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Art Disease Lecture

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Art and Disease LectureIntroductionThis lecture is somewhat organic. We’ll look at some of the instances in which disease appear in someof the “monuments” of the western artistic canon.Some of the works feature disease prominentlySome are less clear about the connection between the art work and diseaseIn one case, a work of art is ‘diagnosed’ by a medical archaeologistI should note that finding works of art that were clearly about disease was very difficult, which raisedthe question, “why aren’t there more images of disease in the canon?” Because its not attractive, heroic,religious, is not a beautiful subject (for most of the history of western art, ‘beauty’ has been the primarygoal of artistic production.) There is plenty of work about death (think crucifixions and martyrdoms,battle scenes, dying gauls and all).Additionally, this lecture will not present works in chronological order, but rather works will be groupedthematically. Since you know something about the chronology of art history, you should be able toplace the works in their proper context.Social Criticism and DiseasePoverty, Kathe Kollwitz, etching, 1897This work predates contemporary social and scientific criticism that links poverty and large scale healthissues.Kollwitz was a printmaker of the early 20th century whose work took up the causes of impoverished andmarginalized peasant laborers.In this image, she depicts a weaving family – the working poor – and a child who is malnourished andsick. There is something of a pieta in this work, but Kollwitz also deliberately includes an image of ayarn spindle in the background suggesting the ultimate cause of the child’s poor health. The context forthis piece dealt with weavers working in subjection – as serfs – in a feudal system that polarized the richand poor.But this work could also be read as an illustrative (and visionar)y example of the 21st century socialcriticism appearing in literature focused on world health concerns. Richard G. Wilkinson, author ofMind the Gap (Yale U Press, 2001) offers the following thesis:Inequality kills. Both rich and poor die younger in countries with the greatest inequalitiesin income. Countries such as the United States with big gaps between rich and poor havehigher death rates than those with smaller gaps such as Sweden and Japan. Why? In thisprovocative book, Richard Wilkinson provides a novel Darwinian approach to thequestion.Wilkinson points out that inequality is new to our species: in our two-million-yearhistory, human societies became hierarchical only about ten thousand years ago. Becauseour minds and bodies are adapted to a more egalitarian life, today's hierarchical structuresmay be considered unnatural. To people at the bottom of the heap, the world seemshostile and the stress is harmful. If you are not in control, you're at risk. If you are incontrol you live in constant fear that someone will take what is yours.Afflicted ArtistsMelancholia, Albrecht Durer, engraving, 1514, 10 x 6 inchesIn the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates associated melancholia with "aversion to food, despondency,sleeplessness, irritability, restlessness," symptoms included among the current diagnostic criteria fordepression.While historical descriptions of melancholy have varied little over the ages, there has been a range oftheories and treatment.In ancient times, melancholia was attributed to "black bile," which was thought to wander around thebody, finding "no exit or escape. The treatment for the excess of this cold bile was purging, bloodletting,warm baths, exercise and proper diet. This theory persisted with minor variations until the middle of the17th century, when it was eclipsed by a shift toward more chemical explanations.In addition to being associated with black bile, melancholy was also associated with astrological origins,melancholics having a link with the planet saturn – thus the term ‘saturnine’ for someone who ismelancholic.Marsilio Ficino, 15th century Florentine, had discussed the effects of the planet Saturn on the melancholytemperment in his treatise on medicine and astrology. This work was a significant source for Durer.Ficino promoted a theory of three varieties of melancholy, including melancholia imaginiativa whichafflicted artists, artisans and architects.Today, melancholy – depression – appears in the Diagostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health IVas a disease with links to environmental factors, genes, and neurology.***This work is an enigmatic image, much discussed and analyzed for its dense symbolism and mastery ofthe medium of copper engraving. It seems to suggest melancholia imaginativaHere the muse is represented in a gesture that suggests melancholy – sad, dejected, unable to engage herdisciplines. Her face is darkened (like black bile) – clouded.The garland on her head is woven of two plants: watercress and ranunculus – both remedies formelancholy which was said to dry the body.Symbols of the artisanal, artistic and architectural disciplines clutter the picture plane:Tongs, plane, molding curve, hammer, ladder crucible, ruler, nails….Also a sphere and polyhedron (or cube with corners cut off), and compass.The hourglass, scale, bell and magic square (also used to counteract the effects of saturn)“keys mean power, purse means wealth” according to notations left by Durer.This work, of all Northern works, perhaps best details what it meant to be an artist in the 16th century –Durer captures the discrepancy between the physical nature of art and the metaphysical concepts it can(and should) address. It is a work that recounts both the curse and blessing of artistic production – thecreative frustration: melancholy.The Artist’s Sister Paul Klee, oil, 1903Pomona Growing Up Paul Klee, oil, 1937Paul Klee (1879 - 1940), Swiss painter, watercolorist, and etcher, who was one of the most originalmasters of modern art. Belonging to no specific art movement, he created works known for theirfantastic dream images, wit, and imagination.In 1931 he began teaching at Dusseldorf Academy, but he was dismissed by the Nazis, who termed hiswork "degenerate." Shortly thereafter, Klee came down with the crippling form of scleroderma, whichforced him to develop a simpler style and eventually killed him.scleroderma means 'hard skin.' Scleroderma is a condition where the skin gets thick and hard.There are two main types of scleroderma. One type is localized scleroderma,


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