Before and Since (the Wound) – Visualising the Experience of Pain

Fig 1. Jac Saorsa (2010) Dying Child, oil on canvas

Fig 1. Jac Saorsa (2010) Dying Child, oil on canvas

In painting the image of a child dying of hunger, my aim is not to make a re-presentation of a child dying of hunger, or to elicit or express what it feels like to watch a child dying of hunger. My aim is to paint hunger itself.

The above comment is one that I made some time ago in response to a question about a particular painting I was working on (Fig 1). It was a comment I have since thought about a lot, especially as I have become very involved in my work with trying to comprehend, as an artist, the experience of pain and suffering in others, suffering that is caused by illness and the consequences of medical intervention. This post then is about pain; physical and emotional pain as it is understood from the point of view of the artist who ‘bears witness’ to human frailty. Pain, as a multidimensional ‘sensation’, here becomes itself the subject of the two-dimensional visual work.

Art that is derived from an artist’s interpretation of another’s unique experience of suffering, can visualise pain in a way that is indeed idiosyncratically subjective, yet perhaps more universally so than the specifically personalised form of ‘visual autopathography’ created by suffering individuals themselves. While in no sense decrying these works (they are fundamentally valuable and meaningful in themselves) I would draw on here on Arendt’s distinction between pity as a generalised phenomenon, and compassion as a more focused response to suffering.(1) It is perhaps paradoxical that it is precisely the very personal nature of the work of art that originates directly from individual suffering that potentially provokes an indeterminate response. It is indeed the specific individualism, the identifiable suffering of the ‘other’ inherent in such work that provides a legitimate opportunity for a viewer, as a non-suffering observer, to disassociate from reciprocal involvement and choose a more objective, perhaps ‘safer’, stance in response to the art. Conversely, works created on the basis of aesthetic interpretation of the experience of the suffering of another bring the ‘idea’ of pain and illness into the presence of the viewer in a far more vicarious and visceral way. Such is the affirmation of suffering through this indirect representation that it leaves the viewer ‘no place to hide’ in terms of engagement. Such work has the capacity to demand attention to the subjectivity inherent in the individual experience over the more objective medical definition, and this in turn engenders compassion, the immediate, deliberate and individually directed response to the pain of another. Through art then, pain itself takes on expressive, aesthetic form and the viewer is drawn into a world of suffering through the evocation of a compassionate understanding.

Fig 2. Francis Bacon, (1944) Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, oil on board.

Fig 2. Francis Bacon, (1944) Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, oil on board.

I would like to refer specifically here to a short yet ‘painfully’ beautiful film that has been hugely influential on my recent work. I was at a philosophical conference in Canada, presenting on the theme of Deleuze and the Visual Arts when I first saw the Ante – Desde (La Herida) (translated as Before – Since [The Wound]  I had just begun work on the Drawing Women’s Cancer project and as such I believe that was more consciously receptive to the nuances of feeling that accompany the witnessing of suffering. The film is a contemporary dance piece set against the background of Francis Bacon’s seminal painting Three Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion (Fig. 2). The sensation of horror or revulsion that is often engendered by works that depict suffering is one freely associated with Bacon’s paintings and with Three Figures especially. Each canvas of the triptych presents a distorted form, only barely human, writhing, and seemingly suffering either physical pain or emotional ecstasy – the difference, in Baconian terms at least, being minimal. The powerful sense of motion and emotion is directly realised in the sinuous yet compellingly beautiful movements of the dancers in the film who similarly writhe and convulse in what appear to be paroxysms of pain, their near naked bodies clothed only with bloodied rags and transparent plastic. The musical score in the film is also ‘painful’ as the ear is assaulted by harsh, conflicting and discordant phrases that seem independent of the actual movement they accompany, yet are resonant of the suffering that is so profoundly and movingly expressed. The triptych format of the painting is mirrored in a part of the film where the screen is split into three. On one side, a single dancer on a podium moves slowly and rhythmically to a Spanish lyric full of pathos. The slowed action and the overlayering of film upon film, which reveals the shadowy and seemingly malevolent presence of the figures in the painting, add to the sensation of prolonged suffering, a chronic and overwhelming sadness for which, despite the song, words seem inadequate. In contrast, on the other side of the screen, a writhing and contorted mass of bodies engenders a very different sensation, one of acute and agonising pain that carries with it an almost tangible feeling of desperation.

In 1945 Bacon’s painting shocked its contemporary audience. Indeed, critic John Russell described ‘images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them’. The three figures clearly refer to the crucifixion – one of the most powerful images of suffering in our culture – but they go further than that, and even today the distorted and convulsing forms retain their power to assault the senses with their individual presence, pushing a viewer beyond any safety net of objectivity. Although suffering is clearly a part of Bacon’s work, illness is not the specific subject that it is in my own drawings, and especially those for Drawing Women’s Cancer, which derive from individual and general experiences of gynaecological disease. My work is not as distorted or as contentiously violent as that of Bacon but it has nevertheless also been considered ‘difficult’ to look at because of the discomforting sensations it evokes. Perhaps Radley is correct then when he notes,

It is not the visual image that is unbearable but the apprehension of suffering that is instantiated in the observer (2)

And further,

We do not turn from the depiction as such …but from a depiction that exemplifies unbearable suffering …a mode of representation that involves the setting forth of the sufferer’s situation. Such pictures do not refer away to their significant object (pain) but are presentational in their standing as exemplars of the condition. These pictures are with the abject so that observers become witness to the abjection of the other’ (3)

S.K. Langer’s view, echoing Herman Melville, is that ‘art is the objectification of feeling and the subjectification of nature’ (4) This dichotomy between sensation and observation may be true in terms of the manner in which fine art practice can open up a discursive space within our understanding of the experience of illness, but in this space, the disjuncture between objectivity and subjectivity is not so clear. In the blurred and uncertain, Deleuzean ‘zone of indiscernability’, there is an inherent confusion of beauty and suffering, and art practice can here become itself a discourse, the ‘voice’ of suffering, able to simultaneously communicate and evoke an emotional and often physical sensation in the viewer of the finished work. As a visual artist, I try to engage with the confusion and focus on the inherent fallibilities and weaknesses of the human body, and on the nuances of human psyche. My aim is to create images that oscillate between figurative objectification and the subjectivity, or ‘humanity’ of the figure as interpreted through my own physical, emotional and expressive affinity. Where certainty and clarity define the medical construction of illness, the need to be objective is a necessity in order to alleviate suffering. It is however precisely from within the productive uncertainty of creative practice that the relation between art and medicine, equally necessary in order to temper the level of detachment from suffering in general, is emergent. Enquiry into this relation through art practice is still nascent but the nature of the visualisation of pain must be of particular significance within the general field of Medical Humanities.

To return to Arendt’s distinction between pity and compassion it is perhaps compassion that drives the work I do. This is not of course to say that drawings, or indeed any art form could ever ease the pain of actual disease, but in allowing others to ‘bear witness’ they can potentially serve to instantiate the ‘person behind the diagnosis’. In this way, art has the capacity to engage the viewer at a profoundly humanitarian and reciprocal level and thus open up the imagination to the subjective nuances of the overall experience of suffering.

For they breathe the truth that breathe their words in pain (5)                            

(1)  Arendt, H. (Quoted in  Radley, A. (2009) Works of Illness; Narrative, Picturing and the Social Response to Illness, InkerMen Press)

(2)  Radley, A. (2009) Works of Illness; Narrative, Picturing and the Social Response to Illness, InkerMen Press

(3) ibid                                                                                                                              

(4) Langer, S.K. Mind: an Essay on Human Feeling

(5) Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act II, Scene I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *