Art, Literature, and Illness

Carlo Coppola (Italian, active ca. 1635–1672), The Pestilence of 1656. Oil on canvas, 76 × 99 cm. Museum purchase, Caroline G. Mather Fund How do artists use varying stylistic devices to narrate the experiences of illness and caregiving? When we gaze at representations of the sick, are we empathetic to the pain of others or fearful of death? How can the chronology of an illness be captured through a visual narrative? In her spring 2018 course “Literature and Medicine,” Elena Fratto, assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, took an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the role that texts play in shaping our conceptions of sickness, healing, and medical institutions.

During multiple Museum visits, more than eighty students from the class examined four works from the collections: Carlo Coppola’s The Pestilence of 1656, Gaetano Previati’s The Monatti (1895–99; an illustration for Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi, 1827), Marcus Leatherdale’s AIDS (1988), and David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger’s Untitled (1993). The first two works speak to the ravaging effects of the bubonic plague in early modern Italy, while the second two are late twentieth-century responses to the AIDS epidemic in New York. The students considered relationships between form and content as we placed the works in historical context. Reflecting on the effects of techniques and materials on a narrative, they noted that Coppola’s oil painting utilizes areas of saturated colors and illusions of depth to draw attention to the figures scattered throughout the landscape, while Previati’s watercolor and gouache drawing creates an ambiguous setting through flattened planes and subtle tonal effects. Some students found the black enveloping background and emaciated naked figure in Leatherdale’s photograph to be the most moving; others viewed Wojnarowicz’s adaptation of the graphic novel format to be a shocking overturning of their expectations. We drew parallels across the two different time periods, as both the bubonic plague and AIDS were once misunderstood and explained as punitive diseases.

Students view David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger’s Untitled (1993) in one of the Museum’s study rooms The significance of light and shadow emerged as a powerful theme in our consideration of the works, especially since the class had recently read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) and had discussed the unexpected use of light toward the end of Ilych’s life. We analyzed the relationships among the living and the dead in the works, as well as the treatment of human figures as muscular marvels or fading bodies. As illness leaves its mark on the sick, its traces are also felt by the caregivers charged with the practical task of tending to suffering bodies. The emotional weight of grieving and sorting through disordered memories is clearly communicated in Wojnarowicz’s work through the excerpted texts from his diary, which frame the disintegrating body of his dying partner. Examining such poignant works was a powerful reminder of the human impulse to narrate and interpret as means of questioning, mourning, and understanding.

When they visited the Museum, the students had already read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), a work in which Sontag exposed the myths surrounding certain illnesses such as cancer and argued that these myths often stigmatize and hinder patients from finding proper treatment. We reflected on some of the metaphors suggested by the works of art, including the battlefield of disease in Coppola’s painting and the still life of a human body in Leatherdale’s photograph. As the students would be reading Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) in the coming weeks, the works also served as a prelude to that text.

This semester Fratto and Tala Khanmalek, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, organized the Bodies of Knowledge Working Group, a series of lunchtime workshops considering such topics as artists with mental disabilities and black gay men’s sexual health. The field of medical humanities is a larger interest on campus, and this spring João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology and codirector, Program in Global Health and Health Policy, and Amy Krauss, a postdoctoral research associate in the Woodrow Wilson School, taught a class focusing on the cross-cultural significance of medicine and present-day struggles for well-being. They too visited the Museum to view works depicting illness, addiction, and victims of warfare. Many of the students in Fratto’s “Literature and Medicine” class and Biehl’s “Medical Humanities” class are preparing for medical school and will no doubt benefit from the close-looking experience of formal analysis and the study of illness narratives in the visual arts.

Marcus Leatherdale (American, born Canada, born 1952), AIDS, 1988. Gelatin silver print, 32.9 × 29.8 cm. Gift of James Kraft, Class of 1957. © Marcus Leatherdale


The visual arts have long been paramount to the medical profession as heuristic tools—consider anatomical atlases and their cartographic approach to understanding the body, or the diagnostic possibilities opened up by x-rays and MRIs that have made our bodies less opaque. Just as the style, structure, and imagery of a literary text perform the themes that the author aims to convey, the materials, techniques, and use of light and volume in paintings, photography, and collage articulate illness, health, and the human condition in unique ways that are unattainable by other media.

—Elena Fratto, Assistant Professor, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures








Veronica White
Curator of Academic Programs