A series of photographs of provocative modern art from different parts of Europe are being shared on social media, accompanied by the claim that they are “monuments to the mother” and an embodiment of European values. Some publications compare the sculptures to a monument of motherhood in the Russian city of Tyumen, emphasising the contrast in concepts and aesthetics.
The works of modern art are described in the following terms:
Look at the difference. In the first photo is a monument to the mother in Europe, in the second one – a monument to the mother in Russia.
And a monument to the… mother according to the value system they are persistently trying to impose on us.
Here is the difference between eastern and western culture… – and there is no chance you will ever agree with the values promoted by the West, not now and not in a million years.
Do you still want to send your children to study there?
In reality none of the sculptures by western artists in the photos is a monument to the mother. They have been deliberately selected for their provocative nature and the claim that they are monuments isolates them from their context as works of art. The comparison to the Russian sculpture of the mother of three in Tyumen is an attempt to position Russia as guardian of family traditions and morals. It is part of a wider narrative promoted by pro-Russian media and profiles in the Bulgarian information space, which presents Russia as a champion of traditional values and the West as a morally depraved enemy of the family.
And Life Is Over There, the Hague
The bronze sculpture by Femmy Otten is located in a busy street in downtown Hague. It is a figure with tree arms and physical features of both sexes. On its head is a small seated creature with an animal head reminiscent of Egyptian art. The work was unveiled in its current spot in 2017 and is part of a large collection of sculptures placed in public spaces around the city by the art centre Stroom den Haag.
According to its description on the art centre’s website, the work carries references to ancient Greek, Egyptian, medieval and Renaissance art. The author mentions ancient images of Hermaphroditus, son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite, who according to the myths literally merged with his beloved into a single being. This became the reason why Hermaphroditus was seen as a symbol of inseparable love and marriage. The sculpture’s title And Life Is Over There comes from a love poem by Emily Dickinson and androgynous images bearing traits of both sexes are indeed rooted in a tradition going back to the Renaissance and antiquity.
In May 2022 photos of Femmy Otten’s work appeared in a wave of angry tweets claiming it represented “the woman of our times”. The publications also claimed the sculpture was located in a suburb of Oxford, UK. Some of them even addressed the local city council controlled by the Liberal Democrats, who were presumably ‘responsible’ for the sculpture’s appearance.
The first publication containing those claims came from an anonymous Twitter profile which has since been deleted. However screenshots of that tweet retweeted by another no-longer-active profile are still being shared on the social network. On 31 May 2022 a similar publication appeared on the Bulgarian website Afera.bg. The title read: “Do you still want to send your children to study there?” According to the text, the sculpture depicts “modern femininity” and is located in Oxford, although it is accompanied by a picture from the official unveiling of the work in the Hague – an image originally published by the Stroom den Haag art centre. The text on Afera.bg goes on to say that the figure actually represents a pagan demon worshipped by the Knights Templar. The publication was shared on 4 Facebook groups, reaching a potential audience of over 76,000 users.
A fact check by the Agence France-Presse found that around the same time images of the sculpture began to be shared by Serbian profiles on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram along with the claim that it was ‘a Western monument to the mother’. Some of the publications present the Hague sculpture next to the statue of the mother in Tyumen, emphasising the contrast between them. On Twitter the image of the two art works was seen about 135,000 times, after it was retweeted in several languages. In March and April it also appeared in Bulgarian. Some of the tweets came by anonymous profile that also feature a range of claims typical of Russian propaganda. Some Bulgarian users did comment that the sculpture in the Hague is not a monument to the mother, while others expressed regret that there isn’t a single monument to a woman in Sofia.
Agape in Aarhus, Denmark
Another androgynous figure, this time from the Museum of Gender in the Danish city of Aarhus, is also taken out of context in an attempt to smear European values. The sculpture by Danish artist Aske Kreilgaard is a 3.5 metre high male figure with a woman’s breasts, nursing a baby. The work is seen as controversial in Denmark and has been a subject of debate and criticism in some media. It is exhibited in a museum dedicated to gender issues and can not be seen as representatives of the views of Danish society as a whole on masculinity, femininity and motherhood.
In an interview for the Christian daily Kristeligt Dagblad the author comments that neither men of his generation, nor his parents’ generation can really identify with traditional concepts of masculinity from the past. “This doesn’t mean I want to wear a dress but rather that I want to be open to connect with myself and my surroundings in a new way.” According to Kreilgaard it is femininity that is traditionally regarded as empathetic, listening and caring. That makes it hard for modern men to discover and accept those traits within themselves, to acknowledge their own feelings and talk about them, which can sometimes make them very lonely.
The title Agape comes from the Greek word for unconditional love which is not erotic but giving – in Christianity the word is used to signify God’s love for man. According to the artist a similar kind of love is depicted in the images of nursing madonnas popular in Christian iconography and Renaissance art. The author also says in the interview that he used his own body as a model, as well as the body of his girlfriend, merging the two into a single being.
Over the last few months a photo of the Aarhus sculpture, published originally in the Danish daily Politiken in May 2022, has been actively shared on TikTok, Twitter and Reddit in several languages. In April 2023 for example it was widely shared by conservative U.S. profiles with the following caption: “You may live to see manmade horrors beyond your comprehension”. The image has been seen over 60,000 times on the social network. A separate tweet of the same photo captioned “A statue of a breastfeeding man in a former women’s museum draws criticism” has been seen over 344,000 times and retweeted almost 1,000 times. Yet another tweet reacting to the statue not with indignation but as a curiosity has nearly one million retweets.
The photo is also being shared by Bulgarian profiles on Twitter, while on Facebook Agape has in its own turn been proclaimed ‘a monument to the mother’. On 21 April it appeared in a post alongside the statue of the Russian mother from Tyumen. “A monument to the mother, of the woman who is a mother!” the captions say. “And a monument to the… mother according to the value system they are persistently trying to impose on us.” This publication has been shared about 70 times and has provoked a number of angry responses.
Verity in Ilfracombe, UK
The indignation stirred by ‘monuments to the mother’ in Europe did not begin with the provocative sculptures from Aarhus and the Hague, about which our team at Factcheck.bg has been receiving readers’ tips. Similar Facebook posts were being shared in 2020 and it turns out that back then the ideal of traditional motherhood was also embodied by the pregnant mother in Tyumen. ‘European values’, on the other hand, were represented by the huge bronze sculpture Verity standing on the pier in the coastal town of Ilfracombe in North Devon.
Although it is located in a fairly small town, Verity is a famous work of art. It was created by Damien Hirst, one of the most talked about and most commercially successful UK artists. The bronze and steel figure is a pregnant woman with her left arm up in the air, holding a sword. The other hand is behind her back, holding a pair of scales, while her feet stand on top of a pile of books. The right half of the sculpture reveals the anatomy of the pregnant female body with the foetus clearly visible in the womb. The sculpture is over 20 metres high, which makes it the second highest statue in the UK, while its weight of 25 tonnes made hoisting it on the pier a spectacular event in itself. Apart from its use as a woman’s name, the word ‘verity’ means truth or veracity. According to author Damien Hirst, who is a resident of Ilfracombe, his work is “a modern allegory of truth and justice”.
Although Hirst is an artist of worldwide fame, he is not a favourite with many critics who consider him too commercially-minded and too eager to seek attention through provocation. Verity has also received mixed reactions by critics but the Ilfracombe council hopes that its provocative nature may prove beneficial to the town, turning it into a tourist attraction.
The image comparing Verity with the mother in Tyumen originates from Russian social media Odnoklasniki and VKontakte, where it has been widely shared for years, at least since July 2020. In 2021-2022 it also circulated on Russian-language Twitter profiles. In 2022 a photo of the two sculptures was shared with a caption that read: “After all this, are you surprised they support nazism in Ukraine?”
In the Bulgarian Facebook environment the photo comparing the two sculptures also appeared in July 2020. One of the earliest posts found by Factcheck.bg has been shared over 1,200 times and has about 200 comments and over 600 reactions. The posts featuring Verity were most likely the model on which subsequent campaigns using the sculptures from Denmark and the Netherlands were based.
The symbol of traditional motherhood from Siberia
The benchmark in all these comparison between good and bad mothers around the world is the sculpture of a heavily pregnant woman surrounded by three children. It was created by amateur-sculptor Petr Starchenko, a graduate of the Ural School of Applied Arts and according to different sources is made of bronze or plaster coated in golden paint. It is located in the city of Tyumen in Siberia and was unveiled on 1 June 2010 in celebration of International Children’s Day.
The sculpture group Mamma is in the middle of a small park next to a playground and in the vicinity of a maternity hospital. Its location means it is often visited by families with young children. Although there is also modern art in Russia, this particular work was clearly not designed to provoke. In contrast with all the naked European sculptures it is being compared to, the mother of Tyumen is wearing a dress. The project proposal for the sculpture was among the entries in a competition held by the regional branch of the state-owned media channel “Rossia”. Its completion was financed by the city council and supported by contributions from local businesses.
The comparison between provocative works of modern art and a monument commissioned by a local authority to be placed in a playground is clearly tendentious. It recalls the juxtaposition between socialist realism in the USSR and 20-century Western art denounced by Soviet critics as decadent. Art works in the style of socialist realism – the only style officially approved by the state before the Perestroika – pursue the undisguised goal of promoting the regime’s values among citizens. During the same time period artists on the other side of the iron curtain experimented with different styles and movements. Art could be not only representative but figurative or abstract. It could be deliberately provocative and could question traditional values, embodying the creativity of their authors and not values imposed by a political power.
The beginning of the Perestroika in the USSR also brought a surge in the creation of modern art which continued in Russia into the 1990s. According to some critics the Russian avant-garde at the time had extraordinary achievements precisely because it had been marginalised by the communist regime. Putin’s ascent to power, however, revived many of the practices of the totalitarian state – there is less and less space for free expression and artists are required to propagandise the values approved by the regime. Many artists who disagree with that have been labelled as foreign agents, censored or had to leave the country.
The claim that Russia carries unique traditional values which are under threat from an aggressive western influence is one of the main ideological pillars of the Putin regime. It is being used deliberately to promote suspicion and fear against the West among the Russian population and to justify the aggression against Ukraine. The threat of the influence of western values was among Vladimir Putin’s main arguments in his speech of 24 February 2022, in which he announced the start of the war. “They are trying to destroy our traditional values and impose on us their false values, which would erode our people from within.”