“Visualising Illness”, looks at first-person attempts to visualise illness and pain. On Friday 14th November Birkbeck will be hosting a free public lecture by Joanna Bourke (The Story of Pain, 2014),  and a panel discussion featuring artist Deborah Padfield, clinician Joanna Zakrzewska, and sociologist Alan Radley (Works of Illness, 2009).

Drawing on the varied perspectives of artists, art historians, curators, art therapists, clinicians and social scientists, this Wellcome-funded project looks at contemporary artworks that emerge from first-person encounters with illness.  These might be self-representations, or works produced by an artist or photographer working in close collaboration with the ill person. What is at stake, we ask, in reading these visual artefacts as subjective expressions of pain and suffering – or of humour, resilience or hope?

Although the literature on visual representations of illness has increased substantially in recent years, it has rarely focused specifically on contemporary expressions of the experience of being ill. We are particularly interested in an approach that pays equal attention to both the therapeutic and aesthetic qualities of such works; this methodology will, we hope, allow us to overcome the surprisingly inflexible disciplinary boundaries between art history, fine art, and art therapy.

The project aims to establish a network of artists, clinicians and researchers interested in exploring the following questions:

  • What is distinctive about the visual image as a means of communicating the experience of illness? Do visual expressions of illness differ from literary ones, or are there themes and structures common to both?
  • To what extent do contemporary visual expressions of illness draw on traditional iconographies of pain and suffering? What is the influence of (for example) representations of the Passion in religious art, or of the Romantic tradition of the ‘suffering’ artist?
  • How might art historians respond productively to works produced in a therapeutic context that are not considered to be aesthetically ‘interesting’?
  • What are the ethical issues associated with exhibiting expressive portrayals of illness?  How should this kind of material be displayed, and in what contexts?

For more information, or to join our email list, contact the project convenors, Suzannah Biernoff  and Fiona Johnstone. Visit the site for further updates.


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Centre for Medical Humanities
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