One of the most powerful images in the history of art is that of a mother holding her child. Beginning very early in the Christian era, that theme was reinforced throughout Western civilization via images of the Madonna and Child. Almost concurrently, one of Western culture’s most disturbing images was also created: the mother carrying her child—this time, dead (as in Michelangelo’s Pieta).
These two iconic themes gave rise to other images showing people—mostly women—being carried in the arms of another (usually a man). Many of these images depicted barbaric or animalistic behavior toward females, who were treated as though they were defenseless, weak, and childlike. For example, Ruben’s painting The Rape of the Daughters Leucippus (1618) portrays the Dioscuri violently abducting the docile daughters of Leucippus.
In graphic design, the theme took a surprisingly long time to catch on. One of the first appearances of such an image is H.R. Hopps’s “Destroy this Mad Brute,” a 1917 anti-German U.S. army poster from World War I. This led to an onslaught of imagery in graphic design wherein defenseless females are carried away by some version of a “beast”: gorillas, robots, monsters of the sea, Frankensteins, Draculas, and men from foreign lands and cultures.
Many of the women shown in the images attempt to fight their “beast,” who will undoubtedly ravage them. On the other hand, the women in the arms of the “hero” lie still and passive. We understand the hero to be a capable shelter for the damsel in distress, one who would not take advantage of the lady’s compromising position.
Today, variations on this idea have begun to appear. It is very common to see the “hero” (male) in the arms of another “hero,” “beauty” in the arms of another “beauty,” and ultimately, a male being carried by a female who is no longer depicted as defenseless and childlike but strong. In a sense, it’s a return to the theme’s origin: The Madonna holding and protecting her child. MIRKO ILIC
Images, except where otherwise stated, from the collection of Mirko Ilic.