Visualising Illness, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck University

Article text
AA Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994
Drawing on the varied perspectives of artists, art historians, curators, art therapists, clinicians and social scientists, this Wellcome-funded project looked at contemporary artworks that emerge from first-person encounters with illness. These might be self-representations, or works produced by an artist or photographer working in close collaboration with the ill person. What is at stake, we ask, in reading these visual artefacts as subjective expressions of pain and suffering – or of humour, resilience or hope?

The project aimed to establish a network of artists, clinicians and researchers interested in exploring the following questions:
  • What is distinctive about the visual image as a means of communicating the experience of illness? Do visual expressions of illness differ from literary ones, or are there themes and structures common to both?
  • To what extent do contemporary visual expressions of illness draw on traditional iconographies of pain and suffering? What is the influence of (for example) representations of the Passion in religious art, or of the Romantic tradition of the ‘suffering’ artist
  • How might art historians respond productively to works produced in a therapeutic context that are not considered to be aesthetically ‘interesting’?
  • What are the ethical issues associated with exhibiting expressive portrayals of illness? How should this kind of material be displayed, and in what contexts?

Project webpage
Review by Jac Saorsa