I recently had the pleasure of having a precept in the art museum as part of my SLA/HUM/COM 368: Literature and Medicine class. As the name of the class suggests, the curriculum of this medical humanities class is strongly grounded in literature. However, this precept made me realize that medical narratives can also be conveyed in a different way through images. Guided by Veronica White, Curator of Academic Programs, we embarked on a trip into two pairings of artworks, one pair dealing with the plague, and another pair dealing with the AIDS crisis.
The first pairing was between two Italian artists’ depictions of the plague. Carlo Coppola’s The Pestilence of 1656 is a mid 17th century oil-on-canvas depiction of bodies strewn over a landscape. The Pestilence of 1656 created an interesting juxtaposition with The Monatti, illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, a late 1890s watercolor with white gouache by Gaetano Previati. Though these artworks were created two centuries apart, they carry a similar message of the harsh reality of death.
Death is communicated through imagery of emaciated, vulnerable, and contorted dead bodies. In Coppola’s painting, the open landscape and wartime imagery was reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a text in which we grounded our understanding of medical literature since the first week of classes. However, the painting does not look nearly as grotesque as Previati’s drawing. The closed alleyway traps the viewer, and the light and shadow highlight the deformed, dead body. The entrapment I feel in looking at this drawing reminds me of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, where the titular character Ivan Ilych spends hours trapped in his room with “It”, or death, something that he is trying to come to terms with.
Tolstoy’s novella also suggests that death casts light on the rest of life, and indeed, imagery of light and death within medical narratives still exist in modern times in depictions of the AIDS crisis. Marcus Leatherdale’s AIDS, 1988 is a Gelatin silver print depicting a naked man sitting on a chair. Leatherdale’s print can be seen as both accentuating the human as it is minimal as well as dehumanizing, as the figure has been stripped bare and is hard to distinguish from the black background. The body in AIDS, 1988 can be seen as a canvas on which disease leaves its inscriptions, in this case, the figure provides the only light in the painting, perhaps illustrating illness as an illuminating factor of life, as in Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman, in which moonlight helps as an enlightening factor for the insane narrator.
Light and dark is not as evident in untitled, a 1993 screen print with illustrations by James Romberger and text from David Wojnarowicz. Instead, this print screams both passion and grotesqueness at the same time. The bold colors and words draw in a viewer’s attention and brings light to the difference between disease and illness. Arthur Kleinman describes this distinction in his The Illness Narratives, stating that illness refers to how the sick person and the members of the family or wider social network perceive, live with, and respond to symptoms and disability, whereas disease is the problem form the doctor’s perspective. This painting very much depicts illness rather than disease, and it serves well in leading the viewer to question what can be done about social stigma against AIDS.
The journey to narrow down the objects to these four was a long and difficult one. I spoke with Veronica regarding the artwork selection in January, when the object package for the class had 13 works. Among them were biting criticisms of the state of medicine in Europe, religious scenes of healing, and works dealing with the patient-doctor relationship. While the Princeton University Art Museum does not have large-scale, direct depictions of medicine such as Thomas Eakins’ 1875 painting The Gross Clinic, on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this precept made me realize that medicine is present in art where one would not expect it. Although none of these four works specifically illustrate medicine, they illustrate the fear, stigma, empathy, and visceral reactions to sick bodies that are absent when reading literature about medicine. To me, the comparisons are reminiscent of a quote from an autobiography that we read in class, Nawal el Saadawi’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, “Medicine only heals. Art heals and creates.”