'Real Families: Stories of Change' opens at The Fitzwilliam Museum

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'Real Families: Stories of Change' opens at The Fitzwilliam Museum
Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait Combing Esme's Hair, 2009, oil on canvas Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.



CAMBRIDGE.- Scientific and social advances over the past 50 years have brought significant change to how families are created and structured. Starting today, the Fitzwilliam Museum will present Real Families: Stories of Change, a major exhibition exploring the intricacies of modern family relationships, as seen through the eyes of artists. Featuring over 120 artworks spanning painting, photography, sculpture, film and installation, this exhibition will reveal how artists including Alice Neel, Chantal Joffe, Sunil Gupta, Donald Rodney, Nan Goldin, Paula Rego and Lucian Freud have represented different facets of family life.

Developed in collaboration with the world-leading Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, this unique exhibition will bring together artworks which reveal how the joys, tensions and transitions in families have little to do with conforming to traditional structures, but instead arise from relationships within families, and with the outside world. Featuring key works from the University of Cambridge museums collections as well as significant loans from institutions in the UK and internationally, Real Families will focus primarily on artworks from the past five decades, but will also feature historic works by artists including Joshua Reynolds, Nicolas Poussin and Albrecht Drer, to reveal the changing ways in which family life has been depicted throughout art history.

What is a Family?

Real Families: Stories of Change will invite us to consider what makes a family today. Underpinned by the Centre’s pioneering research within this area, the exhibition highlights artists who portray new forms of family, including those formed by assisted reproduction, single parents by choice, and families with LGBTQ+ parents. Highlights will include Aliza Nisenbaum’s portrait Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn 2018 depicting a lesbian couple and their children, as well as JJ Levine’s photographs chronicling the different stages of a trans-man’s pregnancy and parenthood. This section of the exhibition will also explore living without children, whether by choice or not, represented in works by Sophie Calle, Miriam Schaer and Elina Brotherus, as well as the idea of a chosen family, based on mutual support rather than biological or legal ties, in the photography of Sunil Gupta.

Family Transitions

Real Families will continue by examining the family life-cycle, considering the ways in which different relationships develop over time. Bringing together works by artists such as Joy Labinjo, Nan Goldin and Tracey Emin, the exhibition will reflect on the changing role of parents, siblings and grandparents over the course of our lives. Beginning with artists’ representations of parenthood from early infancy onwards, such as Alice Neel’s portrait of her daughter-in-law and infant granddaughter, Nancy and Olivia 1967, as well as photographs from Zun Lee’s series Father Figure 2011-2018, this section will culminate with a selection of moving portraits by artists of their ageing parents, including Celia Paul’s painting My Mother with a Rose, 2006, and Lucian Freud’s The Painter’s Mother Resting, 1975-76.

Family Dynamics

While families are often portrayed as extremely happy or deeply dysfunctional, the reality usually lies somewhere between the two. The exhibition will explore how artists are uniquely placed to represent emotional bonds and tensions between family members, exploring feelings of acceptance, rejection, comfort, and conflict, as well as wider social and cultural influences on family relationships. This includes photographs from Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor 1977-1985 series, speaking not only of the devastating impact of social inequality on family life, but also of resilience in the face of adversity; as well as Paula Rego’s subversive painting Split 2017, which looks at a dysfunctional family alliance and the divides this can create.

Family Legacies

The final part of the exhibition will explore the transmission of family from one generation to the next through genetic inheritance, social and cultural practices, language, and objects. Within this section, Donald Rodney’s photograph In the House of My Father 1996-7, contemplates hereditary disease, while Cathy Wilkes’s powerful installation Untitled (Possil, At Last) 2013 considers the way poverty and mental health problems can be passed down through generations. Artworks by Zineb Sidera and Hardeep Pandhal address the challenges faced by families affected by migration, and what happens when families are separated by linguistic divides.

Real Families: Stories of Change will conclude with a spotlight on British artist Chantal Joffe, whose works often focus on her own family. Bringing together ten paintings made over the past twenty years, Joffe’s captivating depictions of her family encapsulate the complexities and tensions, and comfort and joy, that family relationships can bring.

Susan Golombok, curator of Real Families: Stories of Change and Professor Emerita of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, said: “Working with the Fitzwilliam Museum on this exhibition has been an immensely enriching and enlightening experience for the Centre for Family Research. We have learned so much from the outstanding team at the museum, not only about communicating the findings of our research through art, but also about the insights into family relationships that artists offer. In addition to the exhibition itself, it has sparked new conversations and collaborations between the museum and the Centre that will continue well beyond the life of the exhibition.”

Luke Syson, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said: “The artworks presented within this exhibition offer compelling stories of how artists have responded to their own family experiences and sensitively recorded those of others for generations. This unique collaboration with the Centre for Family Research has demonstrated how many of the Centre’s discoveries over the past 50 years have simultaneously been interpreted by artists. Showcasing art as a way of evidencing the Centre’s groundbreaking research has offered an exciting new model for the Fitzwilliam, and offers a platform for future collaborative work within our university museum.”

Real Families: Stories of Change is curated by Susan Golombok, Professor Emerita of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue including new texts by Mary Beard, Rebecca Birrell, Dorothy Byrne, Pasco Fearon, Susan Golombok, Alex Graham, Katy Hessel, Claire Hughes, Olivia Laing, Jackie Kay, Rosie Millard and Andrew Solomon.

The Fitzwilliam Museum
Real Families: Stories of Change
October 6th, 2023 - January 7th, 2024










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