On Thursday, November 14, Veronica White, Curator of Academic Programs, and I led a tour of the art museum’s exhibit States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing for my class MOL 460: Diseases in Children. The professor of MOL 460, Daniel Notterman, contributed to the exhibition. On view until February 2, 2020, States of Health illustrates the concepts of illness and healing, in concrete form through art. We were joined by Eric Avery, whose linoleum block prints Emerging Infectious Diseases and Paradise Lost are in the exhibit.
States of Health gave me the opportunity to engage with some objects a second time, as my class SLA 368: Literature and Medicine visited the museum in a similar fashion in Spring 2018.
Because our class focuses on children, and Professor Notterman is a pediatrician by training, Veronica and I primarily focused on pieces relating to children and childbirth.
Edvard Munch was a Norweigian painter, active from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. Munch was part of the Expressionist movement, which originated in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The goal of the Expressionists was to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.
Munch was often ill for most of his winters growing up, and his family was surrounded by illness and death as well. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 5 years old, and his elder sister Sophie died of tuberculosis when he was a teenager. One of Munch’s younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age, and became institutionalized. Munch’s only brother died of pneumonia at age 30. Munch once said “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity.” — he also had tuberculosis.
This lithograph, Death in the Sickroom, was drawn from memory. It was printed in 1896 and depicts his family around the deathbed of his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. His sisters Ingrid and Laura are in the foreground, his father and aunt are in the background, his brother is on the left, and he himself is staring into the center. His sister Sophie is seated in a wicker chair, her back towards us.
The mortality rate for infectious diseases like tuberculosis had reached a catastrophic point in northern Europe by the 1890s, and deathbed family portraits were not uncommon in Scandinavian households.
I once read of Munch’s art being called both brutal and refined. You can see that in this depiction of the sickroom – it is haunting and morbid. Though the entire family is present, it still seems lonely, you can feel their silent grief. The death is palpable throughout the image. This lithograph is relevant to what we’ve learned in class about how illness, especially illness in children, affects other family members.
I would like to compare and contrast the narratives behind these two pieces – Mary Berridge’s Patricia and Dawn and Friends from the series “A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living with HIV”, printed in 1996, and Marcus Leatherdale’s AIDS, printed in 1988.
For historical context of the AIDS epidemic, Ronald Reagan was president from 1981-1989, and scholars have argued that his presidency was marred by homophobia which prevented the HIV/AIDS movement from gaining more traction. At first, the CDC called this infection GRIDS, or gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome. It was not until the 1990s where AIDS activism started and the first antiretroviral treatments for AIDS came out. By 1995, complications from AIDS were the leading cause of death for adults 25 to 44 years old. About 50,000 Americans died of AIDS-related causes. African-Americans made up 49 percent of AIDS-related deaths. But death rates began to decline after multidrug therapy became available in 1996 and 1997. The number of deaths has since dropped from 38,780 in 1996 to 14,499 in 2000.
Leatherdale is best known for his work from the 1980s, during the Reagan presidency, in which he photographed celebrities only to conceal their faces in shadow. This photograph is of Stephen Reichard, one of the co-founders and directors of Art Against AIDS. Art Against AIDS is an important effort on the part of the visual-arts community to raise awareness and funds for the fight against AIDS that was founded at the worst of the epidemic.
Leatherdale frames the narrative of the photo by body position and composition. He poses Reichard’s emaciated body alone, in dramatic lighting. This image evokes the dignity of the subject. The late-stage disease is highlighted by raking light that reveals the lesions on his face. Reichard died at age thirty-nine, only a few months after this image was taken. It’s also interesting how this picture is a still life, yet is so emotionally moving. The black enveloping background adds a sense of doom to the photograph. The photograph is perfectly summed up by Professor Notterman’s quote next to the exhibit, “In this man in the last stage of his disease I see many of my friends and many of my patients. In 1983, I was working at Bellevue Hospital, an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. So many people: babies, and men and women in their prime! A trickle and then a torrent. For the first months that they knew, people were worried, even frantic about their stigmata. Then resigned, as their flesh melted, and their lungs filled, and their skin was riddled with tumors. Finally, this last stage, the stage of cachexia and for some, as this man, an expression of ineluctable sadness, a holding on to himself.”
For those who have taken GHP 350: Critical Perspectives in Global Health, compare this image to the mental model you have from Professor Joao Biehl’s book Will to Live. In the majority of the photographs in Biehl’s book, the photographer asked them how they would like to be pictured, so there were people covering their faces, people in the nude to show off how the disease had affected their bodies, and so on. Leatherdale’s work is very unlike those pictures in GHP 350 because he deliberately poses Reichard to evoke dignity and shows how AIDS took the lives of an entire generation.
Leatherdale’s photo does not have to do much with diseases in children, so I want to compare Leatherdale’s photo with Mary Berridge’s Patricia and Dawn and Friends from the series ” A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living with HIV”. This work was published in book form in 1997, though the picture was taken earlier in 1996. In this picture, we can evidently see the public’s changed perception of HIV/AIDS. The way the woman is depicted is distinctly more human; she has an upturned and affectionate gaze. Berridge’s work often focuses on individuals finding meaning under difficult circumstances.
The series which features this photograph was first published in book form in 1997, just as the first treatments that led to longer survival for many people living with HIV were being introduced. The blurred presence of three naked children against the clothed adult figure’s grounded solidity, along with the woman’s upturned and affectionate gaze, gives the work narrative qualities typical of Berridge’s work. In this photo, the relationship between adult and children is intentionally ambiguous, just as the fates awaiting the figures also remain unclear.
Prayer Piece, by Deborah Bell, a white South African artist, is a recent acquisition of the museum and a gift from Princeton in Africa. Bell layers objects from diverse African cultures (Zulu, Dogon, and Fang) in this work to specifically address South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The eclectic imagery reflects Bell’s self-described interest in pan-continental identity and “Africanness.”
The red AIDS ribbon dangling from a safety pin at upper left evokes the beaded handicrafts made by people living with HIV/AIDS who are employed by South African nonprofits. The Zulu milk vessel (ithunga) at right is, in the artist’s words, “full to the brim—symbolic of health, fertility, and nourishment.” At left, a figure from Gabon once topped a container filled with the relics of Fang ancestors. And at center, the Dogon-inspired mother and child figures may allude to the disease’s burden on these demographics. In Dogon culture, such figures would have been accompanied by prayers for safe pregnancies.
I greatly enjoyed talking about these works to my classmates in MOL 460. I am hopeful that other classes in the sciences and engineering can utilize the museum as a complement to what has been learned in class.