Explore Real Families: Stories of Change

Aliza Nisenbaum’s portrait Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn 2018 depicting a lesbian couple and their children

Former Newnham Fellow and Professor Emerita of Family Research, Susan Golombok, explores what a family is and how family is experienced in a major new exhibition exploring the intricacies of family relationships as seen through the eyes of artists. The exhibition was developed through a collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research.

Real Families: Stories of Change focuses on art produced in the past 50 years, a period of great social and scientific change in how families are created and structured. It features more than 120 artworks by artists including Alice Neel, Nan Goldin, Chantal Joffe, Tracey Emin, Paula Rego and Lucian Freud. Alongside major UK and international loans, the exhibition also features historic works from the Fitzwilliam’s collection by artists including Joshua Reynolds, Sassoferrato and Albrecht Dürer, to reveal how family has been portrayed throughout art history. The exhibition prompts visitors to consider stereotyped beliefs about what makes a family, and the impact our families have on us.

The Guardian described the exhibition as, “An experiment in social reporting that brings together radical academic analysis of the 21st-century family with some of the boldest and most intimate modern art. Tracey Emin, Joy Labinjo and Paula Rego paint and document their lives up close while Lucian Freud sees close relations with terrifying objectivity.”

The accompanying book includes twelve illuminating essays on the theme of family by prominent writers, including our Fellow Emerita, Mary Beard, and Fellow, Claire Hughes, the Centre’s Deputy Head, as well as Olivia Laing, Jackie Kay, and Andrew Solomon. The book includes reproductions of all the artworks in the exhibition.

A highlight of the exhibition is Aliza Nisenbaum’s portrait, Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn, depicting a lesbian couple and their children (pictured above).

Susan Golombok, former Director of the Centre for Family Research, said: “I’ve been studying lesbian mother families since the mid-1970s. At that time, children were being forcibly removed from their mothers because they were in a lesbian relationship. Our research has shown that the prejudices against them were completely unfounded. I think that this is a rather lovely painting of a family relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. It sums up the findings of our research showing that lesbian mother families are no more likely to experience difficulties than any other family.”

The exhibition also looks at IVF, surrogacy and parents who are single by choice, showing how families have changed and developed in the last 50 years.

  • Real Families: Stories of Change is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, until 7 January 2024 and you can read more about this unique collaboration in an interview with Susan Golombok here.