The Skeleton: Bones of Life and Love

In 2006 a photograph printed in the Dutch national newspaper, the NRC, caught my attention. It was a black and white photograph of a 62-yearold blind woman who had just given birth to her 12th baby. In the image we see a content mother patting her newborn affectionately on its back. The baby can be clearly perceived as happy and satisfied as much so as any other baby, whom its mother has just fed. It rests its little cheek on its mother’s shoulder, opening one eye as it looks into the wide world. In the little scrap of information accompanying the photo, it said that the baby’s name was Adam; that he was the woman’s second child by her third husband who was 48 years of age; and that the baby was conceived through IVF. The woman had 20 grand children, and 3 great grand children.

And with this picture it all started; it inspired me to make a whole series of drawings, fed by the emotions clearly visible on the mother’s and the baby’s faces. I started making sketches of older women with newly born infants, and at some point started to swap the older woman with drawings of my studio skeleton which I use as a model for my artwork. I did this not because the older women were very thin, or maybe even seemingly close to death, closer to death maybe, then the average younger mother who had just given birth, but mostly because I wanted to get a point across, a point that had nothing to do with the women’s ages, but everything with the happiness glowing on their faces.

In every one of the drawings, I depicted very healthy, bouncing babies, and only the mother’s arms, holding them in a loving, embracing way. In the drawing below, I placed the baby centrally on a large sheet of white paper. I drew the baby with graphite dust, which I painted onto the paper with a paintbrush. I wanted to achieve maximum plasticity, and therefore applied several layers, rubbing each one carefully into the paper. For depicting the mother’s arms I used a different technique, namely a charcoal pencil, and drew each shadow carefully, and rubbed them separately into the paper so that I could make darker shades than the ones perceivable on the baby’s skin. The baby is in a sitting position, bending forward and does, what many healthy babies do; it is trying to take its foot into its mouth. The eyes are bright; and it is clearly healthy and happy. From the right, two arms come into the image, two loving arms embracing it and holding it tenderly. But this is where the problem starts for many viewers. Instead of normal healthy arms, I’ve depicted two skeletal arms. Shocking for most people, but why?

At first when I exhibited the drawings reactions the reactions of the spectators surprised me. I had thought that the drawings would provoke arguments in the same lines that the photograph had done: the mother would be chastised for her selfishness, because society concluded that the child would probably be orphaned or at least motherless, before reaching its twentieth birthday.

I expected the reactions to my drawings to be something in the lines of the reactions to the photograph. In my drawings I didn’t just want to depict a baby and its mother but motherly love; something more intense more intermate than motherly interaction. But the reactions to my drawings were of an entirely different level, being even more extreme. Not only were my motives and my integrity questioned for doing the drawings, but some viewers were so irritated by them – even downright aggravated, that they accused me of depicting an ‘innocent’ baby about to die. Some even interpreted the babies wrongly as disabled, and asked me why I thought that disabled babies had no right to live?

These arguments and perceptions astounded me. Not only had the public interpreted wrongly that the babies were mentally and physically handicapped, but also, that the arms belonged to Death himself.

Why is it that babies should they never be associated with skeletons?

In my drawings I had wanted to show a mother’s vulnerability, an arm that has lost its protective tissue is extremely fragile and would even fall apart; I wanted to depict that fragility as a metaphor for a mother’s vulnerability. A mother will always try to protect her baby, even faced with extreme danger. The drawing has nothing to do with death, but everything to do with motherly love; the most powerful love that exists is that of mothers for their offspring, whether the mother is human or animal. The bones aren’t signs of death, but signs of life – there really is nothing scary or shocking about a drawing of a skeleton, no more shocking than X-rays are.


© Anita Salemink 2007

© Anita Salemink 2007 Untitled. Charcoal and graphite drawing

© Anita Salemink 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anita Salemink with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Photographer unknown. “Blinde moeder van 62 krijgt 12e kind” 23 February 2006. Web. 5 June, 2014.




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