Perspective | In a sea of suffering, one image of motherhood distills the misery of war

The agony of the photograph, taken by Evgeniy Maloletka, expanded on Monday when the Associated Press announced that the woman had died. And so had her baby. Mariupol, under siege and heavy bombardment for days by the Russian invaders, is a humanitarian disaster, a potential “worst-case scenario,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Even if the woman, whose name we don’t know, had survived, this image would have been one of the defining ones of this terrible war. The whole of Vladimir Putin’s rage and cruelty seems to be distilled here — into a visual dialogue between the blanket and woman resting upon it. For some reason, I imagine an older sibling, the brother or sister to a baby who never saw life, staring at this picture and asking the questions a child might ask: Why are these men carrying her? Because she cannot walk. Why can’t she walk? Because she is hurt. Why is she hurt?

How does one answer that? Because one man is making war on millions of peaceful people. Because evil.

But those answers could be given about any image of suffering coming out of Ukraine. Why is it that this one pierces so directly?

The blanket captures something difficult to represent and process, an idea that seems both fundamentally true and entirely banal: that war is unnecessary suffering, a source of needless pain. Earthquakes, fire and disease bring calamity to millions every year. But war is a human invention, and if our species didn’t cough up such terrible, twisted, bloodthirsty men as Vladimir Putin, we might avoid the depredations of war. Natural disasters are inevitable; war is on us.

The red blanket hints at that because it represents the power of domestic life in the midst of public destruction. War turns homes inside out, subjecting their private contents to public scrutiny. This particular blanket, which has what looks like a watermelon, strawberry or ladybug pattern, seems particularly domestic and private, the sort of thing an expectant mother may have carried with her as a reminder of home. It isn’t monochrome or gray, as one might expect from a hospital or ambulance. And its pattern of black dots on bright red stands in sharp visual contrast to the grid of gaping rectangular window frames in the background. It functions visually as red so often does in old paintings, drawing in and arresting the eye with a splash of crimson on a cloak or a hat.

It suggests ripeness and sun amid bleakness and death. The pattern is a visual metaphor not just for pregnancy, but also for the seasons of abundance that are a world away from the trees that frame the suffering woman, trees blasted by winter and war. For some reason, when I saw it, I thought of a painting by Luis Melendez in the Prado, of three watermelons, two of them whole, and the other cut open. It seems to gape with blood and life, as if to remind us that humans must inevitably break things to stay alive.

But there was no need to break any of the broken things in this image. War alone did this, and Putin made that war.

The symbolically freighted or cathected object, often cheap or shabby, is a classic device for focusing emotion in narrative and images. The muff given to the dying Mimi in Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” and Rosebud, the child’s sled, in Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” do a kind of work that reconfigures human suffering, makes it somehow more immediate and meaningful. It’s a trick and easily abused, and even when used by a master, it can leave one feeling slightly manipulated.

But here, there is no artifice, and somehow the blanket makes the thing that really matters — the genuine suffering of the woman upon it — even more unbearable to contemplate. The last place of innocence has been shattered.

There is no motherhood without the pain of childbirth. There is no childhood without tears. Even without war, there is more than enough suffering in the happiest of lives. When Putin’s epitaph is written, look to this woman, and this blanket, and include these words: He heaped misery upon the world.

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