Art

Artists Help Us to Gain a Deeper Understanding of Death and Healing

From Albrecht Dürer to LaToya Ruby Frazier, artists have for centuries depicted and reflected on health and illness.

Eric Avery, “Emerging Infectious Diseases” (2000), linoleum block print over lithograph (Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library © Eric Avery)

PRINCETON, New Jersey — Lately, I’ve been starting my days with the daily e-mails of a neighbor, his meditations on coping with cancer and addiction, as well as the YouTube videos of a friend accepting the end of her life without intervention. “Cancer is nature’s way of taking care of my body,” writes my friend, who founded a program that treats addiction and other issues with a plant-based diet.

As we assume a greater role in the management and acceptance of our illnesses and dying, the emerging field of medical humanities is informing conversations around health crises. The Princeton University Art Museum has jumped into the fray with States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing.

An engaging selection of works by Leonora Carrington, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Gordon Parks, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Albrecht Dürer, and others come together to illuminate illness and healing in art. Experts in infectious diseases, disability, literature, medicine, contagion, psychology, and creative writing weigh in, in the form of short essays on the walls, responding to the 80 objects from antiquity to present day.

The exhibition explores the different ways ailments — such as the bubonic plague, mental illness, and the AIDS crisis — have been addressed. Molecular biology professor Bonnie L. Bassler, in her essay, points out that the “causes of disease do their work at the atomic and microscopic scales,” and we use words like witchcraft, the plague, consumption, dropsy to describe their power.

Of Marcus Leatherdale’s black-and-white photograph of a seated man whose flesh has been whittled by AIDS, Daniel A. Notterman — also in the department of molecular biology — writes, “In this man in the last stage of his disease I see many of my friends and many of my patients.” Dr. Notterman had worked at Bellevue Hospital in 1983, then the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, where he saw people in the prime of their lives — babies, even — go through the stages of frantic fear of the wasting of their bodies to “an ineluctable sadness.”

Marcus Leatherdale, “AIDS” (1988), gelatin silver print (Princeton University Art Museum, gift of James Kraft, Class of 1957, © Marcus Leatherdale)

We see healers ranging from Christ, Guanyin, and Imhotep to the country doctor, a New York City druggist, and a nurse-midwife. Treatment implements range from an herbalist’s iron staff by a Yoruba artist from Nigeria, with crane-like birds on its prongs, to a Maiolica apothecary jar for an herbal anti-inflammatory. We learn that unequal access to healthcare is nothing new, and if global conditions such as climate change go unchecked, diseases like malaria, syphilis, SARS, and measles will metastasize globally.

Yorùbá artist, “Twin commemorative figures (ere ibeji) with tunic” (late 19th–early 20th century), wood, tukula, metal, glass beads, cotton, abrus seeds, and leather (museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund, photo by Bruce M. White)

This sprawling exhibition is organized according to four themes: “Confronting Contagion”; “States of Mind”; “Worlds of Care”; and “Birthing Narratives,” but I found myself more drawn by how the artists incorporated their personal narratives of illness than by the exhibition’s overall didactic structure.

Long before YouTube and e-mail, death bed portraits were a way of portraying life’s final passage. In Edvard Munch’s 1886 lithograph, “Death in the Sick Room,” the artist’s entire family gathers around his sister’s bed after she succumbs to tuberculosis. Munch’s mother, too, lost her life to the disease; his brother died of pneumonia at age 30, another sister was institutionalized for mental illness, and Munch suffered his own battles with the spirits.

“I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies — the heritage of consumption and insanity — illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle,” Munch wrote in an undated private journal.

Installation view of States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing at the Princeton University Art Museum (image courtesy the Princeton University Art Museum)

Jackson Pollock also suffered from variations of mood and alcoholism. Two works in this exhibition were originally submitted to his psychiatrist. Pollock’s wife, the artist Lee Krasner, sued the psychiatrist for making a profit off of private material. She lost, but the exhibition curators, Veronica White and Laura Giles, highlight the questions of ownership and privacy, “as well as the public display of art created for therapeutic reasons.”

The English-born Mexico-based artist Leonora Carrington was hospitalized for mental illness after her lover, German Surrealist Max Ernst, was imprisoned when the two were living in France. Carrington’s color lithograph “Crookhey Hall” depicts the Gothic Revival mansion she was raised in by her very wealthy, but controlling, family. It could be said that Crookhey Hall is where the roots of her psychic distress formed. The curators posit that the turreted edifice also carries associations with the mental asylum in Santander, Spain, to which Carrington was committed after her 1940 breakdown.

Leonora Carrington, “Crookhey Hall” (1987), color lithograph (Gift of David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958. © Leonora
Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Among the more poignant works in a show filled with heart breakers is MacArthur Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test)” (2011). Frazier has documented hope and despair among working class families in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a once-thriving steel town. This diptych of gelatin silver prints is not easy to look at — the flesh on the back of a figure, hooked up to monitors, is visible through her parted hospital gown, and in the image on the right are the ruins of a building. The woman in the printed hospital gown is Frazier’s mother, receiving treatment for epilepsy, and the ruined building is the UPMC Braddock Hospital, demolished in 2011. This facility, vital to the predominantly African American community, many of whom suffered from environmental toxins related to the steel mill, was replaced by one in an affluent Pittsburgh suburb. While documenting this inequity, Frazier said she felt the ground tremble like a convulsion similar to the seizures her mother suffered.

As politicians debate the nuances of healthcare policies, and hospitals treating the neediest are closing, I’m reminded daily that confronting disease and dying isn’t easy, as I reluctantly open my neighbor’s latest e-mail or view my friend’s most recent video.

So, then, why would we want to immerse ourselves in an exhibition focused on disease? “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology,” Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. “In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”

My neighbor quotes the writer Muriel Spark, in her 1959 novel Memento Mori: “Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.” Spark also wrote, “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.”

States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing continues at the Princeton University Art Museum (Elm Dr, Princeton, New Jersey) through February 2. The exhibition was curated by Veronica White and Laura Giles.

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