updated 15 Nov 2012, 07:49
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The poignancy of pregnant portraits
by Clara Chow

So, Sienna Miller - one-time British "it" girl; Jude Law's ex; and now mother of a baby girl with the cool, androgynous name of Marlowe – posed naked during her pregnancy for a painting.

She gave the tabloids a field day last week.

Even The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, weighed in on the nude portrait, commenting how “pregnancy has become the modern equivalent of a fig leaf, making nude images of women acceptable”.

After all that chatter, the kaypoh auntie in me just had to search for images of the full-length painting on the Internet, as opposed to the coy shoulders-up “detail” published in the newspapers (Manic Mummy Googles for smut! Not!).

What struck me about British artist Jonathan Yeo’s painting of Miller is not so much that her body looks good, but the fact that she seems to be painted on crumpled graph paper.

The actress seems, in places, to emerge from and stand out against the fine lines of the grid, in a muddied palette of white, beige and grey. In other spots (her hair, patches on her thighs), she seems about to be subsumed by the background.

Her hair is a cross between the imprecisely silk-screened coiffures on Andy Warhol prints (she played Warholian muse Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl) and the limp, centre-parted style of the Mona Lisa.

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s lady, Miller’s gaze is at something just “off camera” but, still, the artist manages to make it seem as though she’s looking at you.

The entire thing reminds me of Norwegian pop band A-ha’s Take On Me (1984) music video, where a girl gets pulled into the pencil-sketched comic she is reading.

That video references the 1980 science-fiction film Altered States, about a psychology professor experimenting with sensory deprivation in a flotation tank.

Perhaps the sci-fi link is accidental, but it cannot be more illuminating of the pregnant Miller portrait.

After all, what is pregnancy – and the unrelenting maternity that comes after – but the mother of altered states? That mathematical- looking graph paper symbolises something else: the plotting of the changes wrought upon a female body by childbirth and age; the charting of the rise of Miller’s popularity or notoriety in the public eye, maybe.

The creased canvas attempts to wrap and contain her, yet cannot quite suppress the stark, protruding form of her breasts and belly throbbing with life.

I’m not a fan of Miller, being as underwhelmed by her supposedly blonde good looks as I am by her acting abilities.

Still, I can’t stop looking at this painting. Demi Moore and Mariah Carey’s nude cover photos may have been more groundbreaking, but they did not fascinate me in the same way.

Seven years ago, while heavily pregnant with my first child, I was asked by a girlfriend to pose for a nude photo spread in the wellness magazine she was editing then. After consulting my then boss, I decided to pass on the offer. After all, to paraphrase the advice given to me, why put yourself out there like that?

Studying Miller’s portrait, though, I thoroughly regret my decision. After all, what was offered to me then was a chance to immortalise a moment of expanding girth and horizons – before the realisation sets in that what has been stretched out of shape will never be the same again.

If I had taken those nude photos, I would at least have something to look at now, while I agonise over what to wear as my dress size keeps creeping up into ever bigger double digits.

Jones compares preggers Miller art to Titian’s classic, Diana And Callisto (1556-9), in The National Gallery. I surfed by and was again surprised by the unabashed sagginess of the female flesh portrayed in it.

In an age where plus-sized bloggers are being flamed for posting pictures of themselves in their underwear online, we need more Titian- like depictions of bodies in the media and social arena.

A woman doesn’t stop existing just because her shape has gone matronly. And brave mums, like Miller, help show us that.

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