture in the usual way for him. He made some drawings, exploring the possibility of the pose, and decided on a weight bearing sculpture which would be standing erect, firmly planted on the ground, with arms raised over head. You can see some of these drawings in the adjacent gallery.
It was important to me when we were acquiring Pregnant woman that we would engage with the practice of the National Gallery of Australia collection of having supplementary material to inform our major works of art. Mueck readily agreed to give us some drawings and models for his sculpture, but also decisively, although this clearly had some impact on the price, to agree that there would only be one version of Pregnant woman.
On occasion Mueck has made a second work, but the only version of Pregnant woman exists here at the National Gallery of Australia. This was vital to me because our collection here has some extraordinary works, which are singular in the careers of their artists. These include Willem de Kooning’s Woman V, Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles: Number 11, 1952 , the extraordinary Standing nude by Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples, David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon and Lucian Freud’s After Cézanne, among others.
In my opinion, Pregnant woman has a similar sort of role in Mueck’s own career. It was after making some small plaster maquettes, each of which is about 15 centimetres in height, that Mueck decided to make his pregnant woman a giant. One day, while in the café of the National Gallery, he noticed a pregnant woman with her eyes closed, lost in her own thoughts, but allowing the viewer to contemplate the subject of her pregnancy.
Mueck decided that his sculpture would also have her eyes closed, having her privacy, and allowing us to reflect upon her pregnancy, while feeling somewhat less awkward about it, given her nakedness. The eyes in Dead dad were also closed. Difficult subjects like death and pregnancy are more difficult to address when eyes meet.
Mueck tested his decision to sculpt a figure which was much larger than life size by making three large drawings, each a different height. These he fixed to the wall of the room where the sculpture would be displayed in the National Gallery. He decided that the figure should be about 2.5 metres tall.
Ron Mueck working with the fibreglass and resin moulds for 'Pregnant woman' Image still from 'Ron Mueck' video © Ron Mueck Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
Mueck then made a large maquette to explore further the positioning of the hands, and he also added the closed eyes to give the wondrous effect of exhaustion.
The work is a turning point in Mueck’s career, because where in the past he has used models irregularly, and not for long because they cannot hold the intensity of the poses which he requires, in the case of Pregnant woman he worked closely with a model from her sixth month to the final week of her pregnancy. He used photographs and anatomical text books, as before, but in this case also he employed intense scrutiny of the model. Pregnant woman is presented to us at full term.
Mueck began working on a large clay sculpture, and this became the model for the final mould which he would make. He began the mould by making the figure from chicken wire. He attached scrim, or bandaging soaked in plaster, to it. He added the clay meticulously and slowly, scraping and smoothing the surface as necessary. Slowly he built up all the details, defining them, for example making gooseflesh by dabbing on clay and smoothing it down. He then applied a layer of shellac varnish, because this prevents cracking during the taking of the mould.
Technical assistants helped him to make the mould in separate sections, concealing the join lines because in the first stage, silicone rubber can take even the smallest details. The silicone layer was applied to the mould by placing towelling on it, then fibreglass and resin. The fibreglass layer was coloured blue to distinguish it from the silicone lining. During all of this process, Mueck has to use safety equipment, including a special mask, because these are hazardous materials.
He then made a wooden frame, and attached it to the mould with metal brackets. Finally the mould was taken off after several hours, and the clay sculpture removed, destroying it in the process. Unfortunately, the mould only came away after much of the clay head was cut out. Any silicone or shellac which was still fixed to the inside of the mould was washed away later. Mueck then painted coloured resin on the inside of the silicone mould. This gave the colour to, for example, the ankles, elbows, toes and fingers, skin and fingernails. A thicker layer of resin then helped to hide the manner in which the sculpture had been coloured and fixed together.
Painted fingers for 'Pregnant woman' showing the detail given to every vein, blemish and nail. Image still from 'Ron Mueck' video © Ron Mueck Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
Mueck made a number of test fingers, in order to see how the flesh colour was working, because he was attempting to gain the most realistic result. He then applied fibreglass over the dried coat of silicone, and then more resin, all the time seeking to make the sculpture stronger. The mould was then completely filled with fibreglass which was coloured so as to give the flesh tone, except for the face, for which a decision had been made to separately cast it out.
The reason for the face being silicone where the rest of the figure is fibreglass, is because silicone, being soft and rubbery, allows the hairs to be punched in separately, giving the impression that they have grown through the scalp, whereas the hair of the pubic region has been glued on because fibreglass is so hard.
The mould was allowed to set, which takes hours, and Mueck in fact allowed a day for the process. It needs to be just long enough, otherwise the mould becomes brittle. The breaking of the mould was one of the most difficult stages. When the figure emerged, the excess resin was rubbed off and any damage retouched with acrylic paint. Then began the process of creating the details, painting on the veins, blemishes, hair follicles, moles, wrinkles, nails, and so on.
In order to make the face, a separate plaster mould had to be made, and then a cast taken. The final challenge was to attach the silicone face to the fibreglass sculpture. This was an especially tense moment and all signs of attachment were hidden by paint.
When the cast figure came out of the mould, it was shiny, but a coat of matt varnish dealt with this issue. The application of the hair was a slow process, Mueck constantly working for maximum realism. The sculpture seems to belie the months of work that went into it, presenting almost like a ready made piece, but this sort of realism is impossible without extraordinary technique.
Mueck’s Pregnant woman is weighed down by her pregnancy. She is noble and burdened. In many respects I see her as a secular Madonna. She addresses a taboo in our society, where 2000 years from the mysterious birth of Jesus which gave rise to our current system of counting the years, many in our society still find pregnancy a subject which should be retained as a private one.
Pregnant woman is for me a hymn to the beauty of the life-giving which is shared so personally only by mothers. Pregnant woman is surely one of the most fascinating images of maternity. She has been much praised by critics, in England and here in Australia. I am delighted that she is presented at the National Gallery of Australia in the company of other marvellous works of the Western figurative tradition in painting and sculpture.
Pregnant woman, it has been suggested, is the most expensive work of art ever acquired from a living Australian artist, but, of course, Mueck is not so much an Australian artist, as an international artist who was born in Australia. He is indeed proud that this major work is here, and made a visit to us to see the context in which it would be placed. I explained to him that it was our intention to seek to show her from behind, as he wished.
After we acquired the work in 2002, while it was on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and she then travelled as part of a touring show to the National Gallery, London, the National Gallery in Berlin, and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, and she was never shown in the way the artist desired. Approaching her in the National Gallery, we see her from behind. We see her massive frame, but do not realise she is pregnant.
Ron Mueck Pregnant woman 2002 (detail) fibreglass, resin, silicone Image still from 'Ron Mueck' video © Ron Mueck Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
She is surrounded by works of art which have been acquired with the support of benefactors of the National Gallery of Australia. James Fairfax helped us to buy the Cologne Triptych, in which on the left panel St Helen of the True Cross has the medieval signature bump at her tummy showing that she is capable of being fertile. This is also true of St Margaret on the right-hand panel of the triptych.
David Coe, John Schaeffer, Kerry Stokes and an anonymous benefactor, helped us to buy the Freud painting, After Cézanne, which also traverses the subject of nudity and the psychological interplay that figuration evokes in the hands of a powerful painter.
The Giordano [Il ratto delle Sabine (The rape of the Sabine women)] with its wonderful female figure, shown in classic Baroque swirling, corkscrew pose, was acquired with the support of Philip Bacon.
The painting of figures rushing through the street of Spitalfields, London in the Kossoff [Christ Church Spitalfields, Summer] was supported by Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth.
Tony and Carol Berg, who have led the Gallery’s Foundation to our great success, in support of works which we have proposed to them, personally supported the acquisition of the Mueck.
We have an extraordinary collection in Canberra. I have in the past been reluctant to talk too much about the works we have acquired, preferring to allow viewers to give their own opinions. I do not wish my views to dictate yours, but I have to say that I am delighted she is here. She now belongs to each of you, in your National Gallery.
Director | National Gallery of Australia
1997–2004 | 23 March 2004