Illustrated companion

'Birth' is one of a group of three paintings by Pollock purchased by the Tate Gallery from the estate of the artist's widow [see also T03977 and T03978]. They represent three distinct and important phases of the artist's work and, it has been suggested by the artist's old and close friend Ruben Kadish, are from among those works that Pollock retained in his own possession because '... they represented a peak point ...'

'Birth' is a painting from the moment, about 1940, when Pollock, in his late twenties, was still assimilating various influences. These, notably of Picasso, Mir¢ and American Indian art, are still evident, but as his brother Sanford wrote in a letter referring to this early phase of Pollock's development '... his painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality.' 'Birth' would probably have been seen by many people at that time as abstract, and in it Pollock is already clearly moving towards an increasingly free way of applying paint in which the references to the human figure, and the other signs and symbols visible in this painting, would finally be absorbed into an overall web of marks. The Tate Gallery's 'Summertime' [T03977] is a superb example of that later development, whose shape and atmosphere, together with its title, suggest a universalised, internal vision of the natural world, possibly ultimately inspired by the expansive landscapes of the American West' whose importance to him Pollock acknowledged.

'Birth' depicts a figure, presumed female, possibly in the process of giving birth. Only two features of the body can be identified with certainty: a leg bent at the knee in the lower left corner and a large hand pointing upwards, towards the middle of the right side of the canvas. Above the hand are two circular mask-like elements in which eyes and grimacing mouths full of teeth can be discerned. These masks, said to be inspired by Eskimo and North-West American Indian examples, contribute to the whole effect of savage energy and anguished writhing movement which make this painting a convincing expression of the theme indicated by its title.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.213