Maternal nutrition in pregnancy has a crucial impact on the development of the fetus. Dietary trans fatty acids (tFA) are known to have adverse health effects, especially during pregnancy. However, the distribution of tFA produced via partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils (mainly elaidic acid; t9) differs compared to ruminant-derived tFA (mainly vaccenic acid; t11). Recent findings indicate that they may have different impact on human health.
Therefore, in this study, plasma and erythrocytes of mother-child pairs (n = 55) were sampled to investigate the distribution of tFA, including individual trans C18:1 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) in fetal related to maternal lipids; with additional consideration of maternal dairy fat intake.
Portion of t9 and t11, but also of c9,t11 CLA was higher in maternal than in fetal blood lipids. The portion of t9 in maternal and fetal lipids differed only slightly. In contrast, the portion of fetal t11 was only half of that in maternal blood. This led to a fetal t9/t11-index in plasma and erythrocytes being twice as high compared to the maternal values. A high dairy fat intake resulted in elevated portions of t11 and its Δ9-desaturation product c9,t11 CLA in maternal blood. In contrast, in the respective fetal blood lipids only c9,t11 CLA, but not t11 was increased. Nevertheless, a positive association between maternal and fetal plasma exists for both t11 and c9,t11 CLA. Furthermore, in contrast to t9, t11 was not negatively associated with n-3 LC-PUFA in fetal blood lipids.
Fetal blood fatty acid composition essentially depends on and is altered by the maternal fatty acid supply. However, in addition to dietary factors, other aspects also contribute to the individual fatty acid distribution (oxidation, conversion, incorporation). The lower portion of fetal t11 compared to maternal t11, possibly results from Δ9-desaturation to c9,t11 CLA and/or oxidation. Based on the fatty acid distribution, it can be concluded that t11 differs from t9 regarding its metabolism and their impact on fetal LC-PUFA.
Keywords: trans octadecenoic acids, trans fatty acids, vaccenic acid, elaidic acid, conjugated linoleic acids, omega-3 LC-PUFA, t9/t11-index, fetus, pregnancy, dairy fat
Maternal nutrition may have a crucial impact on the development of the fetus during pregnancy and even for the child after birth . Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), such as C20:4 n-6 (arachidonic acid; AA) and C22:6 n-3 (docosahexaenoic acid; DHA) are known to be essential for fetal development [2-4]. Moreover, n-3 LC-PUFA have been shown to modulate the fetal immune system and, thus, possibly decrease the risk for later atopy development . In contrast, trans fatty acids (tFA) are considered to enhance the risk of coronary heart disease [6,7], atopy , complications in pregnancy, e.g. preeclampsia  and to impair fetal development . Extensive data on preferred LC-PUFA transport from mother to fetus [11,12] as well as higher LC-PUFA concentrations in fetal than in maternal blood [13-16] have been published over the last few decades. In contrast, data of fetal blood concentrations and profile of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) and tFA are scarce. Moreover, in results from studies concerning tFA, only mean percentage values of total tFA in maternal and/or fetal plasma and erythrocyte lipids have been reported [13,17-20].
However, since the amount and distribution of individual tFA, especially trans C18:1, differs considerably between industrial and natural (ruminant) tFA sources, a discussion has arisen regarding the extent to which ruminant tFA raises the risk for cardiovascular diseases in comparison to industrial tFA. The latter mainly comprises of trans-9 C18:1 (elaidic acid; t9) and trans-10 C18:1 . In contrast, trans-11 C18:1 (vaccenic acid; t11) is the major trans C18:1 in ruminant tFA principally resulting in a low t9/t11-index in dairy products (< 1) . The t11 in dairy fat derives from microbial biohydrogenation of PUFA in the rumen. Dairy fat also contains CLA, especially c9,t11 CLA produced by rumen microbes and primarily by endogenous Δ9-desaturation of t11 by the mammary gland .
It has been argued that in contrast to other trans C18:1, intake of t11 is not associated with coronary heart disease or inflammation . In fact, t11 may even impart health benefits due to its function as a metabolic precursor of c9,t11 CLA. This conversion also occurs in humans [22,25,26]. Both, t11 and c9,t11 CLA have been shown to exert anti-inflammatory effects in allergy models [27,28], and t11 did not negatively alter inflammatory parameters in humans . High maternal dairy fat intake led to elevated c9,t11 CLA and t11, thus decreasing the t9/t11-index in breast milk . These ruminant fatty acids in breast milk showed protective effects against the development of atopic manifestation in infants .
To date, no corresponding data concerning individual trans C18:1 such as t9 and t11 are available for maternal and the corresponding fetal blood. This study aimed at characterising the distribution of individual trans isomers of maternal and fetal blood lipids and their association with LC-PUFA in fetal blood lipids. In addition, the relationship between maternal intake of dairy products and the maternal and fetal blood fatty acid profile was investigated.
Subjects and study design
Blood samples from 55 mothers together with cord blood from their neonates were collected at birth. In this study, only healthy infants born at term after uncomplicated pregnancies were included. Mothers with gestational diabetes or those taking pharmaceuticals were excluded. After birth, mothers were requested to answer two questionnaires: one focussing on obstetric history, lifestyle, and socioeconomic factors and the other was a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) dealing with foods from a variety of groups, such as dairy products, fish, oils, seeds or nuts. The study protocol was approved by the local ethics committee (Nr. 1345-06/04). Informed written consent was obtained from all mothers.
Sample collection and preparation for gas chromatography
Maternal blood was drawn at birth from a peripheral vein. Fetal blood was drawn by venipuncture from the placental portion of the umbilical cord immediately after clamping. Blood was collected in EDTA-tubes (S-Monovette 9 ml KE3, Sarstedt). Plasma was separated by centrifugation (1500 × g, 10 min, 4°C) and erythrocytes were washed three times with physiological sodium chloride solution. Plasma and erythrocytes were frozen immediately at -80°C and stored until lipid extraction.
Lipid extraction and transmethylation
Lipids were extracted from plasma and erythrocytes based on the method of Bligh and Dyer . Lipid extracts were transmethylated by using a combination of 0.5 N methanolic sodium hydroxide (Merck) and 10% (w/w, Supelco) boron trifluoride-methanol (100°C for 5 min each). Subsequently, fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) were purified by thin layer chromatography and dissolved in n-hexane for analysis . A system of two GC/FID methods was used to analyse the full fatty acid spectrum from C4 to C26 including CLA (GC-17 V3 Shimadzu; DB-225MS: 60 m, i.d. 0.25 mm, 0.25 μm film thickness; Agilent Technologies) as well as cis and trans isomers of C18:1, trans C18:2 and C18:3 (GC-2010, Shimadzu; CP-select 200 m × 0.25 mm i.d. with 0.25 μm film thickness; Varian) . In brief, injector and detector temperatures were maintained at 260°C and 270°C, respectively, with hydrogen as carrier gas . In total 88 fatty acids were identified and detectable trans C18:1 comprise the following isomers: t4, t5, t6/7/8, t9, t10, t11, t12, t13/14, t15, and t16 C18:1. Furthermore, t9,t12; c9,t12; t9,c12 C18:2; t3,c9,c11 and c8,t10,t12 C18:3, were summarised as total tFA. Fatty acid concentrations were expressed as the percentage of the total area of all FA peaks (% of total FAME).
Data evaluation and statistics
Evaluation of food frequency questionnaires (n = 41) was carried out using Prodi 5.5 Nutriscience software (summarized in Table 1). Fourteen questionnaires had to be excluded due to unreliable data.
Daily intake of energy and dietary fatty acids estimated by food frequency questionnaires and regarding calculated dairy fat intake (n = 41)
Statistical analysis was performed via PASW statistics, version 17 (SPSS Inc.). To evaluate differences and correlations between maternal and fetal fatty acid compositions, paired student's t-test was conducted and Pearson correlation coefficient was calculated. Unpaired t-test was used to determine the difference of means in the subgroups of high and low dairy fat intake. Data were reported as means ± SD. Significance was defined as P ≤ 0.05.
The mean maternal age at birth was 29.2 years. Infants had normal birth weight and length (Table 2).
Maternal and infant characteristics (n = 55 mother-child pairs)
Mothers reported that they did not essentially change their dietary habits during pregnancy. In general, they consumed western-style diets that were predominantly omnivore. The fat intake (n = 41) averaged 124 g per day which corresponds to 45% of total energy intake (en%), with high inter-individual variations (from 55 to 215 g/d; Table 1). Mean dairy fat intake was 36.7 g/d, ranging from 7.29 g/d (2.2 en%) to 82.1 g/d (39.3 en%). Mothers who reported a high dairy fat intake (> 40 g/d) tended to have higher energy uptake due to the raised dietary fat (increased by 1.2 times). In addition, their dietary intake of saturated and short chain fatty acids was also 1.3 to 2 times higher (Table 1). Overall, fish was reportedly consumed less than once a week and n-3 PUFA supplementation (e.g. by fish oil capsules) was not common (n = 11; 20%). A high dairy fat intake was not associated with fish oil supplementation and increased intake of n-3 PUFA-rich foods (e.g., fish, nuts, and vegetable oils). If fish oil was supplemented, a higher proportion of n-3 LC-PUFA in maternal lipids was not observed (data not shown).
Fatty acid profile in maternal and fetal blood lipids (n = 55)
- Trans fatty acids
The mean total tFA, as well as t9 and t11 in plasma and erythrocyte lipids were significantly higher in maternal compared to fetal lipids (Table 3). However, in both fetal lipids fractions, t11 levels were half of t9 values leading to a higher fetal t9/t11-index compared to the maternal index in both plasma and erythrocytes (Table 3).
Fatty acids in maternal and fetal plasma and erythrocytes (n = 55)
Total tFA in maternal plasma (Pmat) correlated positively with total tFA concentrations in fetal plasma (Pfet). There was no correlation of t9 between Pmat and Pfet. On the contrary, there was a positive correlation between Pmat and Pfet for t11. In general, no correlation for total tFA as well as t9 and t11 was found between maternal and fetal erythrocytes (Emat, Efet, respectively; Table 3).
On the other hand, positive correlations were found within the respective blood fraction between t9 and t11 (Pmat: r = 0.33, P < 0.05; Pfet: r = 0.39, P < 0.001; Emat: r = 0.12, P = 0.37; Efet: r = 0.89, P < 0.001; data not shown).
In general, in most samples, proportions of t4 and t5 C18:1 as well as of t3,c9,c11 C18:3 were below the detection limit. The co-eluting isomers t13 and t14 C18:1 were the only trans isomers which were lower in maternal than in fetal lipids (Table 3). [However, since there was no pre-separation of cis C18:1 via Ag+-TLC before GC analysis, an overestimation of t13/14 C18:1 due to co-elution with cis C18:1 isomers c6-8 could have occurred . It is also possible that c6-8 C18:1 are especially relevant in fetal lipids, however, no data are available in the literature].
- Conjugated linoleic acids
The c9,t11 CLA was significantly higher in maternal than in fetal lipids (Table 3). Moreover, positive correlations of c9,t11 CLA between maternal and fetal lipids were stronger for plasma than for erythrocytes (Table 3).
In Pmat and Pfet, elevated c9,t11 CLA were seen compared to t11, whilst both were equally distributed in the respective erythrocyte lipids. In addition, maternal t11 in plasma and erythrocytes was positively correlated to the respective fetal c9,t11 CLA (r = 0.51, r = 0.59; P < 0.001, respectively, data not shown).
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Quantities of AA, n-6, and DHA, n-3, were significantly higher in Pfet and Efet than in the respective maternal lipids. In contrast, proportions of linoleic acid (C18:2 n-6) were higher in the maternal than in fetal lipids (Table 3).
- Correlation between trans fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids
Analysis of correlations between tFA and LC-PUFA revealed a heterogeneous result. However, a significant negative association was found in Pfet between t9 and n-3 LC-PUFA (total, DPA n-3, DHA) while t11 was negatively associated with n-6 LC-PUFA in Emat and Efet (Table 4).
Correlation (r) between tFA and LC-PUFAs in maternal and fetal plasma and erythrocytes (n = 55)
Furthermore, regarding correlations of maternal to fetal fatty acids, t11 in maternal blood lipids was positively associated with fetal n-3 LC-PUFA, especially in erythrocytes (Table 4(B)).
Association between dairy fat intake and fatty acid profile of blood lipids (n = 41)
A high maternal intake of dairy fat (> 40 g/d; n = 14) resulted in an elevated amount of milk specific fatty acids such as C15:0, C17:0 and t11 in both maternal lipid fractions (Pmat and Emat) compared to mothers with lower dairy fat intake (n = 27; Table 5). In contrast, in fetal lipids, the high maternal dairy fat intake was only reflected by a higher c9,t11 CLA in plasma and erythrocytes, whereas t11 was not elevated. But, since t11 was elevated in maternal lipids, the t9/t11-index had decreased, which was also shown in fetal lipids. In addition, due to a high dairy fat intake, n-3 LC-PUFA such as EPA, DPA, and DHA were elevated in fetal lipids, particularly in plasma (Table 5).
Differences of selected fatty acids in maternal and fetal plasma and erythrocytes regarding high and low dairy fat intake
Data analysis regarding fatty acid correlation between maternal and fetal lipids clearly showed that both t11 and c9,t11 CLA were positively correlated between Pmat and Pfet in the case of low and high dairy fat intake (Figure 1). In contrast, no correlation was observed for t9 between maternal and fetal lipids, independently of dairy fat intake (Figure 1). A high dairy fat intake did not result in a negative correlation between t11 and t9 in all maternal and fetal blood lipids (data not shown).
Correlation of the individual tFA, the t9/t11-index, and c9,t11 CLA. Correlation between the respective fatty acid in maternal and fetal (A) plasma (filled signs) and (B) erythrocytes (open signs) in groups of low (< 40 g/d, n = 27; grey) and...
The quantities of fatty acids in maternal and, especially, in fetal blood are under the influence of various factors. Since tFA are not synthesised in human tissue, all tFA with isolated double bonds present in fetal blood lipids can only be due to a transplacental transfer and must originate from maternal diet. Herein, we investigated the fatty acid composition of plasma and erythrocytes in mother-child pairs at birth, focussing on total tFA and individual trans C18:1 such as t9 and t11 with special regard to dairy fat intake.
-Total trans fatty acids in maternal and fetal blood lipids
In the present study, total tFA concentrations in maternal and fetal lipids were about 0.5 to 0.8% of FAME, with generally higher levels in maternal and plasma lipids compared to fetal and erythrocyte lipids, respectively. In several recently published European studies, values for total tFA in maternal and fetal erythrocytes and plasma lipids range from 0.08% to 0.45% in phospholipids and up to 2.74% in the other lipid fractions, however, with higher tFA values in maternal than in fetal lipids [13,19,20,35]. Nevertheless, comparison of data for total tFA is difficult since percentages of single fatty acids may vary according to the analysed plasma fractions (phospholipids vs. total lipids; ) and the applied method of analysis (GC-column, varying numbers of analysed/identified fatty acids, integration parameters, management of un-identified peaks).
- trans fatty acid intake
Following a number of accounts regarding adverse health effects [6,37], the tFA, content in foods has continuously decreased over the last decades [21,38]. Recent reports estimate the mean dietary tFA intake in Germany at 2.3 g/d for men (0.8 en%) and 1.6 g/d for women (0.74 en%; ). Since tFA content varies strongly within food categories , the exact intake of tFA is difficult to calculate. Furthermore, the distribution of individual tFA isomers varies according to their origin. In dairy fat, t11 is generally the major t18:1 containing about 1.0 to 2.0% of FAME [21,40]. Thus, the present maternal mean values for low and high dairy fat intake were approximately 27.1 and 56.3 g/d, which were estimated as corresponding to about 0.3 to 0.6 g t11/d, respectively (Table 2). This assessment is in line with recent data regarding the average t11 intake . In contrast, the t9 intake in the age group 30 ± 5 years of the present study population was found to be about twice as high as the t11 intake  resulting in a mean dietary t9/t11-index of about 2.
-Individual trans fatty acids in blood lipids
Hardly any data are available in the literature concerning individual trans C18:1 such as t11 and t9 in maternal and/or fetal blood lipids. The present proportions of t9 and t11 were similar in maternal blood lipids (Pmat 0.12 vs. 0.10). Whereas t9 in fetal blood lipids tended to be lower compared to maternal lipids, t11 was only half the value of maternal t11 (Pmat 0.10 vs. Pfet 0.05; Table 3). This resulted in fetal t9/t11-indices being twice as high as maternal indices (Table 3, 5).
A general positive correlation of t11, but not of t9 was seen between maternal and fetal plasma (Table 3 Figure 1). However, fetal t11 was about the half that of t9 (Table 3). This low value could indicate differences in materno-fetal transfer as well as metabolism (oxidation, conversion, incorporation) of both individual trans isomers t9 and t11, as has been observed in rat hepatocytes [41,42].
-Conjugated linoleic acids in the diet and blood lipids
Dairy fat contains CLA (mainly c9,t11 CLA), which is formed by Δ9-desaturation of t11 . In dairy fat and human breast milk, t11 was generally higher compared to c9,t11 CLA, whilst the ratio ranged from 4:1 to 2:1 [31,43,44].
In the present study, irrespective of dairy fat intake, t11 was lower compared to c9,t11 CLA in lipids of maternal and fetal plasma (1:2; Table 3) probably reflecting the conversion of t11 to c9,t11 CLA by Δ9-desaturase and/or its preferred oxidation . In contrast, the ratio of t11 to c9,t11 CLA in erythrocyte lipids was about 1:1, since maternal and fetal c9,t11 CLA was lower compared to their levels in plasma, in accordance with data described by Mueller et al . This aspect may be caused by a higher incorporation of CLA into neutral lipids than into phospholipids, the major lipid fraction in erythrocytes . Further, our results confirmed that maternal c9,t11 CLA (dietary and of endogenous origin) was positively correlated to fetal c9,t11 CLA (Table 3) .
-Impact of high dairy fat intake on composition of fatty acids in blood lipids
The present results clearly showed an association between ruminant fat consumption and fatty acid distribution of human lipids. A high dairy fat intake in mothers (> 40 g/d) resulted in increased c9,t11 CLA and total tFA, especially t11 in blood lipids. Moreover, the raised t11 concentrations resulted in a decreased maternal t9/t11-index (Table 5).
In breast milk of mothers with comparably high consumption of dairy fat (> 40 g/d), elevated t11 and c9,t11 CLA and a decreased t9/t11-index were also observed [30,44]. The increase in the milk specific fatty acids C15:0 and C17:0 in maternal blood also confirmed the high dairy fat intake in the present study (Table 5). Similar results were obtained in breast milk in a former study . Interestingly, due to a maternal high dairy fat intake, only c9,t11 CLA and not t11 was elevated in the corresponding fetal blood lipids (Table 5).
However, there was a positive correlation of t11 in plasma between mother and child (not in erythrocytes, Figure 1). The t9 levels did not significantly differ and there was no correlation between maternal and fetal lipids on comparing a high and low dairy fat diet (Table 5). Although the results point to differences between t9 and t11 regarding metabolism and/or transfer, respective data are not yet available for humans.
- Trans fatty acids and long chain-PUFA in maternal and fetal blood lipids
The composition of maternal dietary fat and body fat depot [14,35] strongly accounts for the fatty acid composition in fetal tissue. However, the increased amounts of n-6 LC-PUFA (AA, DPA) and n-3 LC-PUFA (DPA, DHA) in fetal plasma and erythrocytes compared to maternal lipids observed in the present and former studies is physiologically consistent and attributed to the special requirements of the fetus (Table 3) [46,47]. Further, a wide range of fatty acid transporters and binding proteins in the placenta determines the enrichment of these LC-PUFA [11,12].
Several publications show an inverse association between total tFA and both n-6 (e.g. AA) as well as n-3 LC-PUFA (e.g. DHA) in blood lipids. However, since these data only deal with either maternal or fetal blood lipids and not with their interaction as well as different lipid fractions were used, comparison is difficult [18,20]. In the present study, total tFA were also inversely associated with the sum of n-6, but not n-3 LC-PUFA within the same blood fraction (partly significant; Table 4(A)). Regarding n-3 LC-PUFA in fetal plasma, a negative correlation was only found for t9, but not for t11 (Table 4(A). This result might be of relevance, since n-3 have been shown to extend anti-inflammatory effects .
Concerning the relationship between maternal and fetal lipids, the current study data showed a positive correlation of t11 to n-3 LC-PUFA, however, the result was only significant in erythrocytes (Table 4(B)). This effect could be associated with a higher dairy fat intake, since n-3 LC-PUFA (EPA, DPA, DHA) were significantly elevated in the respective fetal plasma (Table 5). Some studies have revealed the ability of tFA to inhibit several enzymes involved in LC-PUFA synthesis but without distinguishing between industrial and ruminant tFA [48,49]. However, there is little data regarding the impact of tFA on placental fatty acid transporters showing that t9 may inhibit binding of PUFA at placental membranes .
Differences between t9 and t11 indicated herein might be the result of isomer-specific influences on transcription factors (such as PPARs) involved in the expression of placental transport proteins [51,52]. From cellular and animal models, there is evidence that t9 inhibits  and t11 activates  PPAR expression. Thus, differences in PPAR activation by t9 and t11 could interfere with the cellular uptake of LC-PUFA into the placenta [55,56].
We analysed for the first time individual isomers of trans C18:1 in blood lipids of mother-child pairs at birth and found differences between t9 and t11.
In fetal lipids, t11 accumulation was only half that of t9, probably due to t11 conversion to c9,t11 CLA. In general, total tFA, including t9 and t11, were higher in maternal than in fetal lipids. The present results also demonstrated that maternal high dairy fat intake led to increased t11 and c9,t11 CLA in the blood lipids. However, t11 was not increased in the respective fetal lipids. In addition, the essential n-3 LC-PUFA were elevated in fetal blood lipids.
Thus, tFA have to be distinguished according to their origin (ruminant or industrial) to separately investigate their possible influence on fetal development and human health.
AA: arachidonic acid; CLA: conjugated linoleic acids; DHA: docosahexaenoic acid; DPA: docosapentaenoic acid; en%: energy %; Emat and Efet: maternal and fetal erythrocytes; EPA: eicosapentaenoic acid; FAME: fatty acid methyl esters; MUFA: monounsaturated fatty acids; n-3 and n-6 LC-PUFA: omega-3 and omega-6 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids; Pmat and Pfet: maternal and fetal plasma; SFA: saturated fatty acids; tFA: trans fatty acids; t9: trans-9 C18:1 (elaidic acid); t11: trans-11 C18:1 (vaccenic acid).
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
UE, LS, GJ, and ES designed the study, UE and LS collected the samples. AJ and KK performed fatty acid analysis. UE performed the Prodi evaluation and the statistical analyses. UE, KK and AJ wrote the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
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Looking at the history of public sculpture, at its best, one notes that, until the modern period, it was largely realistic. Whether a portrait of a person or a generalization of a type, it was invariably a representation of a human being, body and soul seamlessly together. Ekkehard and Uta (c. 1250–60), standing upright on the Naumburg Cathedral, are regal but also highly individual, as their expressively alert faces indicate. They are very particular people, dignified by office but also seemingly noble by nature, as their demeanor suggests. Their eyes are open, inviting us to look into their souls. We recognize ourselves in them, however different our social station—our own humanity, for the contrast between the sturdy Ekkehard, a warrior, as his sword makes clear, and Uta, lovely and modest, bespeaks the extremes of human nature. They are the archetypal couple of Mars and Venus, if in post-classical Germanic form. They are ideal types realistically rendered and real people idealized.
The same can be said of Donatello’s prophet for the Orsanmichele, the so-called Zuccone (1423–25), another ideal Christian type. He is more psychologically complex, as the intense inward stare of his eyes and his grizzled, worn, oddly unwholesome face suggest. The prophet’s flesh has been mortified to expose his spirit. Loose, crumpled, toga-like drapery hangs from one shoulder, giving his wasted body a luxurious quasi-classical covering, partially hiding its very unclassical ugliness while drawing our attention to it. All but raw skin and bone, his ascetic, unsettling appearance strongly contrasts with the healthy, vigorous, tastefully dressed Ekkehard and Uta, models of masculine handsomeness and feminine beauty. The harsh realism of the prophet’s face has its precedent in Roman realistic portrait sculpture, which also used facial expression to convey extreme and complex feeling. The Romans portrayed were more worldly and outward-looking than the Zuccone, but they also had a dynamic inward life, as the fierce face of the brutal Caracalla (c. 215) makes clear. Ekkehard, Uta, the Zuccone and Caracalla were all socially prominent and influential. They stood out from the crowd, not only because of their social position but because of their individuality. They had a strong sense of self and purpose—for better, as seems the case with Ekkehard, Uta and the Zuccone; for worse, as is obviously the case with Caracalla. Perhaps more importantly, their basic humanness is made realistically evident in their portraits.
Meredith Bergmann’s public sculpture is also psychologically realistic, but the individuals she portrays—the African-American poet Countee Cullen (1995); the African-American slave and poet Phyllis Wheatley, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone and Abigail Adams, the brilliant wife of President John Adams, all in one grand installation (2003); the African-American singer Marian Anderson (2006); the labor leader Edward Cohen (2009); the slave girl Pinky (2010), and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2013)—are altogether different. They are agents of social change, and as such atypical, rather than agents of the status quo, and as such typical of their times. Ekkehard and Uta embody militant Christianity, the reigning ideology of medieval Europe, and Caracalla embodies militaristic Rome, in its heyday the dominant political power. The Zuccone renders unto Christ, and Caracalla renders unto Caesar: the inward-looking face of the Zuccone is as much an expression of his willpower and faith as the outward-looking face of Caracalla is of his. But Bergmann’s figures render neither to Christ nor Caesar, but to the revolutionary ideal of a new society in which all human beings have equal rights and are equally respected. They are democratic idealists, believers in liberty, equality and fraternity, or in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Christian and Roman figures are social conformists; Bergmann’s figures are social nonconformists. All have their integrity, but they are on opposite sides of the social divide. Ekkehard and Uta are wealthy Christian royalty, the Christian Zuccone is a spiritual aristocrat—he wants to share his spiritual wealth with the world with the hope of saving it from its sinful self—and Caracalla was an emperor. They were all, in their different ways, absolute rulers—not simply leaders, but authoritarians with absolute power. In contrast, Bergmann’s democratic Americans are so-called common men and women, or else they identify with them, as Adams and Roosevelt did. They were aristocrats by reason of their wealth, which gave them social authority and power, but they served democracy. The American Revolution was the first in a series of ongoing democratic revolutions against tyrannical authority, against brute power and ruthless absolutism. It remains unfinished: Bergmann’s figures help finish the job. They represent democracy in its stand against tyranny, whether the few “superior” aristocrats who rule over many people, or, more insidiously, the majority that sets the rules the minority must obey, and, more extremely, enforces understanding of them as “inferior.”
From its beginning, there was—and continues to be—an uneasy balance of aristocrats and democrats in America. The aristocrats have power, authority, influence and control by way of their wealth. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were wealthy men, and so were the “robber barons,” and now the so- called “ultra-rich,” all of whom, directly or indirectly, govern society and own much of its property. The democrats are “plain and simple folk,” in comparison to those smart enough to make Big Money (and sometimes patronize them with it by way of philanthropy). Roosevelt, who was born rich, and a member of the ruling class, is the exception to this rule for Bergmann: circumstance gave him a democratic conscience, not only social but personal circumstance.
Infantile paralysis struck him down in the prime of youth, humbling his body so that he could not walk unaided, whether by prosthetic devices or the help of other people. It cut him down to human size, as it were, by reducing him to child-like helplessness and dependency—and eventually led him to identify with, and support, children who suffered his fate. He knew what it was to be incapacitated—to be unable to stand and walk upright, to proudly hold himself upright (for the phenomenological psychologist Erwin Strauss, fundamental to being human). He used his presidential power to help others overcome the same disability. He turned a personally bad experience into a socially good experience—an example of theodicy in action, religionists might say. His sickness, almost unto death, demonstrated the body’s vulnerability, reminding him that all human beings had a body in common.
Thus he became a “common man,” and gave the “common man” a New Deal, the old deal having served the old aristocrats. The New Deal helped lift America out of the social adversity and suffering of the Depression, fueled by the boundless ambitions and aristocratic pretensions of the economically empowered few. It gave the common man hope, put him back on his feet, just as Roosevelt’s March of Dimes put crippled children back on their feet, giving them the hope necessary to live a fruitful life. Making the best of his personal adversity by becoming a social revolutionary—he “betrayed his [upper] class,” some said—Roosevelt lifted himself out of depression, and the despondency of living a purposeless, useless life.
Bergmann’s FDR Hope Memorial is her most poignant social installation: it integrates the public into itself. People can’t walk by the couple at the center—Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair and a child supported by leg braces and a crutch, extending a helping hand to each other—as they can with her other figures, giving them a casually appreciative glance, acknowledging their existence without understanding their raison d’être. Instead, Bergmann forces the public to participate in the FDR Hope Memorial, positioning them so that they can grasp its meaning, indeed, become its larger meaning. Sitting on the benches that form a semi-circle around Roosevelt and the child—the simple geometrical benches echo the shape of his larger and higher desk—they identify with him, however unconsciously, if also idolizing him, that is, looking up to him. He has a hypnotic presence, as all of Bergmann’s figures do, for he is fixed forever in a kindly act.
Bergmann has made goodness more engaging than badness usually is. There is a quiet excitement to Bergmann’s installation, with its emotionally harmonious if physically discrepant figures—unlike because they are adult and child, and because the child is upright and the adult seated, but alike because neither is resigned to his position and illness. Roosevelt has, in effect, invested his hope in the public, as the handicapped and Americans once invested their hope in him. The large area of the installation—it’s much larger than the Boston Women’s Memorial, which is part of a park space rather than a space apart, and on a pathway in the park, and thus not as hermetically self-contained as the FDR Hope Memorial—is what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls “an area of concern.” Concern, for society and individuals, is central to Bergmann’s art.
Ekkehard, Uta and the Zuccone believed in the Christian dream of salva- tion, Caracalla believed in the Roman dream of absolute power, but Cullen, Wheatley, Stone, Adams, Anderson, Cohen, Pinky and even Roosevelt were not believers in the American Dream—George Carlin said “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”—or at least not the whole Dream. As James Truslow Adams said, it had two conflicting parts, one idealistic, the other materialistic. It was “a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Less nobly, it was “a dream of motor cars and higher wages”—a dream that came to involve, as William James famously said, “exclusive worship of the bitch goddess success...with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success.” James called it America’s “national disease.” Bergmann’s figures were successful idealists: they were “able to attain to the fullest stature of which they [were] innately capable,” always against great odds, always overcoming some handicap—having a black skin or being a woman, socially defined rather than physically inflicted handicaps—and finally achieve the recognition they deserve, the recognition Bergmann accords them in her portraits.
No “cash interpretation” of success for them, but a human interpretation, their success suggesting that the United States is a humane society despite itself—despite the racism and sexism that were once accepted (and still exist, if not always as openly). Inhumanity is not unique to the United States, but Bergmann’s figures, heroicized to confirm their human greatness, suggest that it can change for the better. It needs a few determined individuals, that is, individuals capable of overcoming the adversity of prejudice by transforming themselves and transforming society by showing it a “better way” to be human. All of them have as strong a sense of self as Ekkehard, Uta, the Zuccone and Caracalla—perhaps even stronger, since they had to overcome adversity to empower themselves. But they enlist themselves in the cause of revolutionary social change rather than elevate themselves at the expense of society as a whole.
Bergmann’s sculpture is a social activist art that uses classicizing means to make its realistic point. The figures she represents are individualists who made a historical difference. She consummately realizes them, both by way of her extraordinary attention to detail—perhaps most conspicuously evident in the hands that “hold” her Urn (2006)—and the larger-than-life authority of many of her figures. However life-size they may be, she gives them a kind of transcendental grandeur that confirms that they transcended the social conditions into which they were born. The sturdiness and solidity of her figures—even Roosevelt and the child seem hardy, however handicapped—and the sense of pent-up force concentrated in them suggest their strength of character, giving them the ability to survive and hold their own and make them all the more uncannily present—like a persisting memory. For public sculpture is permanent social memory, which must be brought to subjective life if it is to have contemporary influence and meaning.
Bergmann’s realistic memorial sculpture is at odds with abstract memorial sculpture, most notably two Holocaust Memorials, one in Berlin, one in Washington, D.C. The Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman with the aid of the engineer Buro Happold. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs—so-called “stelae”—arranged in a grid pattern on 19,000 square meters of sloping field. However heavy and numerous the stelae, which are set in place like traditional statues, the work is essentially a Minimalist grid in the so-called “extended field.” It spreads through space, seemingly endlessly and dramatically, however limited in size its modular stelae. It is an environment unto itself, ironically natural, even a kind of earthwork, however cut into geometrical shape the stone, and however much it exists in an urban environment. (As does Carl Andre’s Field Sculpture, 1977, in Hartford, Connecticut, however much it uses raw glacial boulders rather than refined and quarried stone, covers a much smaller area and has a somewhat different, less ambitious social meaning.)
Started in 2003 and finished in 2005, Eisenman’s work is one block south of the Brandenburg Gate. It is slightly below street level, suggesting that the earth has settled beneath its weight. Moving through it is a claustrophobic, depressing experience. One is, in effect, in a graveyard: a stele was used as a grave or site marker by the ancient Greeks. It is as much the graveyard of those who died during the destruction of Berlin, almost completely leveled by the Russian Army as it advanced into Nazi Germany, as of the European Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. It may, unwittingly—or perhaps not unwittingly—be a memorial to the Nazi dead as well as the Jewish dead, which narrows its meaning. It is, after all, at the political center of Germany, not in Poland, which is where most of the Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, as perhaps it ought to be, unless one thinks an abandoned death camp is enough of a memorial. If we regard the Brandenburg Gate as part of Eisenman’s sculpture, as it readily seems to be, whether we look north toward it, over the field of stelae (which resemble headstones fallen over), or from its heights down at the work—it rises vertically above the sculpture’s horizontal flatness, conceptually completing it by confirming that it is a geometrical construction—then its theme seems to be the death and resurrection of Germany, that is, the death of totalitarian Nazi Germany and the resurrection of new democratic Germany. The Brandenburg Gate, after all, celebrates a triumphant Germany.
The Washington Holocaust Memorial, Joel Shapiro’s Loss and Regeneration (1993), is less oppressive and spatially ambitious. It has a statuesque autonomy. It is large, even grand, but fixed in place on a small spot of solid ground, rather than occupying a huge plot of barren land, as Eisenman’s memorial does. It is a version of one of Shapiro’s so-called abstract figures—a geometrical construction that has an uncanny resemblance to a human figure, usually precariously balanced. One is unable to determine whether it is falling over or righting itself. It is upright but tilted, its limbs at odds, its body black as death, for it is a memorial to the children who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It stands alone, a singular symbol of suffering, a tragic figure guarding the entrance to the Holocaust Museum. Shapiro’s abstract figure seems to be struggling to live: his sculpture is not a grave marker but a ghostly person refusing to die in a mass grave. Shapiro’s Jewish child actively resists death, rather than passively succumbs to it, as Eisenman’s inert slabs suggest the Jews did. Shapiro’s figure has personality—it is certainly more intricate, and thus more individual than Eisenman’s stelae. They completely depersonalize, not to say dehumanize the Jews, perhaps because they are already dead and anonymous in his mass grave. Their regeneration is impossible—story closed, death is final—unlike Germany’s, as the restored Brandenburg Gate makes clear.
Eisenman claims that his stelae are not symbols, suggesting that they are simply what has been called “concrete sculpture,” that is, purely formal-material constructions. But that would make his memorial socially meaningless, however meaningful as so-called pure art. The title would be beside the point, a “conceptual additive” on the emperor’s materially naked formal body. Shapiro’s terse sculpture can be read the same way, however much it alludes to a dramatic figure. He also wants it both ways: he wants to make a social statement and an art statement in one—reconcile pure art and social reality, make a work that is responsible to both, that “remembers” both. But unless one takes the title seriously, his sculpture is only another art statement, struggling to reconcile the familiar opposites of abstraction and representation.
Shapiro’s work has an evocative title, although it could apply to the human condition in general, and is accompanied by a text, a short poem by a nameless child who died in the Terezin ghetto. This “conceptual additive” affirms its social meaning and marks it as Jewish, as does its placement in front of the Jewish Holocaust Museum, but both are superficial labeling on a sculpture that is quintessentially abstract. Shapiro’s work is Jewish in name, not in substance—the figure can be read as anyone. A figure with a skullcap and even a prayer shawl and phylacteries, like Chagall’s Rabbi (1927), or his 1935 depiction of the crucified Christ wearing them, would make the Jewish point absolutely clear. Similarly, without the list of all the known Holocaust victims—another “conceptualizing” text, adding a meaning that is not inherent in the work— “buried” in an underground chamber (“Place of Information”) beneath the field of stelae, Eisenman’s work is another abstract construction, more formally and materially grandiose and perhaps interesting than many but still “just art.” Or maybe it’s just another graveyard, where anybody and everybody is buried, as its anonymous character suggests. Or is it a burial ground for Minimalist art?
Even without their titles and location, Eisenman’s work seems to evoke death, and Shapiro’s work seems to suggest suffering. Human beings are susceptible to suggestion, finding human meaning where there may be none, and abstract art plays on our susceptibility to suggestion, the unconscious ease and readiness with which we invest ourselves in anything, transfer our feelings even to unfeeling objects, when encouraged to do so by a name, title or interpretive theory. Titles are names, but they are also theories, for they suggest meanings by interpreting things. Without their titles, both lose their Jewish meaning, and with that can no longer be said to be true to the social reality they claim to “reference” and memorialize. It is worth emphasizing that both are Minimalist constructions, if in different styles, and that Minimalists follow Mies van der Rohe’s belief that “less is more,” but their sculptures suggest that it may not be enough to convey serious, devastating social meaning, only token personal meaning.
The question is whether abstract sculpture, such as Eisenman’s and Shapiro’s, or representational sculpture, such as Bergmann’s, serves the public better—serves social memory and conscience better? Does it make more sense to deal with a social victim in abstract or in representational terms? Which makes the social point while scoring artistic points? Is abstract sculpture equal to social tragedy? For Bergmann’s figures are tragic heroes, in the sense that they have experienced much suffering to realize their human potential, to come into their own as human beings, indeed, to be recognized as the social equals of the human beings who despised and persecuted them. There is nothing inherent in pure abstraction that gives it social meaning. It needs a symbolic overlay, as Vladimir Tatlin made clear in his proposed Monument to the Third International (1919–20). What is important about this work is not its title but the social use it was meant for: it was to be the propaganda center for the Communist Third International, devoted to world revolution and the establishing of Communism in every society. Without the symbolism, the work is just another abstract sculpture with architectural pretensions—and a Minimalist one at that.
The question of which serves idealistic social revolution—and Bergmann’s figures are idealistic social revolutionaries—better, which makes the social point more clearly, abstraction or representation, haunts all memorial sculpture. It is an especially crucial question when art deals with social catastrophe, which is not just an abstract concept or “idea” in some artist’s head, but involves real persons. Clearly, the Holocaust did. Bergmann deals with social catastrophe in the allegorical Memorial to September 11th (2012), which addresses the destruction of the Twin Towers by aircraft as bombs, and in the allegorical Torso (2006), a suicide bomber. Both works integrate classical figures and modern machines to ironical effect. I suggest that the former is feminist in import, all the more so because the phallic airplanes were piloted by men, along with the latter, which shows a male figure, already half destroyed, in the process of completely destroying itself. Both works accord well with Bergmann’s Boston Women’s Memorial, a major feminist monument, all the more so because it depicts actual, socially active women. Contrast that humanism with the expressionistically exaggerated vaginas in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), where the “conceptual additive” of names gives them a certain historical specificity and quasi-individuality while generalizing them into per- sonal and social oblivion.
No doubt abstraction can be evocative and suggestive—we associate to it despite all its efforts to purify art, reduce it to its formal-material basics, the more austerely fundamental (“minimal”) the better, but the result can be a loss of convincing meaning, personal as well as socially serious meaning, and, more insidiously, of aesthetic effect and expressive depth. It does not necessarily heighten perception, but can trivialize it—reduce it to a few shallow “essentials,” de-existentializing it. Social reality is existential reality. By themselves, the formal fundamentals and material medium are the letter of art without the spirit. Symbolism, when it springs from the subject matter, instantly conveying the latent meaning of the manifest content of the art, gives it more representational and projective power, and with that expressive impact, showing that it is much more than the sum of its descriptive details or the result of the deft manipulation of form and material—more than an illusion or an abstraction, however much it must be both at once to be seriously artistic and aesthetically engaging.
Bergmann writes: “my intention is the opposite of Jasper Johns, when he painted flags and maps; I want to take an image that has been stripped of narrative, character and any human particulars”—and thus lost its meaning, having been reduced to a sign of pure art, that is, a strictly material form—“and make it back into a symbol,” thus restoring its existential significance and spiritual meaning. Johns was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “spirit of negation,” as he himself acknowledged, and his splashy, irreverent, nihilistic treatment of the flag and map of the United States may be his ironical and indirect way of criticizing the country they signify, giving his paintings social meaning, but otherwise they are spiritless and desolate, laying waste to art as well as the United States.
Abstraction does not always “hold” existential and spiritual meaning, or have existential and spiritual purpose, however “artistically” meaningful and purposeful—or at least intriguing—it may be. Abstraction may arouse unconscious feelings, but it does not increase our consciousness and understanding of public fact. Abstraction may be privately edifying, but it does not always enlighten the public. Bergmann’s sculptures do, that is, they remind us of enlightened individuals, finding self-fulfillment in selflessly serving the public. For Bergmann, socially realistic art is a way of doing so, especially when it is critically enlightening, as her memorable sculptures are.
American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3