OXFORD, England — “God giving birth.” This phrase, which titles one of Monica Sjöö’s best-known and most controversial works, is written in red capitals across the bottom of the painting. The text, though enigmatic, is a bold challenge to gendered perceptions of divinity, labor, and creation. The androgynous, blank-eyed face both contrasts with and complements the feminine body, in which Sjöö accurately captures the appearance of a contracting uterus and breasts on the verge of lactation.
This 1968 painting, created after the transformative experience of giving birth to her second child at home, is a keystone both in Monica Sjöö’s practice and in the retrospective exhibition The Great Cosmic Mother currently at Modern Art Oxford. When it was first exhibited at an art festival in Cornwall, and later in London’s Swiss Cottage Library, reactions were mixed, with Sjöö even being reported to the police for blasphemy by a Christian group. However, the work was quickly accepted in feminist circles as an icon of feminist art.
Born in 1938 in Sweden, the artist lived in the UK from the 1950s until her death in 2005. Her early work is characterized by calls to radical feminist action, often incorporating pithy slogans or demands. However, with “God Giving Birth,” Sjöö began to combine these concerns with her interest in ancient matriarchal societies and in the figure of the Great Mother goddess as the source of all life. Her paintings became attempts to channel the Great Mother, manifested through composite landscapes made up of sacred sites and symbols. These geographical non-sequiturs cohere through a collage-like technique of overlapping images and complex geometries.
With their dark outlines, primary colors, and use of well-known symbols, the paintings can appear simplistic or heavy handed upon first glance. Something feels strange about them. But on settling into Sjöö’s visual imaginary, their beauty and complexity begin to unfold. The works on view are rich painterly expressions of feminine creativity, as well as calls to protest and spiritual objects. “West Kennet Long Barrow – Abode of the Light/Dark Mother” (1989) is on loan from Glastonbury Goddess Temple, where it serves as an inspirational object to guide devotion to the Goddess. Sjöö’s use of radiating lines and dark spaces draws the viewer’s eye in like a portal into the landscapes of the past.
Sjöö’s work is most compelling where it combines this ethereal, dreamlike aesthetic with her activism, as in “Lunar Child of the Sea” (1982), originally painted as a banner for a peace march supporting the removal of the US nuclear presence from British soil. Her psychedelic images constitute a complete world view, grounded in extensive research, personal experience, and a lifetime of protesting against environmental destruction and advocating for a radical feminist revolution.
Her later works in particular are simultaneously utopian and tragic, both imagining a matriarchal future and recognizing its impossibility in the face of patriarchal war-mongering and ecological damage. “Mother Earth in Pain, Her Trees Cut Down, Her Seas Polluted” (1996) mourns specific events: the clear-cutting of ancient woodland to create a bypass in Newbury, Berkshire, and a huge oil spill off the coast of Wales. At the same time, it is an expression of pure sadness, created sometime after the premature deaths of both her sons; the Great Mother, armless but with a sun glowing red hot at her womb, turns her face to the sky and cries. She is an everywoman, grieving for the world — and calling on the viewer to help heal it.
Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother continues at Modern Art Oxford (30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, England) through February 25. The exhibition was curated by Amy Budd, Modern Art Oxford, and Jo Widoff, Moderna Museet, in partnership with Moderna Museet, Sweden.