Exhibition | States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing
How have artists given the concept of disease, and the more personal experience of illness, concrete form through art? In gazing at representations of the sick, are we empathetic to the pain of others? How can objects speak to inequities in accessing care, and alternatively, how can they give a voice to the sick? States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing draws on the Princeton University Art Museum’s collections, as well as the holdings of Firestone Library, to address and frame questions of illness, suffering, care, and healing as expressed in the global visual arts from antiquity to the present. The works are organized into four thematic groupings—“Confronting Contagion,” “States of Mind,” “Worlds of Care,” and “Childbirth”—that highlight objects’ varied functions as document, metaphor, fantasy, protest, invocation, and testimony. Transhistorical juxtapositions provide an opportunity to reflect on culturally diverse artistic interpretations of pain and hope and raise interdisciplinary questions about care as a range of practices complicated by power dynamics.
In “Confronting Contagion,” the two primary areas of focus are the bubonic plague and AIDS, while additional artworks speak to syphilis, cholera, and typhoid, among other diseases. A painting of Saint Sebastian by the Master of the Greenville Tondo shows the role this early Christian saint played as a protector against the plague, also known as the black death. The work is at once abstract with its black background and depiction of an idealized figure, suggesting the saint’s divine role as an intercessor, and specific in its detail of one strategically placed arrow by Sebastian’s groin, where the disease’s pustules were known to appear. A colorful 1992 screenprint comes from a graphic memoir created by the artists David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger that illustrates Wojnarowicz’s life, from his years as a homeless teenager to his struggles with AIDS. Although Wojnarowicz died before the artists could complete the book together, Romberger continued the project and published 7 Miles a Second in 1996. The scene shown here communicates the ravaging effects of AIDS and a sense of loss as well as an intense affection between the figures.
“States of Mind” features artists’ reflections on their own mental struggles as well as on the experiences of others. Utilizing different stylistic means, the artists reveal the poignant role of art in communicating inner states of turmoil and inviting empathy from a viewer. Leonora Carrington’s color lithograph Crookhey Hall, for example, depicts fleeing figures and an ominous palace in the background, suggesting associations with her book Down Below (1944), a harrowing account of her experiences in an asylum, where she was given convulsive shock therapy.
“Worlds of Care” juxtaposes objects used for medicinal treatment with works providing spiritual comfort, and places works reflecting self-care in conversation with objects showing caregiving by a healer or doctor. Gordon Parks’s photograph Isabel Beside Sick Father, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a powerful image that speaks to suffering as well as to healing. In 1961 Life magazine sent Parks to Brazil for a story on poverty in Latin America, specifically in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas, where he spent weeks documenting the lives of the Da Silva family.
The last section of the exhibition illustrates the hopes and perils associated with pregnancy and childbirth and the many rituals across cultures surrounding the start of a life. According to a 1970s health study, Yorùbá parents in Nigeria experienced one of the world’s highest rates of twin births. Parents who lost one or both of their twins often commissioned Ère Ìbejì sculptures (such as those shown here). Neither portraits of the deceased nor memorials, these miniature images house the immortal souls of children said not to have died but to “have traveled” or “gone to market.” To care for the child’s spirit, the parents or surviving twin would ritually wash, clothe, and feed the sculpture, resulting in a worn surface.
States of Health grew out of several campus conversations as well as class visits to the Museum, including Professor João Biehl’s class Medical Humanities, which focused on the cross-cultural significance of medicine and present-day struggles for well-being, and Professor Elena Fratto’s seminar Literature and Medicine, which took an interdisciplinary approach to reading texts and considering illness, caregiving, and the field of medicine. This fall a rich array of Museum programs explores the ways in which artists have tackled disease, responded to mental illness, and explored the complexities of care.
Curator of Academic Programs
Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings
States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing is made possible by lead support from the Malcolm J. Goldstein, Class of 1947, Fund; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; and by J. Bryan King, Class of 1993. Generous support is also provided by the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Gillett G. Griffin Art of the Ancient Americas Fund, and by Princeton University’s Humanities Council, Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Council on Science and Technology, Department of Molecular Biology, and Department of Anthropology.