The Miscarriage Collages That Were Too Much for the Art World

American artist Joanne Leonard’s photo-collage series Journal of a Miscarriage is a talisman for our post-Roe times. Made in 1973, the same year as the landmark United States Supreme Court decision, its treatment of the messy unpredictability of pregnancy models resistance to the systemic erasure of women’s experiences. As we face a crisis in reproductive healthcare, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College will show some of Leonard’s collages later this year as part of a traveling group show titled Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency. Yet for its first public showing in 1974 at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), curator Philip Linhares had a special room built to contain it. 

Presumably, the work was so scandalous, so bloody, so outrageously playful in its depiction of miscarriage that it needed to be hidden. Its privacy walls acted like a white sheet thrown over a woman’s body on the gynecological table, but what are we being shielded from? Is miscarriage salacious? Is it violent? Shameful?

Hidden away from the rest of her one-person show, 100 Photographs and Collage, Leonard’s multilayered Journal of a Miscarriage chronicled the 53 days before, during, and after her miscarriage procedure, challenging the silence usually associated with it. Leonard pioneered what she calls an “intimate documentary” approach to black-and-white photography in the 1960s, a practice that she later applied to photo collage and mixed media in order to radically re-envision women’s lives. After her own devastating pregnancy loss, she turned to collage as a means of articulating the intensities of sex, pregnancy, and miscarriage, subjects largely stigmatized at the time.

The motley tonality of Journal, ranging from melancholy to joy to rage, aimed to rearrange social space and undermine patriarchal power structures. Leonard grafted vulva folds into several conch shells in “She Shells,” an unusually playful glimpse of yonic imagery, while in “Tears/Tears,” five pairs of open scissors point menacingly toward a baby, who is floating on a torn triangle of tissue paper. Leonard wrote the phrase “tears and tearer and terror” beneath the image. Across the series, other visual and linguistic puns harness the reparative possibilities of acknowledging ambivalence and refusing the flattening tyranny of shame.

Still, one attendee of the 1974 opening, art historian and collector Alan Templeton, told me in an interview in December that he liked the show “except for the gyn room.”

The irony of this womb-room created for Journal is its backdrop, Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural “The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City.” There are only men, of course, depicted building and painting said city in the tableau. But more importantly, a year after Rivera’s mural was completed, Frida Kahlo painted “Henry Ford Hospital” portraying her own miscarriage. The artist, who was married to Rivera, returned to the subject later that same year and made the lithograph “Frida and the Miscarriage.” Kahlo was, according to Judy Chicago, the first artist in Western history to directly grapple with miscarriage in her work.

One of the emotional elements shared by Kahlo and Leonard in their depictions of miscarriage is a deep sense of isolation. Objects free-float, unanchored and unsupported, including beds, uteruses, flowers, snails, and babies. Today, as in 1932 and 1974, there is almost no support available to people enduring a miscarriage. The current criminalization of pregnancy loss in the wake of the 2022 Dobbs decision striking down Roe ensures that the medical industry won’t be there for us. The cases of Brittany Watts, who was arrested in Ohio; Mylissa Farmer, who was denied an abortion in Missouri; Yeniifer Alvarez-Estrada Glick, who died after doctors refused to offer her an abortion in Texas; and so many others — especially pregnant people of color — testify to the chilling effect of anti-abortion legislation on miscarriage care, which often mandates medical intervention.

Little has changed since the eras in which Kahlo and Leonard experienced their miscarriages. The subject is often taboo despite that it is not uncommon, according to the National Institute of Health: About one in five pregnancies ends this way. The number is likely much higher considering unknown pregnancies and unreported miscarriages. Though Leonard’s Journal embraces the feminist practice of making art from everyday life, the secluded presentation of it in 1974 undermined this ethos. The gallery could have honored the artwork’s own complex narrative, which uses imagery ranging from cacti and shells to mythological and medical illustrations in order to destigmatize miscarriage and normalize the realities of reproductive life. So why didn’t it?

Perhaps this longstanding cultural shielding and collective squeamishness are why so many lawmakers, judges, and congresspeople maintain outdated or inaccurate ideas about the biology of pregnancy. In 2012, then-Representative Todd Akin infamously said that women can’t get pregnant from rape, a remark that resonates with many conservative responses to abortion bans today. When asked about exceptions for rape earlier this year, Senator Sandy Crawford replied, “God does not make mistakes.” Senator Bill Eigel thinks babies can get pregnant. Representative Dan Flynn believes that the uterus is only accessible by cutting the abdomen; Vito Barbieri countered by saying, actually, only through the digestive tract. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis thinks a “post-birth abortion” is somehow possible and prevalent. And in Arizona, four state Supreme Court justices upheld a draconian total ban on abortion from 1864, met with outcry from the public and lawmakers resulting in its repeal yesterday.

Zombie laws such as this one, activated by the Dobbs decision, belie the idea that time marches forward and that the arc of history moves toward progress. Instead, time wears us out, makes ruins, repeats and circles back. In 1973, Leonard imbued her Journal with the liberating spirit of Roe v. Wade. When I visited the restoration-in-progress at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s storage facility in January, the condom on the collage page titled “Death” had badly degraded and needed to be replaced with a new one. This restoration of the condom strikes me as tragically ironic in the Dobbs era. We need a new prophylactic, one that covers the whole ugly head of patriarchy.

In 2021, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors designated the iconic Rivera mural as a landmark to prevent its removal, and in February, a nonprofit led by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs bought it along with the SFAI campus. While big plans are rolling out for the beloved institution and the $50 million Rivera mural is being restored, we might contemplate the restoration of another American landmark, Roe v. Wade. Better yet, let’s redefine reproductive freedom as something even more radical: free, accessible, and supported. 

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