The art of the foundling and the stolen.

Castellano Català

A few weeks ago we were told the story of a baby found in a restroom of the Munich airport [1]. Unfortunately news like this appear repeatedly in the media and although they no longer disturb the consciousness of the majority of the viewers, accustomed to the structural violence of everyday’s life, the truth is that such events are a rift in the social welfare, understood here as the matrix in which the future citizens grow and develop.

After the thirty or forty seconds of the news duration, who does think again about that baby that just came into the world and has absolutely nothing, only and maybe, an artificial father called State that will take the responsibility for his future by giving him new opportunities to reincorporate into the society.

The life of this baby will probably be spent in an orphanage or the equivalent place in the twenty-first century, and maybe with a little luck a couple will decide to adopt him and give him the family that fate denied him from the very beginning, in other words a second chance to start again.

Throughout the human history, the task of helping these children to develop in a favourable environment was reserved to women with or without own kids and religious or civil institutions. The Foundling Hospital located in London and converted into a museum, is one of such places that tried to become a home to many abandoned children during the Victorian era.

Museo Foundling (Londres)

Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, the Foundling Hospital became the first charity for abandoned children or at risk to be abandoned in the UK.

Between 1741 and 1954 (after 1926 the institution moved outside London) more than 25,000 children were welcomed and cared by the organization. The project also had the support of two key figures who helped Mr. Coram to make his dream come true: the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Friedrich Handel. Hogarth excited about the project, encouraged other artists to donate some of their works, establishing what would become the first public art gallery in the UK. Handel in turn donated an organ to the hospital chapel and offered an annual benefit concert.

In 2004, the Foundling Museum was opened in a building of the 30s, located in the former premises of the hospital. Today, the museum continues with a strong social vision by offering activities for families, schools and enabling artists, musicians and writers to work together with young people at risk of exclusion.

Regarding the art collection of the museum, it contains paintings, sculptures, furniture and ceramics located in reconstructions of the original places of the eighteenth century. Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and John Michael Rysbrack, were the main donors and their work can be found together with small artefacts that belonged to the children and mothers (certificates of admission, textbooks, uniforms, testimonies of former residents of the twentieth century …). All together converts the museum in a small sample of the children’s lives and feelings.

The museum also houses the Gerald Coke Handel collection, an international collection of over 10,000 objects of the composer and his contemporaries: manuscripts, libretti, books, newspapers, sound recordings The star of this section is Handel’s testament and the handwritten score of Messiah, donated to the hospital.

Original score of The Messiah by Handel, George Frederick (1685-1759); © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum, London; German, out of copyright
Original score of The Messiah by Handel, George Frederick (1685-1759); © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum, London; German, out of copyright

As expected, the Foundling museum also holds a temporary exhibition space. Some of the most recent exhibitions have been: «Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Loss»[4], [5], [6] where four contemporary photographers explore the topic of lost relationship between mothers and children and «Babies and Bloomsbury», children and babies sculptures made by Sir Jacob Epstein [7].

Bond with the topic of babies pulled out from their context, we devote the final part of this article to talk about forced abandonments or baby robbery, especially those that occurred during the Spanish dictatorship. The exhibition “Banished Eva’s daughters” based on the book by Consuelo García del Cid and prepared by Concha Mayordomo and Natacha Mazzitelli in association with  Generando Arte, denounces the existence of female reformatories sustained by the Spanish military dictatorship where women with ideology against the regime or too independent were imprisoned. Smoking on the street, wearing miniskirts, being poor, orphaned or abandoned were sufficient reasons to be locked in one of these centres where the systematic robbery of children who had to be “educated” in the official morality perpetuated for many years. Mothers in addition were not only deprived of contact with their children but in many cases were also tortured and abused, making their stay in such reformatories a nightmare.

The exhibition aims to give voice to the victims and fight against the depraved amnesia that has characterized the Spanish transition.

Mothers and daughters, dramatic stories of separations and wounds in the consciousness. Abandoned women pushed into heartbreaking decisions, aided by social stigmas. From the peasant who has no financial means or is punished by her family to the aristocrat who has committed a “sin” and is afraid of losing her social status. All of these women were never free to decide, and helpless many were forced to take desperate actions. Centuries passed and again a group of young women was the victim of a violence state and social censure. The moral superiority used by all regime collaborators, together with fear were probably the most important factors in order to self justify the crimes they made. What legitimacy have those who robbed children from their mothers? What kind of poisoned empathy helped them to be convinced that their actions were fair?

After the dark years of Franco’s regime, the perpetrators chose to turn their face while the rest of society bought oblivion at an offensively low price. The victims meanwhile remained alone again with the only strength of knowing that their cause was fair. Is it better to forget? Can you go ahead forgetting such crimes? Shall we wait until all victims pass away and with them the problems, is that the government strategy? This seems, at least so far, the general modus operandi adopted by the successive Spanish governments on the issue of historical memory.

If we live and then forget, and forget instead of learning, oppression will continue making us regular visits to justify the will of the powerful while the weak will have no tool to refuse to live by the world view imposed on them.

I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.

Simone de Beauvoir

Cover photo: “Sin título” – Natacha Mazzitelli – Fotografía digital. 30 x 70 cm (2015)


Rosa Mª Torrademé

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