Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, “A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière” (1887) (all images courtesy Saint Lucy Books)

Hysteria as a concept has been used to medicalize the agitation of females for thousands of years, with linguistic and diagnostic origins in ancient Greece (the terms comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning uterus). Interest in the condition as a cultural phenomenon peaked in the late 1800s, as a series of hospital directors at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris used the mentally ill or incarcerated populations as subjects for their psychological and photographic studies on female hysteria.

In City of Incurable Women, (Saint Lucy Books, 2022) photographer Laura Larson attempts an experiment of her own — one concerned with radical empathy. Equal parts research, prose, photographic intervention, and movement study, Larson intersperses poetic reflections and contemporary photography with found images and historic documents, in an attempt to bridge the lived experience of women, through time, within and without the institution.

“I don’t care about redemption; I want a space for recognition/I want to break a logic of dominance; I want radical empathy,” one excerpt reads. Her methods include an abbreviated retelling of Salpêtrière history, from its founding in 1656, through a bloody massacre during the French Revolution, and its reinvention as a psychiatric hospital under Phillipe Pinel. Pinel’s successor, Jean-Martin Charcot, spent his entire career at Salpêtrière, and instituted a practice of photo-documenting patients — going so far as to build a working photography studio on the grounds — and influencing the training of Sigmund Freud. Larson revisits some of the most famous “hysterics” of Charcot’s time and beyond, featuring images of Blanche “Marie” Wittman, Louise Augustine Gleizes, and Geneviève Legrand.

In taking extremely marginalized women as her subject, Larson makes use of the practice of speculative narration, wherein a contemporary artist or author elaborates on the available historic documentation of a subject, in order to humanize and understand their experience. The strongest point of connection between these yesteryear “hysterics” and their contemporary sisterhood is Jeanne Beaudon, who was hospitalized at Salpêtrière in 1882, at the age of 14. Beaudon was being treated for the condition chorea, or St. Vitus’ Dance, which is characterized by involuntary muscle movements and spasms. The hospital provided not only a respite for Beaudon from her alcoholic mother, who was grooming her daughter to follow her profession as a courtesan, but enabled the girl to find her true calling as a dancer. Beaudon changed her name to Jane Avril, and became a sensation at the Moulin Rouge, able to leverage her ensuing wealth and fame to insulate her from institutions like Salpêtrière, even as she continued to struggle with her mental health.

Adam Pérelle, “L’hopital de la Salpêtrière, La Porte de St. Bernard” (c. 1660), engraving

Her contemporary sisters also turn to dance as a means of expression and understanding, with the final section of the book presenting images taken in movement studies. Women gather in a dance studio, in pairs, in groups, alone, pressing together in odd-angled shapes, leaning or heaving, hair hanging to obscure facial features. They grimace, their hands curls. Women wander the forest, recreating daring escapes made by inmates, often seeking companionship, lost family, or simply a night on the town.

Spread from City of Incurable Women

City of Incurable Women offers no conclusions, per see — as its title indicates, there is no cure for this state, or no need of one. Perhaps, as an included excerpt from a 1928 essay written by Surrealists on the subject suggests: “Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon and can, in all respects, be considered as a supreme means of expression.”

City of Incurable Women by Laura Larson (2022) is published by Saint Lucy Books and is available online. 

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....