How do you paint pain?
Much of Kahlo’s work is about the body, about how people who have not been seriously ill cannot understand what our corporeal self goes through.
“The great confessional”
Illness and art are subjective, but Kahlo’s paintings represented what I felt, in a way the teenage me couldn’t articulate. At college, around the time I begged a surgeon for a hip replacement (he rightly refused because of my age), I discovered Virginia Woolf. The novels are not for everyone, but Woolf was also an astute essayist.
In On Being Ill she says: “Illness is a part of every human being’s experience. It enhances our perceptions and reduces self-consciousness. It is the great confessional; things are said, truths are blurted out which health conceals.” This applies to Jo Spence, whose photographs appear in the Glucksman’s group exhibition about artistic representations of illness.
Spence was a London photographer and a cancer sufferer who died in 1992 from leukaemia. She resisted the tag “sick”, documenting her breast cancer visually. In one of her most famous photos, taken the night before a mastectomy, the words “Property of Jo Spence” are written on her left breast.
Telling stories – visually, in literature – is how we make sense of the world. Articulating (is it a coincidence that “art” is found in “articulating”?) the experience of life-changing illness is part of recovery. Illness has its own language, distinct from medicalese, and often it’s a visual palette. The purple of a needle bruise, the yellow of jaundice, the pink of many surgical scars.
This week a woman I know told an important medical story with one photograph, posted to Facebook. In it her cupped hand held some small red and yellow pills. They are the only medication to cure the rare leukemia we both had. Memories of horrendous side effects flooded back, but now we are both done with those toxic capsules. We have both passed under the dark arch of sickness and out again into the light.
Cyclically, Susan Sontag said that all photographs are memento mori, a phrase that translates as “remember you will die”. Illness is another reminder, but it is one that doesn’t always defeat us.
Illness and the arts Other interpretations
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
A story about many themes, but centring on the tubercular “Half-a-lung club” in an Alpine sanatorium.
Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott
An affecting collection of poems after a diagnosis of breast cancer. The word “cancer” never appears once in the poems, and the book is dedicated to Shapcott’s medical team.
The Convalescent by Gwen John
Although many paintings, from the Renaissance to the present, don’t shy away from the gore and inconvenience of illness, John’s simple portrait of a woman reading is hopeful and full of stillness and beauty.
The Experience of Illness: Learning from the Arts runs from Friday to Sunday. The exhibition Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art runs until March 2013; glucksman.org