Homo sapiens are the only primate species whose females have permanent breasts. In other primates, only pregnant or lactating females have bosoms. Subsequently, and for the rest of their lives, they remain flat-chested. Human females, however, begin to accumulate fat around their milk glands in pubescence and these alluring mounds of fat on their chests remain for the rest of their lives – an evolutionary anomaly for which various explanations have been theorised. While the original purpose of womanly breasts may have been to serve as convenient “handlebars” for babies to cling onto, or as energy stores, the evolutionary theory goes that they eventually functioned to attract the attention of males of the species, signalling the female’s fertility and ability to nurture her young.
Breasts, boobs, tits – whatever you prefer to call them – have, through the centuries, been laden with powerful, often contradictory, symbolism and meaning. Society’s evolving ideas and perceptions regarding the female breast can be traced through its depictions in art, going as far back as Paleolithic times. The Venus of Willendorf‘s generous hips and pendulous breasts have led scholars to speculate that she was an ancient fertility symbol or deity.
As society’s mores and values changed with the prevailing social, political, cultural and religious conditions of the time, depictions of the breast in art changed accordingly. As an article in the Guardian says , ” … there have been good breasts and bad breasts, maternal breasts and martial breasts, but in western art they are rarely incidental.” As far as “good breasts” in Western art goes, there are few in which the bared female breast is treated with greater reverence than in the early Renaissance iconography of the Maria lactans or Madonna lactans, where the Virgin Mary is depicted breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Here, the female breast is viewed as a source of nourishment, maternal comfort, care and love, rather than an erotic symbol of sexual pleasure.
Closer to home and in contemporary times, Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak is well-known for her decades-long series of breast stupa works, in which she conflates the dual motifs of the female breast and the Buddhist stupa, imbuing the human and the corporeal with qualities of the spiritual and the sublime through a wide range of materials and forms.
Like Pinaree, who has said that the birth of her son in 1993 and the experience of breastfeeding him served as inspiration for her predominant artistic motif, Romanian-born Singaporean sculptor and ceramicist Delia Prvački née Iliesiu was inspired to create her limited-edition Dulcinea “breast cup” ceramic works by her daughter, Ana, and granddaughter, Divna.
The idea of creating a collection of functional ceramic ware based on the breast form has had a long gestation. I was originally motivated to start this project after the birth of my daughter. Motherhood was a life-changing experience unlike any other.
In 1986, Prvački exhibited a body of work with a similar family of forms at the Belgrade Museum of Applied Art. Around that time, her little girl, Ana, was very curious about the body and was constantly asking questions, particularly about her mother’s breasts. In response, the artist made her daughter a small amulet in the shape of the female breast and told her, with characteristic wit, “one breast is for milk, and the other one for tea.”
When her daughter gave birth to her own child, Divna, Prvački was moved and inspired by her daughter’s determination to breastfeed her child, despite the challenges and difficulties she faced as a new mother. “I thought it was the right moment, as a mature artist and grandmother, to bring this long-held idea to fruition.”
Produced from prototypes hand-built by the artist in her studio, the limited-edition Dulcinea (meaning sweetness, in Latin) set is named after the peasant girl who inspired Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote to acts of valour and chivalry. It is also Prvački‘s pet name for her granddaughter. Comprising 11 multi-functional pieces in a choice of 5 colours, it includes 6 breast-shaped cups or bowls in different sizes, representing the stages in a woman’s development from puberty to adulthood to maturity.
Cheeky and playful, the bowls’ smooth tactility and sensuous curves beg to be cupped – cradled – gently in the palm of the hand. They immediately call to mind other illustrious breast-shaped cups and glasses in history and the myths and stories surrounding them: the Greek terracotta mastos dating back to 520 B.C., Marie Antoinette’s bol sein (literally, breast bowl) made in the 18th century by renowned porcelain house Sèvres and, of course, the champagne coupe, considered the sexiest of all champagne glass shapes (modern-day sirens Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss have both had champagne coupes made in their … ahem .. image).
Breast milk has always, in legend, been representative of the ways in which a woman’s breasts could nourish, give strength and confer power. In Egyptian mythology, baby-kings nurse on the mother-goddess Isis’s immortality-conferring teats and transform into omnipotent pharaohs. In Greek lore, Hercules, understanding he could live forever by drinking the breast milk of a goddess, suckles from Hera (without asking) and lifts his head from her bosom as a true god. Cultural historian Marilyn Yalom writes, in A History of the Breast, “Narratives … fabricated from a weave of realistic and miraculous threads, offered models of devoted mothers who had themselves internalised the lessons of the Virgin Mary. Milk was seen as both a material and spiritual form of nourishment.”
Prvački hopes that those of us who eat and drink from her Dulcinea breast cups will be likewise nourished, both in body and spirit, as they touch, use and keep in their hand, a cup that reminds us of our shared humanity. Additionally, Prvački is also hopeful that Dulcinea might play a part, however small, in changing prevailing attitudes and inhibitions surrounding the female body, serving to shatter taboos, promote breastfeeding and raise awareness of issues relating to breast health.
I want to demystify the whole thing, by converting the breast shape into a functional form. As vessels for everyday use or decorative pieces, I hope that they will spark conversations – even with children – about the human body, in a natural and spontaneous way.
Note: Love these witty, provocative breast-shaped ceramic pieces? Delia Prvački’s limited edition 11-piece Dulcinea set, in a choice of 5 colours, will be available in Plural’s online shop, launching later this year. We will also be carrying a limited number of the artist’s decorative porcelain plates (each piece is unique and one-of-kind).
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