A body of work long overdue

The Physician's Art
November 24, 2000

That extremely close links have long existed between the visual arts and the pursuit of medicine is not exactly news. But, with the exception of the history of post-Vesalian anatomical illustration, research in this field is often rather rudimentary, and questions of interpretation have only been patchily addressed.

For these reasons, a warm welcome is due to this catalogue of an exhibition, held last winter, of medical art housed in various medical faculties and museums (and some private collections) in the region of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Not least, if hardly surprisingly, the catalogue is a testament to the astonishing wealth of rare and exquisite materials - figurines, waxes and ivories as well as paintings, many from Renaissance Europe - that have found their way across the Atlantic and are evidently being expertly curated.

As always, an exhibition catalogue is a somewhat unsatisfactory artefact for the reader unable to attend in person - above all, too much of the text is given over to rather basic background information easily available elsewhere. But in many ways this is an exemplary publication. It is agreeably designed, the quality of the colour reproduction is high, the accompanying texts are pertinent and factually accurate, and there is a helpful bibliography.

I have a few minor complaints. The insertion of just a couple of non-western items smacks of tokenism. The almost complete absence of any western artworks produced during the past 150 years is reprehensible: it seems to imply that the photographer rapidly superseded the draughtsman. Not so. Or it contains an unspoken hint that it is only truly old images which are interesting - put more bluntly, it is only old (costly) artefacts which are collected by the kinds of institutions and individuals that go in for collecting.

And it is a real pity that the medicine/art interface as here represented is essentially one-way, only how artists work in the service of medical illustration and education. Deanna Petherbridge and Ludmilla Jordanova's comparable catalogue, The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy (1997), which accompanied an exhibition held at the Royal College of Art, also examined, but far more inventively, how artists take on board medical themes for their own imaginative purposes.

Perhaps not unrelated to this, the text of this book, while learned and lucid, betrays a positivistic bias which, if slight, is pervasive. It is hard, for instance, to know what is achieved by calling William Harvey's treatise on the circulation of the blood "the beginning of experimental science". Did Aristotle not do experiments? And is it not the case that reputable Harvey scholarship these days tends to underline the philosophical - indeed, Aristotelian - roots of his thinking?

Despite a bold foreword by Martin Kemp that stresses how the images exhibited are constructs that must be historicised and contextualised, there is a recurring awarding of approval thereafter for images that show "naturalistic" tendencies. Certain pictures are praised because they are medically correct; and others are thought to yield retrospective pathological information. For instance, Tardieu's well-known engraving of Esquirol's aliene en demence is said "effectively" to portray the condition of dementia, whereas it would be easy to read the patient's eyes, gazing directly out at the reader, as the representation not of a psychiatric condition but of a plea for sympathy.

Likewise, we are told that the portrait of the aged William Harvey, attributed to Sir Peter Lely's workshop, has the sitter appearing "wan and thin, perhaps the result of the illnesses (including gout) which he suffered late in life". Harvey's "gout" is certainly disputable, and the look on his face is more likely a conventional rendering of the gravitas the 17th-century learned physician was expected to display than something diagnostically revealing.

These are minor quibbles, however. The book is eye opening and instructive, and makes one regret having missed the exhibition.

Roy Porter is professor in the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute.

The Physician's Art: Representations of Art and Medicine

Author - Julie Hansen and Suzanne Porter
ISBN - 0 9672 946 1 4
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - 19.95
Pages - 141

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