Maternal form in artistic creation

Kenneth Wright


In this paper I use the making of poetry as a paradigm of artistic creation. I draw on Seamus’s Heaney’s image of the poem-as-echo to develop the idea that the artist is at root a portrayer of lived experience. I base this view on the work of Susanne Langer who defined art as ‘the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling’. Such forms are so constructed that experience ‘inhabits’ the created image and lives within it; this gives such images the power to resurrect experience within a domain of contemplation. Within this view, the aesthetic concept of ‘significant form’ acquires a new dimension of meaning: a form is ‘significant’ when it truthfully portrays essential aspects of experience. In this context, I discuss the nature of ‘found objects’ and argue that in all such objects there is a perception of significant form. From here there is a route to the preverbal period and the non-verbal forms through which a mother communicates with, and responds to, her infant’s emotional vitality. Winnicott emphasised maternal facial expressions (mirroring), while Stern described the mother’s quasi-theatrical enactments (attunement) of the infant’s ‘forms of vitality’. In both cases, the maternal form is an external, iconic representation of the infant’s inner state, and following Winnicott’s lead that cultural phenomena derive from transitional forms of experience, I demonstrate the similarity between the maternal forms of infancy and the later significant forms of art. I argue that in his creative work of matching form and feeling, the artist is assuming the role of attuning mother and attempting to make good an earlier deficiency. From this perspective, the world of art is a reservoir of significant (i.e. attuning) forms, and the audience approaches the art object to discover those which are resonant with his own need.


Attunement; Found objects; Mirroring; Significant form; Subjective object.

Full Text:



All content © Free Associations.