You’ve seen it a dozen times before: the self-conscious social-media announcement of a life event, an engagement announced with the snapshot of a new ring, a pregnancy announced through an image of a toddler wearing a shirt that says “Big Brother.” Social media offers everyone a chance to stage, carefully, a window into his or her private life. And along comes Beyoncé Knowles Carter with the apotheosis of all pregnancy announcements and shows, once again, that this uncertain public-private space can be fertile ground for art.
Beyoncé announced on Wednesday that she was pregnant with twins through an Instagram photo that immediately became the most-liked image in Instagram history (8.6 million likes and counting) and that hit virtually every trope of femininity and fertility in the art history book. The singer kneels, wearing only a bra and panties, and stares out at the camera through a pale green veil draped over her head, her hands caressing her rounding belly, while behind her a huge arrangement of flowers rises like a halo, a frame, a crown. She is a Renaissance Madonna channeled by Frida Kahlo and staged by the photographer Jeff Wall; she is a Dutch genre painting cross-pollinated with Anne Geddes’ baby pictures and Technicolor kitsch a la Pierre and Gilles. Flowers stand in for the mystery of life and death and fertility and fecundity; the veil, like her belly, simultaneously exposes and conceals; and every bit of the image pulses with symbolic potential. (Is the rose by her foot a kind of memento mori? Does the pink bow on her bra signal that one baby is a girl?)
The picture — which was taken by Awol Erizku, a 29-year-old with a flourishing career whose work ranges from found street signs to a New Yorker portrait of Viola Davis — is only the tip of an iceberg of images on Beyoncé’s website that flesh out the birth announcement in a double-barreled celebration of the feminine and the maternal.
In the first picture, Beyoncé is slipping into water, pregnant belly bared and gleaming, and subsequent underwater images show her weightless and buoyant, floating in swirls of hair and fabric. We have Beyoncé naked with more flowers; Beyoncé trading flowers with her 5-year-old daughter; and a panoply of snapshots and home videos of Beyoncé and her husband, Jay Z, in the epitome of social-media staging of the perfect happy marriage (just as “Lemonade,” the singer’s hit 2016 album and film, seemed the epitome of so-called “vaguebooking” one’s rage against one’s spouse). Where “Lemonade” offered intimate feelings, these photos offer a voyeuristic frisson, lifting the veil on images that represent, incontrovertibly, at least a part of real life.
It’s art, though, because it transcends the moment: because it gives potent voice to a universal experience, with Beyoncé becoming the stand-in for every woman, and her child becoming her most significant creative achievement. (“Blue, my greatest creation was you,” proclaims one of the snippets of text on the website, most of them written by Warsan Shire, the poet whose work was featured prominently in “Lemonade.”) And it’s especially potent since it, like “Lemonade,” represents a wresting away of power from the patriarchy. The creators of Western art history’s romanticizing images of pregnancy and motherhood were men; Beyoncé, too, had her pregnancy picture taken by a man. But on social media, these images are the province of women. Beyoncé owns these pictures, owns the experience, stares out at you from under her veil and proclaims herself a kind of trinity of mystery, an organic goddess (“I have three hearts,” proclaims a text on the website, each time you scroll over a picture). And the images she has created mingle the mundane and the artistic, reveling in both. The experience is all feminine, and all hers.