T03979 Birth c.I941
Oil on canvas 1164 x 551 (45⅞ x 21⅝) Not inscribed
Purchased from the estate of the artist's s widow Lee Krasner Pollock (Grant-in-Aid) 1985-8
Exh: American and French Paintings, McMillen Gallery, New York, Jan.-Feb. 1942 (19); The 30's Painting in New York, Poindexter Gallery, New York, 1957 (no number, repr., dated 1937); Jackson Pollock, Kunstverein für die Rheinlände und Westfalen, Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Sept.-Oct. 1961 (42); Jackson Pollock, Kunsthaus, Zurich, Oct.-Nov. 1961 (42); Jackson Pollock, Marlborough Galleria d' Arte, Rome, Oct.-Nov. 1962 (24 dated 1938); Jackson Pollock, Torinelli Arte Moderna, Milan, Nov.-Dec. 1962 (24 dated 1938); Jackson Pollock, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Feb.-April 1963 (42 as 'Födelse 1938'); Jackson Pollock, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, Jan.-Feb. 1964 (38 dated 1937); The 1930s: Painting & Sculpture in America, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Oct.-Dec. 1968 (81 dated 1937); Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Oct.-Dec. 1978 (not in cat.); Jackson Pollock, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Jan.-April 1982 (no number, repr. p.112 in col.); on loan to Tate Gallery 1982-5; 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Sept.-Jan 1985 (no number, no cat., repr. in accompanying book, see below); Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May 1988 - March 1989 (no number, repr. p.34 in col., dated 1938-41)
Lit: James Lane, 'Melange', Art News, vol.40, Jan. 1942, p.29; Hal Burton, 'Jackson Pollock: He paints as he pleases', Newsday, 15 Dec. 1950, p.48; Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, New York 1959, certain p.20, pl.6; Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock, 1960, pp.137-8, pl. III; Francis V. ) O'Connor, The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912 to 1943, unpublished Phd. thesis, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore 1965, pp.200-1, pl.68; Francis V. O'Connor, 'The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912 to 1943, Artforum, vol.5, May 1967, pp.21 and 23, fig.11; Alberto Busignani, Pollock, Florence 1970, pp.22, 24-5 and 33, pl.8 (col.); McCay Vernon and Marjie L. Baughman, 'Art, Madness and Human Interaction', Art Journal, vol.31, Summer 1972, p.417, fig.8; Judith Wolfe, 'Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock's Imagery', Artforum, VoI.11, Nov. 1972, pp.66-7, fig.4; B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, 1972, pp.53-4; ElIzabeth Langhorne, 'Letters', Artforum VoI.11, March 1973, p.7; Elizabeth Ann Churcher, 'The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1933-43: The Influence of its Exhibition Programme on the Development of the Work of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky', unpublished M.A. report, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1977, pp.34-5, fig.8 (as c.1940-41); F.V. O'Connor and E. V. Thaw (eds.), Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, New Haven and London 1978, I, p.60, no.77 repr.; Stephen Polcari, 'Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton', Arts Magazine, vol.53, March 1979, pp.123-4, fig.17; Elizabeth L. Langhorne, 'Jackson Pollock's "The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle"', Arts Magazine, vol.53, March 1949, pp.129-30 and 136 n.13; Michael Newman, 'The Influence of Orozco, American Indian and Eskimo Art and Ideas from Ethnology on Jackson Pollock's Art', unpublished M.A. report, University of September London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1979, p.26; Donald E. Gordon, 'Pollock's "Bird", or How Jung Did Not Offer Much Help in Myth-Making', Art in America, vol.68, Oct. 1980, pp.45-6, fig.2; Irving Sandler, 'More on Rubin on Pollock', Art in America, vol.68, Oct. 1980, p.57; Ellen G. Landau, 'Lee Krasner's Early Career, Part One: Pushing in Different Directions', Arts Magazine, vol.56, Oct. 1981, p.120, fig.33 (in negative); Julia Kristeva, 'La Voie lactée de Jackson Pollock 1912-1956', Art Press, no.55, Jan. 1982, pp.5 and 7 repr; Elizabeth Frank, Jackson Pollock, New York 1983, pp.27 and 36, pl.23 (col.); Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock, Open University, Milton Keynes 1983, p.65, pl.XIII 83; Kirk Varnedoe, 'Abstract Expressionism' in William Rubin (ed.), 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York 1984, pp.640-1, repr. p.642 first publish (col.); Yve Alain-Bois, 'La Pensée Sauvage', Art in America, vol.73, April 1985, p.183, repr. p.188; Jeffrey Potter, To A Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock, New York 1985, p.64; Jeremy Lewison, Jackson Pollock: Three Major Paintings, Tate Gallery, , [p.2] repr. (col.); William Packer, 'Abstract painting is here to stay', Financial Times, 7 April 1988, p.19; Tate Gallery Report 1986-8,1988, p.74, repr. p.75 (col.)
T03979 is an early painting by Pollock which, broadly was speaking, depicts a figure, presumed female, possibly in the process of giving birth. Only two features of the body can be identified with certainty: a (right?) leg bent at the knee (bottom left) and a hand of which three fingers are clearly visible pointing upwards (towards the mid point of the right side of the canvas). The painting also depicts a number of mask-like faces as well as other shapes which cannot be identified with any certainty.
The title of T03979 appears to indicate its subject but the titles of Pollock's works have been shown by William Rubin ('Pollock as Jungian Illustrator: The Limits of Psychological Criticism', Art in America, vol.67, Dec. 1979, pp.72-4) to be unreliable, in that Pollock frequently invented them after completing the work or they were suggested by other parties. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone other than Pollock thought of the title for T03979, which it had acquired by January 1942 when it was shown for the first time at the McMillen Gallery, New York (see below).
The exhibition at the McMillen Gallery, entitled American and French Paintings, was selected by John Graham (1881-1961), an artist, writer and collector of art, who frequented Parisian avant-garde circles in the twenties and met Picasso, André Breton, André Gide, likely that Paul Eluard and Waldemar George among others. Graham, a Russian emigré who settled in New York in 1920, was important to young American artists for his first hand knowledge of contemporary European art. It is not known exactly when Pollock met Graham but it was certainly after the publication of the latter's article 'Primitive Art and Picasso' (Magazine of Art, vol.30, April 1937, pp.236-9 and p.260) and before November 1941 when Graham invited Pollock to exhibit at the McMillen Gallery. However, if it were possible to establish this date it would become easier to date accurately the year in which Pollock painted 'Birth'.
Pollock is known to have been impressed by Graham's article and to have written to him. Graham then visited Pollock, 'liked his work and intended to add his name to a list of promising young American artists for a second edition of Dialectics of Art' (Frank 1983, p.26) which was first published in 1937 but not reprinted in his lifetime. There is no indication, however, that Pollock read Graham's article on Picasso at the time of its publication. Indeed Pollock seems not to have been interested in Picasso in 1937 since in February of that year he exhibited 'Cotton Pickers' at the Temporary Galleries of the Municipal Art Committee, 62 West 53rd Street, New York, a painting which, although it has not been positively identified, is possibly now known as 'Cotton Pickers' c.1934-8 (repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, p.13 no.12). This work displays the continuing influence of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Pollock's early teacher, and Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) of whom Pollock was to state misleadingly in 1944 that he was 'the only American master who interests me' quoted in O'Connor and Thaw 1978, IV, p.232). Other works by Pollock of the mid to late thirties also show such American influences (see O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, nos. 11-30 whose dates are not firmly established but some of which were photographed in 1938. See for example no.13). Donald Gordon (Gordon 1980, p.51 n.14) suggests that Pollock did not meet Graham until 1940, on the basis that Pollock never mentioned Graham to Dr Joseph Henderson, with whom Pollock was in psychoanalytic treatment from early 1939 until Henderson left New York in the summer of 1940. Gordon suggests that Pollock would have mentioned to Henderson, who was a Jungian analyst, the fact that he had befriended Graham, a keen supporter of Jung's theories, if he had known him before the summer of 1940. In addition Graham spent the summer of 1939 in New Mexico and Pollock had spent from June until September 1938 in hospital for treatment of acute alcoholism. Furthermore, Pollock often spent periods of weeks outside of New York visiting his family thereby reducing the likelihood of an early meeting with Graham. Pollock's interest in Picasso probably stimulated him to read Graham's article and although it is likely that Pollock was interested in Picasso's work before the latter's retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art at the end of 1939 - through reproductions in Cahiers d'Art and Minotaure or small exhibitions held in commercial galleries in New York - Pollock's own work may have begun to assimilate Picasso's influence only after he experienced it directly on a substantial scale. The Picasso exhibition ended in January 1940. Before then he displayed a marked interest in the Mexican painters Orozco (1883-1949) and Siqueiros (1896-1974) as well as in the paintings of EI Greco and Max Beckmann (see for example T03327 'Naked Man with Knife' c.1938-41, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.198 and O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, nos 36-56, 60-63 and 65). Elizabeth Churcher (Churcher 1977 p.31) quotes Lee Krasner, the artist's widow, as saying that it was she, not Jackson Pollock, who bought Cahiers d'Art, although it remains true that he might have seen copies in the New York Public Library or in the studios of fellow artists. Pollock, who had met Krasner once before 1941, only began his relationship with her as a result of her seeing the McMillen exhibition in 1942.
The approximate date at which Pollock became interested in and began to assimilate the ideas of Picasso, and the approximate timing of the beginning of his friendship with Graham are important in regard to the dating of T03979. If, as Churcher suggests, Pollock was more likely to have been stimulated by the act of seeing Picasso's paintings at the exhibition in 1939 than by reproductions or small exhibitions, and if he only met Graham after the summer of 1940 when Dr Henderson left New York, and after seeing the Picasso exhibition, then it is likely that 'Birth' was painted in 1940-1. Indeed Churcher suggests that it 'could well have been painted especially for the exhibition and with John Graham in mind' (Churcher 1977 p.35). If this unsubstantiated assertion were true, the remote possibility exists that the title for T03979 was devised by Graham rather than Pollock. Furthermore it is likely that Pollock would have wished to submit his most recent work to the McMillen exhibition in view of the fact that he was to show in the company of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Modigliani among others.
'Birth' has been interpreted by a number of historians including Wolfe, Langhorne and O'Connor from a Jungian viewpoint based on a number of items of evidence. Principally these are Pollock's assertion in 1956 that he had 'been a Jungian for a long time' (quoted in O'Connor and Thaw 1978, IV, p.275); the fact that he was in analysis with Jungian therapists - from early 1939 until summer 1940 with Dr Henderson and during 1941 with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo; that John Graham was by then a close friend of Pollock; Pollock's use of Surrealist imagery to depict archetypes; the title of the work which is suggestive of birth, part of the Jungian cycle of birth, death and rebirth. While not denying the probability that 'his art not only reflects a concern for Jung's central thesis of the "collective unconscious" but contains at least some reference to particular images and symbols discussed in his analytical sessions' (William Rubin, 'Pullock as Jungian Illustrator: The Limits of Psychological Criticism', Art in America, vol.67, Nov. 1979, p.106), both Rubin and Gordon reject the specificity of the arguments and sources for 'Birth' and similar works posited by Wolfe and Langhorne. Gordon maintains that Pollock could only have talked generally to his therapists about Jung:
Henderson offered Pollock the Jungian faith in a 'psychic birth-death-rebirth cycle' as well as the symbol ordering device of the circular mandala. And similarly de Laszlo recalls that she explained to Pollock the concept of rebirth in order 'to help give him hope and confidence' and also the meaning of the mandala as 'interrelating formally fragmented parts of the psyche' (Gordon 1980, p.44).
Gordon maintains that no actual discussion of Jungian theory took place in these sessions, an assertion based on evidence supplied by both doctors, and that the role of the therapists, if any, in the making of paintings such as 'Birth' was in their encouragement, through the use of drawings brought to or executed during the sessions, 'to accept the babblings and doodlings of his unconscious psyche as part of his personal identity and eluctable fate as an artist' (ibid.). Where Wolfe contends that the hollow cylindrical object at bottom right represents a birth canal and is related to a Mexican source illustrated been in a book by Jung, Gordon proves that the illustration was not available in the USA until the year Pollock died. He concludes that the cylinder, which also appears in an undated drawing (repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, III, p.117 no.555), is in fact an unconscious symbol of a truly archetypal and autonomous kind with both male and female sexual connotations. 'Pollock's symbolism [is] Jungian because it is archetypal and archetypal because it is the unconscious product of psychic fragmentation' (p.43). Rubin concedes that a Freudian interpretation of Pollock might be equally plausible, although it seems clear from his choice of Jungian therapists that Pollock was less interested in Freudian concepts.
Pollock's interest in Jung, who was much discussed by artists in this period, was probably stimulated both by his therapy and by John Graham's article on Picasso which extolled the virtues of the employment of the unconscious in the creation of works of art:
It should be understood that the unconscious mind is the creative factor and the source and the storehouse of power and of all knowledge, past and future. The conscious mind is but a critical factor and clearing house. Most people lose access to their unconscious at about the age of seven. By this age, all repressions, ancestral and individual, have been established and free access to the source of all power has been closed. This closure is sometimes temporarily relaxed by such expedients as danger or nervous strain, alcohol, insanity and inspiration (Graham 1937, p.237).
It is noteworthy that Pollock was indeed suffering from alcoholism at this time although he did not necessarily deliberately drink to unlock his unconscious. However, he may well have been struck by Graham's emphasis on the importance of the unconscious in the making of powerful art, his assertion that primitive races and primitive genius have readier access to their unconscious mind than so-called civilised people' (ibid.) and his stress on the notion of collectivity. Graham also emphasised spontaneity and 'pure relevating form' which would be more important for Pollock's later work. Although Jung's name was not invoked in this article, Pollock would certainly have been aware of Graham's interest in Jung either by extension or through subsequent discussion with him. 'Birth' is a painting of fantasy in which Pollock unmistakeably borrows forms from primitive artefacts and combines them with a free flowing application of paint, which suggests spontaneity, and with borrowings from Surrealist vocabulary.
Irving Sandler (1980, p.57) has pointed out that one of the mask forms in 'Birth' is derived from an Eskimo mask reproduced in colour in Graham's article (Graham 1937, p.236). Although he fails to indicate which of the mask forms in 'Birth' corresponds to this Eskimo mask, it is likely to be the one immediately above the hand. Michael Newman (1979, p.26) convincingly suggests that the mask flanked by what Langhorne describes as a 'plumed serpent' (Langhorne 1979, p. 129) with red and black dots towards top right, is derived from a Northwest Coast Indian mask which Pollock 'must have seen' in the Museum of the American Indian, New York (repr. Newman 1979, fig.25). Pollock was informed about Indian and ethnographic culture through reading, visiting museums and through memories of his youth in the West. Indeed as Newman and others point out, the manner in which forms are stacked vertically in ‘Birth’ is reminiscent of totem poles, the totem being a theme which Pollock went on to explore more thoroughly in slightly later paintings.
An interest in primitivism and the adoption of primitive imagery was common in this period. Both Rothko and Gottlieb began to employ it c.1941 (which strengthens the case for dating 'Birth' to 1941) as did a number of other artists working in New York. The primitive sources of American art were distinguished from those of their European counterparts in their indigenous rather than African nature. The use of native American sources may have resulted from the sense of isolation brought about by the Second World War, from a feeling that America was offered the opportunity to take up the role of cultural leader, a role Europe was forced to relinquish by the advent of war, and from a need to withdraw from politically or socially based subjects. According to Serge Guilbaut (How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Chicago 1983,)
By using primitive imagery and myths to cut themselves off from the historical reality of their own time, they hoped to protect themselves from the manipulation and disillusionment they previously suffered. What remained of their old leftist ideas was the desire and need to communicate with the public. But now the public was redefined to encompass all mankind (p.77).
Thus recourse to primitivism represented not only the withdrawal from making art which commented overtly on social or political issues rooted in the specific, but a desire to treat themes on a universal scale. As Kirk Varnedoe has written:
The rhetoric of the Vanguard artists of the forties [specifically Rothko, Gottlieb and Barnett Newman] ... stressed the spiritual and psychological power of primitive art rather than its social efficiency, and insisted on the historical links that joined the modern and the primitive artist, rather than the historical factors that separated them (Vamedoe 1984, p.619).
In 1944 Pollock stated in an interview that he had always been impressed with the qualities of American Indian Art:
The Indians have the true painter's approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject-matter. Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian Art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn't intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm (quoted in O'Connor and Thaw, 1979, IV, p.232).
Although the borrowings from primitive sources in 'Birth' are evident, Pollock's debt to contemporary artists is equally apparent. Wolfe has argued that the leg bent at the knee and the use of a hand to support one of the masks indicate that 'Birth' is indebted to Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon', 1906-7 which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art Picasso exhibition in 1939. She draws attention to the similarity in the pose of the seated figure on the right in Picasso's composition. In addition, she maintains that Pollock's use of mask forms and his vertical composition are related to this section of Picasso's seminal painting. However, there are many precedents for the depiction of the bent leg in both Picasso's and Pollock's art (see for example Pollock's drawing after EI Greco, repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, no.434 pl.8, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the infant Jesus, or '(Woman)' c.1930-3, repr. ibid., p.9 no.10). The debt to Picasso is more generalised than Wolfe allows and can be seen in the horn forms (also found in the work of André Masson), the cloisonné manner of painting thick black outlines and the emphasis on arabesques which Picasso employed in the thirties. Newman (1979) and O'Connor (1965) among others cite as a precedent for 'Birth' Picasso's 'Girl before a Mirror' 1932 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), a painting which was shown in the 1939 Picasso exhibition and which was illustrated in Graham's 1937 article two pages after the Eskimo mask referred to above. 'Birth' clearly is related to such a painting but perhaps no more closely than to 'The Kiss' 1925 (repr. [Alexandre Lieven], The Musée Picasso, Paris 1986, p.66 in col.), 'Peinture' 1934 (repr. Cahiers d'art, 1935, p.163) or 'La Lecture' 1932 (repr. Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris 1955, VII, pl.358). 'The Kiss' is a strongly vertical composition with masks and eyes in which colour is employed with vigour. Like all the works mentioned above it places a strong reliance on black line. However it was not exhibited at the 1939 Picasso exhibition and was not reproduced in Cahiers d'art. Therefore the influence of this specific work should possibly be discounted. Similarly neither 'La Lecture', which prominently features a hand in a roughly similar position to that in 'Birth', and which emphasises the roundness of the breasts and head, nor 'Peinture' which, in addition to its abundance of circular motifs, contorted female posture and strong verticality, is a thickly impastoed work, were exhibited in the 1939 exhibition. Finally, it is known that Pollock was also a great admirer of 'Guernica', which was exhibited in the 1939 exhibition, and many of the horn shapes in 'Birth', some of which project out of circular mouth-like forms, may have been inspired by his reading of this work. In summary, it is impossible to locate specific Picasso sources for 'Birth' but Picasso's general influence must be acknowledged.
In addition to Picasso, in an interview of 1944 (O'Connor and Thaw 1978, IV, p.232) Pollock singled out Miró as an artist of importance to him. 'Birth' testifies to Pollock's interest in Miró - for example the motifs painted onto the black sphere at the top of the paintings, the eye shapes and, generally, the biomorphic nature of the painting - and in Masson whose tendency to excavate the body to reveal an interior life is paralleled in 'Birth'. The use of strong black lines and thick impasto might also represent an interest in Kandinsky's paintings 1910-16 which were available at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, where Pollock actually became a guard in 1943, although some critics have attributed the transition from the Orozco-inspired smooth surface of earlier works to the thick impasto of works such as 'Birth' to the belated influence of Siqueiros. Reviewing the painting when it was exhibited at the McMillen Gallery, however, James Lane related it to the work of S.W. Hayter (1901-1988), then living in New York. It should be noted, however, that Pollock did not work with Hayter until the autumn of 1944 and that Hayter's work of the late thirties and early forties was more biomorphic, linear and intensely coloured.
One other possible influence on Pollock's work at this time was the painting of Arshile Gorky, a close friend of John Graham, whose paintings in the late thirties were roughly impastoed and biomorphic and placed emphasis on strong linear elements. It is possible that Gorky's interpretation of Picasso and Miró had some impact on Pollock, since Gorky's paintings were exhibited on a number of occasions in this period.
In regard to the construction of 'Birth', O'Connor (1965) and Polcari (1979) both claim that it is indebted to the theories of Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, who published a series of articles entitled 'The Mechanics of Form Organisation' in The Arts (Nov. 1926 - March 1927), identified as being of compositional importance 'the arrangement of curving and straight shapes and forms around an imaginary pole (Polcari 1979, p.124) which Polcari and O'Connor relate to 'Birth'. While this is possible it is doubtful that Pollock would have had such a theory in mind since he was not particularly interested in theory. That he may have arrived at such a compositional solution naturally, however, is not implausible. In a letter to Charles Pollock of July 1941, Sanford Pollock (later McCoy) wrote that Jackson 'has thrown off the yoke of Benton completely'. Although it is possible that this letter was written after 'Birth' was painted, his description further on in the same letter applies exactly to paintings of this kind: 'His thinking is, I think, related to that of men like Beckmann, Orozco and Picasso... his painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality' (quoted in O'Connor and Thaw 1978, IV, p.226). 'Birth' would have been considered by many people in 1941 as an abstract painting.
Nevetheless, it is true that a number of drawings from this period and earlier depict forms, sometimes serpents, around an upright (see for example O'Connor and Thaw 1978, III, p.125 no.594 or Langhorne 1979, fig.7). Langhorne attributes the origin of 'the plumed serpent', unconvincingly, to an Aztec motif which Pollock would have seen in the 1941 exhibition of Indian Art at the Museum of Modern Art. The use of dots on the area she defines as serpent-like in 'Birth' (towards top right) are derived, she claims, from 'a diagram of the female pelvic region, illustrated in William Graves, Gynaecology, [Philadelphia 1916] ... p.412, owned by Pollock' and concludes that 'In drawing the volute shape, Pollock definitely had in mind a foetal connotation' (p.136 n.13). She does not state, however, when Pollock acquired this book and therefore the identification of the source remains as speculative as others.
That the basic structure of the composition resembles such drawings of serpents entwined around columns is not in doubt, but perhaps the drawing which most closely resembles 'Birth' in structure and motifs is no.594 (O'Connor and Thaw 1978, III, p.138) which previously belonged to Dr. de Laszlo. If it was recently executed when Pollock gave it to her, and if it is accepted as being closely related to 'Birth', then the date of the latter might be more precisely located to the end of 1940 or 1941, for Pollock began treatment with Dr. de Laszlo sometime between Summer 1940 and April 1941. It was terminated before August 1942.
The totemic nature of 'Birth' is only apparent when the painting is hung vertically. However, according to Alfonso Ossorio (letter to the compiler of 13 May 1988) 'Birth hung for several years, 1949-53 circa, on the middle landing of the stairwell in [Pollock's] house, seen ascending and descending - it was, however, hung horizontally.' It is possible, therefore, that there is no definitive orientation for this work or that Pollock's preference was for a landscape format. When viewed horizontally (rotated 90 degrees anticlockwise) the image becomes a reclining nude and bears some relation to Picasso's 'Sleeping Nude' 1932 (repr. Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modem Art, New York 1980, p.296 in col.) in the lower bent leg, the black disk on left and the reliance on circular motifs and cursive line. The Picasso painting, however, was not exhibited at the 1939 Museum of Modem Art exhibition but it was reproduced in Cahiers d'Art, Vol.10, 1935, p.208. In addition, the cylindrical motif becomes a leg, in which guise it makes better sense, and the lowest mask form might depict a feeding child. As a horizontal work, Ossorio thought it 'seemed linked' to Pollock's slightly later paintings such as 'Pasipha' (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, p.93 no.101) and 'The Guardians of the Secret' 1943 (San Francisco Museum of Art, New York, repr. ibid., p.91. no.99).If Ossario is correct in linking these works the case for dating 'Birth' to 1941 is further strengthened. Since 'Birth' was exhibited only once in Pollock's lifetime, and there was no accompanying catalogue, dimensions of the painting were only published in books and catalogues after his death. It is possible, therefore, that the painting, which is not inscribed in Pollock's hand, has been erroneously regarded as having a portrait. In terms of the stated subject of birth, it would make equal, if not better sense, as a reclining figure. The only aspect of the painting which might counter a horizontal reading of the painting is the hand (described above).
There are a number of other paintings of this period by Pollock which are closely related to 'Birth': 'Masqued Image' (formerly collection of Lee Krasner Pollock, repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, p.61 no.78), [Composition with Masked Forms] (collection of Mr and Mrs Frank Barsalona, Ossining, New York, repr. ibid., p.62 no.79), and [Naked Man] (collection of Mr and Mrs Harold K. Faye, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, repr. ibid., p.63 no.80) in which the mask form, which closely resembles one of those in 'Birth', replaces the head of a standing man. Of these only [Composition with Masked Forms] is dated in the artist's hand. That it is dated 1941 substantiates the argument for attributing this date to 'Birth', although the former is a wilder, less tightly structured painting. A later work which appears to be closely related to 'Birth' is 'Totem Lesson I' 1944 (collection of Harry W. Anderson, Atherton, California, repr. O'Connor and Thaw 1978, I, p.115 no.121) where the maternal overtones and general configuration suggest a reworking of the theme of 'Birth'.
If the title of T03979 was given to the work by Pollock it may have had specific connotations. It might refer to Pollock's own birth trauma when he was born 'choked by the cord, and according to his mother, was ''as black as a stove'" (O'Connor and Thaw 1978, IV, p.203). Certainly 'Birth' has a traumatic, demonic appearance. However, the title might also make reference to Pollock 'discovering' himself through the expression of the unconscious, giving birth to his personality, or to his career as an artist whose first serious showing, at the McMillen Gallery, was in such admired and distinguished company. It might also relate to the notion of the birth of culture in America, recognition of its new role in the light of apparent inactivity in Paris during the Occupation and the influence of refugee artists in New York around this time. According to Ruben Kadish (born 1913), a sculptor and painter who knew Pollock from as early as the latter's days at Riverside High School (1927-8):
By the time 'Birth' was painted - there was little space left to hang paintings at 46 E 8 St [Pollock's New York Studio until 1945] - most of the time the paintings were stacked against the walls. Viewing of the paintings was a ritual and ceremony - where paintings were hung one by one to be viewed and removed ... I think you are aware that as a farmboy he [Pollock] had a sense of what life and death are about -no farmboy can escape birth no matter how much it may escape our understanding - Jackson loved animals and they had a way of warming up to him - more than once he referred to his paintings as his children - and they do have to be born - I do know that many of his paintings were named after completion - it was not as if they were illustrations - but as I am sure you recognize were experiences - and the forms and shapes were real creatures that he had brought into existence - sometimes when visiting - an unfinished painting would be on the wall covered with a canvas or tarp - his work was a private experience -which is why he would not tolerate having Lee in the studio when he worked - despite all the current hoop-la about the great working relationship it is no secret it was a male devour female relationship - he always selected work to retain for himself out of each show - I know of one such painting that was never for sale - it was the spark - it opened the door - others he kept because they represented a peak point - and you [Tate Gallery] have these three paintings [T03977, T03978, T03979] that I am sure are among those (letter to the compiler dated 18 June 1988).
It is possible therefore that 'Birth' depicts animal forms rather than masks. Moreover, Kadish suggests that Pollock deliberately retained pictures rather than simply retaining works because they were unsold, a point which Clement Greenberg disputes (letter to the compiler 24 April 1988). As with the sources for this work, the title remains enigmatically suggestive of many possibilities.
The application of paint suggests that after building up layers of paint over a period of time, Pollock finished the painting quickly. The large expanses of white and the black outlines were the last elements to be added and were brushed in freely over areas of colour to break up the composition and to provide greater definition of form and space, the structure of which is loosely based on those of Analytical Cubist paintings. If the forms were only 'pulled out' of the painting at the final stage then the subject may only have suggested itself to Pollock late in the process of making the painting.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984-86, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.245-251, reproduced p.245