Sierra Leone amputees turn to art

September 29, 2017 by richard

Painting by amputee artist Seih MansarayBildergebnis für Sierra Leone Amputees turn to Art


But in Sierra Leone, a country where the people have learnt the hard way that anything is possible, that is exactly what you will find.

I feel so happy now. With my paintings I’ve been able to show people why I am like I am.

Seih Mansaray

An afternoon visit to Aberdeen amputee camp satisfied my curiosity.

In a rundown shack at the back of this makeshift village, I found the artists hard at work.

One’s immediate impression is of how colourful this small, dusky room is.

Colourful, not only in comparison with the dirty brown of the surrounding camp, but colourful because of the smiles.

Not all the artists are amputees – many of them are children of amputees.

Light into their lives

But all of them are victims of war.

During Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, thousands of innocent civilians had their limbs hacked off.

The rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were the main perpetrators, but many of those maimed by machetes will accuse government soldiers.

Aberdeen amputee camp artists

Amputees have found a new goal in painting 

Between fighting forces it was, the amputees say, like for like.

But the end result is the same.

There is an overwhelming feeling of depression in the camp.

On previous visits numerous amputees had told me that they would rather be dead.

‘What use am I now?’ they ask in frustration, waving a severed limb as if to illustrate the point.

Focus

‘How can I help my children grow up and have a decent life?”

Finally a very simple project has brought some light into their lives.

Some of the children, as well as their disabled parents, have found something to focus on.

Hillary Ravenscroft and Abu Bangura

The project is about taking and giving

The painting is both therapeutic and potentially lucrative.

It all started out of guilt.

‘Guilt’, because some United Nations staff who had been carrying out research with the amputees felt that it was all take and no give.

They were looking for a way to give something back to the amputees.

Then Hillary Ravenscroft arrived in Sierra Leone, joining her husband on a business trip.

Healing process

As a teacher and an artist she was able to take up the mantle for the frustrated UN staff, and started the art project.

Its impact, she says, has been remarkable.

The act of recreating their memories as a shared image has become part of a healing process for the amputees.

Seih Mansaray at work

Seih Mansaray says painting has changed his life

But Hillary would not accept the credit for such therapy.

This has become a community project at heart.

Local businesses provide bits of material for the artists; a ream of paper from a print shop, a bucket of paint from a paint manufacturer.

What is more, the volume of work that the artists has produced illustrates the dedication with which they have thrown themselves into the project.

Godsend

In less than three months more than 500 pieces of art have materialised, and the art group, of more than 50 people, keeps on growing.

Seih Mansaray is the oldest amputee in the group.

He no longer cries at night. Instead he puts his worries and dreams into his art.

Hillary Ravenscroft

For him painting has been a godsend, a way of telling his story and exorcising the demons that have plagued his mind since rebels hacked off his right arm four years ago.

“I feel so happy now. With my paintings I’ve been able to show people why I am like I am,” he says.

His pictures are basic but their content is brutal.

A smiling rebel stands over him holding an arm aloft as a trophy.

“They laughed at me,” he says. “But I’ve got a life again, I can do something useful. When I paint I forget that I’ve only got one arm.”

New lease of life

One of the children in the camp, Abu Bangura, lost his father to the rebels.

His mother had both her legs cut off.

Abu Bangura with one of his pictures

Abu Bangura will buy food with the painting money

As the oldest child, Abu assumed responsibility for the family.

The burden was often too much to bear but, as Hillary explains, the painting has given him a new lease of life.

“He no longer cries at night. Instead he puts his worries and dreams into his art,” she says.

The therapeutic aspect of the painting is undeniable but recently another, more concrete benefit has been added.

Art for food

The amputee art is being sold.

An exhibition at the UN headquarters in Freetown sold almost every piece of work.

Standing in front of his gallery of paintings Abu’s eyes light up.

Every item has a “Sold” sticker on it.

“I am so proud, I’ve sold everything. Now I will be able to buy enough food for my family and maybe even continue my education,” he says.

An artist at the amputee camp

Amputees learn to come to terms with their disability

This monetary aspect is integral to the project.

The amputees and their families are desperately short of money.

This little project has made a significant difference to so many lives.

Some might argue that their work is only popular because of who they are.

Their customers are more interested in the fact that the painting they buy is from an amputee camp.

For many the aesthetic value of the painting is secondary, but so what?

More and more foreigners are coming to Sierra Leone, and the macabre fascination with amputees is always there.

The amputees and their family have found a way of making money out of this western curiosity about brutality.

More importantly, however, they have found a way to deal with the terrible memories they have bottled up inside.

BBC News Tuesday, 11 June, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2038949.stm



Disability in Medieval Art

September 24, 2017 by richard

Most of the portrayals of disabled people from the 10th to end of 13th Century are to be found in illustrated hand coloured and drawn manuscripts, miniature paintings from greater Persia and stain glassed windows produced by unknown artisans or artists.. They are mainly moral tales and tales of miracles deriving from the religious stories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

St Gulthric expells demon East Anglia 1210 (1)

St Gulthric expels a demon 1210, England. A acknowledgement of mental health ?

Christ Heals a paralytic The Gospel of Tsar Ivan Alexander, Turnova 1355 (3)Christ Heals a blind man The Syriac Lectionaary Mosul 1216 (1)

Christ heals a paralytic at pool at Bethesda-‘Take up thy bed and walk’ and Christ heals a blind man
Syrian Lectionary northern Iraq 1256-20

A paralytic is healed by Cuthbert's shrine 1200 DurhamLife of St cuthbert book. Heals child and blind man. Durham 1200

A paralytic healed by Cuthburt’s Shrine and a baby and youth cured by relics (a hair) of St Cuthbert. Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthburt ,Durham 1200.

Often disabled pilgrims were portrayed on their way to a holly shrine for a cure.

Pilgrims some lAME OMNE BLIND ON WAY TO mT.sT.mICHELE lUTTREL pSALTER, lINCOLN 1325

Pilgrims, 2 lame and one blind, on their way to Mount St.Michel in France. The Luttrel Psalter Lincoln 1325

Sometimes just a thorn from Christs Crown, nails from his cross or his winding sheet-the holy grail were attributed with cures.

The Holy Grail is carried to Sarras(Jerusalam) La Queste del Saint Graal France 1316. Note lame man cured.

The holy grail is carried to Sarras(Jerusalam) by knoights assisted by a lame man cured by Galahad The Quest for the Holy Grail France 1316

Manuscript illustrations give us glimpse into the life of disabled people during this period

meideval crutches July 18 Hermann of Reichenau 1013-1054Medieval crutches July 18 Hermann of Reichenau 1013-1054

MS. Bodl. 264, part 1. 14th C. The Romance of Alexander. Buttons up past elbow & low toward hem.

Disabled people as figures of fun. Harvesting

Royal 13 B VIII fol. 30v - A crippled man.

Pitiable

Stredovek Miniature fighter with a sword and crutch.

Fighter with a crutch!

n medieval England, the 'leprechaun', the 'blynde', the 'dumbe', the 'deaff', the 'natural fool', the 'creple', the 'lame' and the 'lunatick' were a highly visible presence in Everyday life.

 

Luttrell Psalter 1325.  In medieval England, the ‘leprechaun’, the ‘blynde’, the ‘dumbe’, the ‘deaff’, the ‘natural fool’, the ‘creple’, the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ were a highly visible presence in Everyday life and reflected in Manuscript illustrations.

Stained Glass windows in Cathedrals and Churches sent out similar messages.

William heals ablind woman York Minster

William heals a blind woman. York Minster

a-stained-glass-window-depicting-jesus-curing-the-man-with-palsy-church Church of Christ the Consoler, Skelton Cum Newby1

 

A-stained-glass-window-depicting-jesus-curing-the-man-with-palsy-church Church of Christ the Consoler, Skelton Cum Newby

Timur the Lame or Tamberlain featured in of minatures. The unlikely combination of a war leader who captured a sizeable central Asian empire whilst bein disabled from injuries in his leag and hand.

_64520891_tamerlane624Tamberlain in AnatoliaTamerlane who won the Ankara war against the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I in July 28, 1402 did not immediately left Anatolia and stayed there for approximately one year.

Tamberlain in Anatolia. Tamerlane who won the Ankara war against the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I in July 28, 1402

He did not immediately left Anatolia and stayed there for approximately one year.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20538810

A fallen rider revived by St Dominic. The caption says he broke his neck 1330 Yates Th0mpson MS England

 

A fallen rider revived by St Dominic. The caption says he broke his neck, 1330, Yates Thompson MS, England

Tamerlane imprisoned and humiliated the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid.

 

Lame Tamerlane imprisoned and humiliated the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid.

Timur defeats the sultan of Delhi

Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi

7adecd0a4984cbe1c768583f03fa0ae2 (1)

 

The brazen serpent Hebrew Northern France 1278-98

The brazen serpent. Hebrew Northern France 1278-98

Source  Marvellous to Behold Miracles in Medieval Manuscripts Deirdre Jackson  2007 The British Library



Early Graphic Illustration, Comic Strips and Disability

September 18, 2017 by richard

The history of printing goes back to the duplication of images by means of stamps in very early times. The use of round seals for rolling an impression into clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3000 BCE, they feature complex and beautiful images. In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In China, India and Europe, printing on cloth certainly preceded printing on paper or papyrus. The process is essentially the same: in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until the 17th century. The development of printing has made it possible for books, newspapers, magazines, and other reading materials to be produced in great numbers, and it plays an important role in promoting literacy and in its earlier form reinforcing religious belief and moral codes.

Printing methods where used to reproduce images and made these much more widely available. As the vast majority could not read graphic illustration using a variety of printing methods replaced manuscript hand illustrations that had been limited to monasteries and royal palaces. Artists could reproduce their work and make cultural, social and political comments. Disability features in these prints as moral tales, Bible stories and political and social comment. Disabled people show as pitiable and pathetic, triumphing over tragedy, figures of fun, a burden, penitent sinners, evil, powerless, immoral, but never as just ordinary living their lives as most people did at these times.

Martin_Schongauer_-14501491_Der_heilige_Martin_(L_62)

An early engraving in Europe is Martin Schugauer (1450-1491) in his take on St Martin of Tour. A Roman Centurion who cut his cloak to give to a disabled beggar to keep him warm. He was put to death by the Roman Army and so became a Saint. The print evokes attitudes of pity and charity. The disabled person is seen as pathetic.

 

Early illustrations were to show the seven deadly sins or 10 commandments. A good example is the title page of -Purgatory and the lament of Roman courtesans 1530

Title page Maestro Andreas Purgatory and lament of Roman coutyesans 1530 BM

The visual language used then moved on to narrative –telling a story in pictures usually having a moral.

An Italian transformation pint c.1600, the Dangers of love is a strong message to steer clear away from love or you will contract disease and disability and end up being taken to the mad house. This  moral tale was conveniently folded so you could keep it about your person and so when tempted take it out to refresh your resolve. Interestingly one of the only copies is in the Queen’s print collection at Windsor.

Picture2

 

Similar story is oft repeated where disability is the reward for sin or immoral behaviour

Teunissen Rise fall of a high flying youth 1535

 

Teunissen Rise fall of a high flying youth 1535 where he acquires an impairment as his just deserts only to become more modest and recovers. The same German print maker shows what happens to a man who misuses his property.

Teunissen 1535 Misuse of property

 

A wonderful true story of an 18 year old crippled girl at Einsiedeln 1580 Swiss

The wonderful story of an 18 year old crippled girl at Einsedeln April 9th 1580 . A Miracle cure. The girl  lame from birth, is determined against all reason and advice to crawl alone many miles to the famous pilgramage  Centre of Einsieldeln in Switzerland. She crouches by the river screaming until 2. She is ferried across. She crawls on, to  the amazement of passers-by, until she meats a noble bearded man in a white gown, who marks her on the knee. 3. Healed she thanks her Benefactor, who 4. Sends her on her way. She disappears into the distance towards the shrine, still looking over her shoulder to the scene of the miraculous cure. Unknown Swiss or German Artist .

GIUSEPPE MARIA MITELLI Bologna 1634 - 1718_ TU CHE IL FALLACE MONDO AMI ED APPREZZI MIRA LE SUE PROMESSE I DONI I VEZZI Etching,

 

Guiseppi Maria Mitelli a century later gives us a more documentary allegory of man’s life.. 1706 You who love and esteem deceitful world, consider its promises, fruits and trickery. 1. At birth, man groans under the oppression of swaddling clothes. 2. Then, as a child, he is subject to the scourge of others. 3. As a young man, he is tyrannized by love. 4. As a grown man he labours to earn a living. 5. He is threatened and scolded by a superior. 6. There is no end to the lawsuits against him. 7. Creditors imprison him. 8.No one helps him when he is reduced to beggary. 9. Once again unjustly attacked. 10. He reaches old age full of disease. 11. He lies in painful illness and prolonged sorrow. 12. Finally he is reduced to a miserable corpse.

In another more moralistic print Mitelli gives us the unhappy Life of a prostitute divided into the twelve months of the year. Again she ends up disabled with a crutch.

Mitelli The Unhappy life of a prostitute 1691

 

Mitelli was kean on portraying disabled people using them to put across a moral message.Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634–1718) was an Italian engraver and painter of the Baroque period. He was the son of the prominent quadratura painter Agostino Mitelli. The younger Mitelli was best known for his prolific engravings, in a great variety of subjects, including scenes from grand epics to mundane page boards for games of chance using dice, Tarot cards, and an Iconophor with anthropomorphized alphabets.[1] He also engraved genre subjects, allegories, moralistic scenes, but even some bizarre cartoons that could be interpreted as sometimes provocatively subversive, or presciently revolutionary, and sometimes imaginatively bizarre.[2] He often depicted dwarfs engaged in buffoonery or satirical depictions of aphorisms, which recalls the Bambocciate di nani or arte pigmeo of genre painter Faustino Bocchi (1659–1742).

Pilgrim, Tarrot Card and Discordant Musicians.

 

 

1678 Guiseppi Mitelli Proverb FiguratiC17th Tarot Card MitelliDiscordant Musicians Mitelli

 

Mitelli A_life-class_in_a_grotesque_academy_of_artists;_a_hunchback_Wellcome_V0048969

An Academy of Dwarf Painters drawing a hunchback.

 

This last is reminiscent of the work of  Jaques Callot 1592 in Nancy ; † March 1635  .

L’Estropié a la Béquille et a La Jambe de Bois (The Cripple with a Crutch and a Wooden Leg), from Varie Figure Gobbi Jaques Callot 1616

DP818577L'Estropié a la Béquille et a La Jambe de Bois (The Cripple with a Crutch and a Wooden Leg), from Varie Figure Gobbi Jaques Callot 1616

Le Joueur de Flageolet (The Flageolet Player), from Varie Figure Gobbi, 1616-20 Jaques Callot NYM

DP818534Le Joueur de Flageolet (The Flageolet Player), from Varie Figure Gobbi, 1616-20 Jaques Callot NYM

 

As the Eighteen Century began. Disability was used as a metaphor for political or national weakness.

Romeyn de Hooghe(1701) Cartoon shows Louis XIV ( The Sun God who built Versailles and attacked the Protestant Dutch) as a crippled Apollo,

driven by Mme de Maintenon(his mistress) in a broken chariot over the terrestial globe, while the Dutch lion springs forward to tear down the horse.

Romeyn de Hooghe 1701 Louise XIV

 

Hogarth used disability as a sign of moral weakness as exemplified by the explaination by Simon Jarrett on this website.

Hogarth Plate 6 Industry and Idleness Billy in the Bowl and band

As did Cruikshank in many prints such as the the History of John Bull’s (Britain) warlike expedition (1793) or in John Bull’s Progress or

Admiral on crutches , being a comment on the Navy’s poor performance.

 

 

 

John Bull Criukshank 1793

 

gillray_johnbull progress 1793

 

Admiral on crutches

 

Similarly Rowlandson lampooned the fashionable Spa Town of Bath in as full of useless overweight and disabled aristocrats in Bath Races 1898 and 1910

bath_races-400rowlandson_the-bath-races-plate-12-from-comforts-of-bath-1798Bath Races Rowlandson 1810

In compiling this page great reliance was placed upon “The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and ‘Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to c.1825″ by David Kunzle , Berkley, California; University of California Press 1973

 



Hogarth to Vagabondiana Examining Two visualisations of disability in C18TH by Simon Jarrett

September 16, 2017 by richard

Hogarth to Vagabondiana by Simon Jarrett

Picture1Picture2

We are going to look today at two visualisations of disability in the eighteenth century, firstly from the artist William Hogarth in the middle of the century and then in a book from 1817 called Vagabondiana, by John Thomas Smith, which took a rather nostalgic look back at the London street beggars from the end of the eighteenth century, using sketches and potted life histories.

There was a very high prevalence of physical disability in this period: as well as being born disabled, often through a lack of obstetric care during birth, you could also become disabled through a large number of disabling diseases, accidents caused by carriages and horses in the teeming streets, dangerous workplaces, potholed streets and collapsing buildings. Of course there were also many disabled soldiers and sailors from the numerous wars of the period. The playwright John Gay, author of the Beggar’s opera, warned people to be careful when walking round Lincolns Inn Field at night lest they trip over the crutches of the many hundreds of beggars that gathered there.

I hope to show not only the often ingenious types of mobility aid that were used as technological fixes for the many who needed them, most of whom were very poor and therefore needed to fashion aids from the most basic of resources, but also the moral and symbolic meanings that these objects carried for the eighteenth century British public, which framed their understanding of and response to disability. You will notice that it is only at the end of the century that any form of wheeled mobility methods of transport start to emerge – the most simple explanation for this is that until then it was only the centres and major streets of large cities such as London that were paved – the other streets and alleys were highly congested and obstacle-strewn dirt roads, that would turn to mud at the first sign of any rain, making small-sized wheeled transport virtually impossible. The later extension of paving across a wider area brought about an increase in use of wheels, as we shall see.

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We begin with William Hogarth, who may be familiar to many of you, who was a great artistic chronicler of the 18th century’s everyday events and ordinary life before the age of photography. He is perhaps most famous for his ‘morality’ tales, such as the Harlots Progress, the Rakes progress, Marriage la Mode and Idleness and Industry, in each of which series of paintings young people fall into a life of vice and immorality, and endure terrible consequences for doing so. Despite being a conservative figure both in political and moral terms, Hogarth showed a great empathy with the people of London and everyday London life, and often displayed a sneaking regard for the vice, drunkenness and sexual immorality he was ostensibly denouncing.

Picture4Picture5

Here is a print you may know: Gin Lane, which depicts the appalling consequences of the cheap gin-drinking craze that afflicted the poor parts of London for about 40 years, causing tens of thousands of deaths and desperate misery and poverty. You may be less familiar with its companion piece, Beer Street, which depicts the virtuous consequences of drinking good old British beer – virtually a religious and political duty for the English at this time.

Picture6

In Gin Lane we can see Hogarth’s portrayal of abject misery and moral collapse. The baby falls to its death from the arms of its paralytically drunk, semi-clothed mother. With its famous motif ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drink for tuppence, we see buildings collapse – collapse and falling over are an important indicator of moral collapse which you will see in many of Hogarth’s paintings – and the only buildings which are stable are the pawnbrokers, the undertakers and of course the gin distillery. Bearing in mind this idea of collapse and instability being associated with moral degradation, look at this group here in the background – a mass brawl is breaking out and it consists of disabled people attacking each other with their sticks and crutches – you can see one to the edge of the brawl about to go over backwards desperately clinging onto his crutch. Here Hogarth is associating the idea of disability – the inability to stand on your own two feet if you like – with moral disorder and decay.  If we then look at Beer Street you will see the complete opposite of Gin Lane. Comfortably overweight and prosperous men suck on their pipes and quaff their ale, fondle their alluring, key-dangling women. The buildings stand proud, particularly the brewery with its beautifully balanced barrel hanging from it – the only building that is crumbling, in contrast to Gin Lane, is the unused pawnbrokers. If you drink good British beer, life will be good and trade and commerce will prosper, in contrast to that dreadful foreign import of Gin, or Geneva as it was known. Note, however, that in the depiction of Beer Street there is not one stick or crutch to be seen. In a prosperous, moderate, balanced, well ordered society, the body is not afflicted with the diseases of poverty and immorality – everything is balanced, people stand on their own two feet. In this way, the stick, crutch or other sorts of mobility aid could symbolise some loss of human status, a loss of that ability to order yourself, a prop to just about cling on to your status.

Picture8

A stick or crutch signified a move away from full human status towards a more intermediate status, and the same process could happen the other way. An animal with a stick could indicate a lower species moving towards human status. This drawing is from Edward Tyson’s influential book from 1699 in which he described a young chimpanzee that had been brought from Angola in Southern Africa. Hogarth would almost certainly have read this book. There was much speculation as to whether there might be an intermediate species between apes and humans, or even some types of ape that might be a new species of human. The chimpanzee, or Pygmie as it was known at the time, was a particular object of speculation. Tyson concluded that it was not a form of human, but that it did have characteristics that closely resembled humans, suggesting that it might be an intermediate species, one of which was the ability to walk on two legs. In fact chimpanzees can’t do this, like other apes they apply their knuckles to aid their walking and therefore use all four limbs, but Tyson concluded that his Chimp would be able to walk if only it wasn’t feeble and ill from the long journey it made (it died after several weeks). However, being a scientist dedicated to accuracy, he could only bring himself to portray the chimp walking with the aid of a stick – this both acknowledged that Tyson had never actually seen it walk on two legs, but also symbolised the intermediary status between human and animal that he believed his Pygmie had.

Picture9

Hogarth picked up on this and frequently portrayed animals tottering towards human status by getting onto their hind legs, just as he depicted humans tottering away from their status by having to use artificial aids to do what was seen as the fundamental human task of walking. Here, 1745, in his portrayal of his friend Lord George Graham, an admiral of the British navy, he depicts a series of slippery identities – Lord George Graham out of uniform and without his wig, the girlish cabin boy, the relatively high-status black drummer and last of course the dog, standing on his hind legs, and wearing a wig.

 

Picture10HPicture11ere in Southwark Fair 1732, a typical Hogarth portrayal of a riotous, disorderly London scene, you may just be able to spot this small dog striding in a very human like way across the picture with the aid of a stick. In such a disorderly world, Hogarth is telling us, such a thing would be no surprise.

Picture12

The association of the stick with disorder and lesser human status can be seen in Hogarth’s Noon,1738, which depicts the coming together of two widely different sections of London’s community. On one side the disorderly but jolly native Londoners (one of whom is black interestingly) who are coming out of the ale house, the man fondling the woman’s breasts, she becoming so distracted that she spills her hot pie gravy onto the bawling baker’s boy, who in turn drops his wares onto the floor where they are hoovered up by a hungry young girl. Opposite them, coming out of church of course, are a group of austere, earnest French Huguenots, protestant refugees from religious persecution in France who have prospered in London and who Hogarth clearly sees as a rather po-faced, pretentious, miserable lot. Note that here he uses the stick in two ways – first in the rather affected gentleman it is purely an ostentatious, luxury fashion item, with no practical purpose. But notice that there is also a rather obnoxious child, dressed in the wig, frock coat and stockings of an adult. A child dressed as a man, just like an animal imitating a man, needs a stick to support it, once again the stick or mobility aid drawing our attention to intermediate status.

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Which brings us to Hogarth’s Election series, a group of paintings satirising the abject corruption and mob-violence of the Whig/Tory political conflict that raged throughout the century. Here, in ‘The Polling’,1758, a disabled war veteran is trying to cast his vote. He has lost both hands, and on his left arm he has a hook. He has also lost his right leg, and has a wooden leg in its place. What is happening is that pompous lawyers are debating whether it is acceptable for him to swear the necessary pre-voting oath by laying a hook on the bible rather than a hand. While his vote is denied, behind him a group of enfeebled, demented, semi-conscious and idiotic people are lined up to vote, their hands guided onto the ballot papers. Clearly Hogarth is satirising electoral corruption, but he is also introducing the concept of the deserving disabled – the war hero, who has sacrificed his body in the service of his country, is denied and excluded, while the feeble minded, the non-deserving disabled, are indulged. Note his heroic posture, front foot thrust forward and his wooden leg firmly supporting him, his handless arms heroically thrust back. He uses no stick or crutch to balance himself, he can stand on his own two feet, even if one of them is wooden. We see something similar in this further painting from the election series, ‘Chairing the members’ where the candidates are chaired through the streets of Oxford by their respective supporting mobs, one of them looking as if he is possibly about to join the ranks of the disabled himself (note the recurring tumbling/collapse motif again) But note this man here, another disabled war veteran, about to lay into his political opponent with a cudgel. Again we see the heroic posture and stance, his weight firmly on his wooden leg, no supporting stick or crutch, and fully engaged in the action and everyday life. Note also that his opponent clearly does not think it necessary to go easy on him because he has a disability.

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This placement of people with disabilities at the heart of everyday life can also be seen here in this depiction of a cockfight,1759, and the group of rowdy gamblers and cock fight enthusiasts. At the heart of it all is a blind man – actually representing the real life figure of Lord Albemarle.

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He has an almost saintly, religious air, but note his vulnerability as the man next to him craftily pinches money from his winnings laid out in his leather pouch before him. To the side of the picture we see a man who is both physically disabled and deaf, sporting his crutch while his servant shouts a commentary on the cock fight into his ear through an ear trumpet. Multiple disabilities were not an insurmountable obstacle to being out and about and at the heart of the community – there was always some ingenious technological fix.

Picture18 Marriage Al La Mode Plate1

Here is the first plate of Marriage a la Mode Plate 1, Hogarth’s morality tale about the marriage between the feckless son of an aristocratic father and the equally feckless daughter of a nouveau riche merchant. This is a marriage of convenience, the idle ancient aristocratic family have squandered their wealth and need a fresh injection of cash, the merchant needs the elevated social status to go with his newly acquired wealth. The family tree of the Lord is displayed at his side, to demonstrate the noble lineage of his family, but next to it is propped his crutch – a very finely crafted and velvet-topped crutch – to portray the physical and moral degeneration of his family. His right leg, bandaged, rests of a footstool, indicating that disabling disease of over-indulgence, gout.

Picture18Marriage Al La Mode Plate 6 1755

 

Plate 6 Marriage A La Mode 1755. If we move now to the final tragic scene of the series, the countess sprawls dying in her chair, having committed suicide, unable to bear the news of the death of her lover, the appropriately named lawyer Silvertongue, who has been hung for murdering her husband the count, after he discovered their affair. Her child, probably a boy, is held to her face for a final kiss, as her father prudently removes the gold marriage ring from her finger to use another day.

Picture18Picture19

An everyday story of 18th century folk, but look closely at the child – here on his leg you will see callipers, indicating that he is disabled, and here on his left cheek is a black spot, indicating syphilis. The child has suffered for the moral degradation of his parents, and they have passed disease and disability to him. Incidentally, also note here the idiot servant, being berated by the apothecary for having haplessly bought the poison which the countless has used to kill herself. One clue, of many, to his idiocy, is his wrongly buttoned servant’s livery.  The painting is full of disability motifs.

AN00016648_001_l Industry and idleness Hogarth

Here, above, is a plate from the ‘industry and idleness’ series, which charts the lives of an industrious and an idle apprentice. The industrious apprentice works hard, marries his master’s daughter and becomes London’s mayor. The idle apprentice is seduced by gambling, promiscuity and crime and ends life on the gallows. A straightforward morality tale. Here we see the industrious apprentice celebrating his marriage to his master’s daughter, and a collection of beggars, including a beggar band, gather at their door, hoping for celebratory gifts.  Here on the left is ‘Philip in a tub’, a known character from the London streets. Philip had no legs, and mobilised himself by sitting in a wooden tub or bowl and then using two short crutches to slide himself

 

along. This form ofPicture20 mobilisation was common for people without legs, and they were nicknamed ‘Billies in Bowls’ in the rich slang of the time. He is selling ballads, a common form of employment for disabled beggars, similar to selling the Big Issue today. Note how Hogarth has captured his incredibly powerful upper arms, developed through pushing himself using the crutches, [slide 20] reminiscent of David Weir, Britain’s fine Paralympian athlete.Picture21 Dave the Weir Wolf

And finally from Hogarth here is the fitting end of the idle apprentice, who is brought to Tyburn to be hung for his crimes before the huge crowds that gathered there on execution days. The character of interest to us is another disabled war veteran, here at the back of the crowd.

Picture21 Idle Apprentice Excecuted at Tyburn 1747

His head bandaged, he rests his mutilated leg on an upside-down V shaped wooden support with a curve built in to take his knee. From the top of the upside-down V extends a crutch which tucks under his armpit. I am not sure how he would move with this, but my guess is that he would hop with his left foot and then swing forward the contraption supporting his right side. The ingenuity of this adaptive technology to accommodate his particular disability is striking – and it is course fashioned at virtually no cost from a piece of wood.

Moving forward half a century from Hogarth to John Thomas Smith, we encounter an array of street beggars, many of them disabled, and beautifully sketched in his publication Vagabondiana of 1817.

Picture22 John Thomas Smith 1817

Smith, known as ‘Antiquity Smith’ was an antiquarian dedicated to preserving the fading past, and he published this in the belief that beggars would disappear from London streets in the wake of new legislation which would move them from the street to institutions such as workhouses, as part of the moral and physical clean-up of London which occurred with evangelical zeal in the 1790s and early 1800s. He could afford therefore to be quite sentimental and nostalgic about these characters, as any threat they might once have posed had now disappeared. [slide 24] This first image symbolises this change, as we quite literally ‘see the backs of’ three disabled beggars as they leave the town for the workhouse on its outskirts.

Picture22 Appeal of the dog 1Picture22 Appeal of dog 2

Once again the dog appears, performing a threefold function, much as they do for street beggars today: companion or friend to the often isolated beggar, magnet to the public to attract extra donations and, if the beggar is disabled, guide or assistant. This first dancing dog – able to stand on his own two feet – was known as the ‘the real learned French dog Bob’ who would dance to solicit donations as his blind master played the barrel organ. The second dog, holding the begging bowl, would whine pitifully when its master called out ‘pray pity the blind’. Both of these dogs would also have acted as guides for their masters.

Picture22 Usefulness of the dog

Here is an even more functional disability helper dog. The beggar here is John McNully, an Irishman whose legs were crushed by a log and who ended up on the London streets. He got himself two dogs, known imaginatively as Rover and Boxer, and trained them to pull him on a small sledge. Again this was a common mobility adaptation, and brought into being the slang term ‘sledge beggar’. The two dogs were apparently such an attraction that they doubled McNully’s takings. It was said that when he would get drunk on the generous proceeds of a day’s begging, Rover and Boxer would unerringly drag the comatose McNully back to his lodgings, even finding a diversionary route when they were blocked by street repairs.

Picture24 Goya Yo lo he visto en Paris 1824-28

 

This had now become a popular mode of disabled transport, as usable paved streets proliferated in cities, as this sketch by Goya – ‘Yo lo he visto en Paris’ (I saw it in Paris) from the 1820s indicates.

Picture25 Jewish Beggar with cart

And here is a Jewish beggar, in a wheeled cart, who was pulled (by human helpers) to various locations around Petticoat Lane to solicit donations. His venerable appearance, Smith remarked, meant that Christians as well as Jews were happy to donate to him. Inevitably a slang term emerged to describe this form of disability transport – it was a go-kart, an expression we still use today.  And so the representations go on – a beggar who solicited donations at Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey, his cleverly targeted market the intellectual sensitive types that would pass by in that area – note that unlike the war veterans he does use crutches to support himself as well as his wooden leg. This may well have been through pure physical necessity, but also he is presenting himself in what has been called the ‘rhetoric of pity’ to draw attention to his afflictions. Others pooled together to present a combination of physical and social misfortunes. The blind beggar stands with the physically disabled beggar, his cane indicating his blindness. (White canes were not introduced until after World War I by the way). He was a British soldier who had been blinded in Gibraltar but chose to present himself as foreign, calling out in an indeterminate accent ‘de money, de money, go very low too.’ His calculation was that the double misfortune of being blind and not being British would attract additional generosity.

Picture26 Poets corner woith BeggarPicture27 Pooling Disabilities

The opposite approach was taken by this black beggar James Johnstone, a former sailor who became disabled in the course of duty and ended up on the streets. Note that as well as the crutch and stick he displays himself with a model ship on his head.

Picture28 Black Sailor Beggar

This was a model of the suitably patriotic HMS Nelson that he had made himself, and he would pass by people’s windows ducking and raising his head to make it look as if it was riding the waves. He would also sing patriotic sailor songs such as ‘the wooden walls of England.’ His presentation aimed to show that as a black disabled beggar, he was a patriotic black British man, who had served his country, and was not to be feared or despised. This was a self-presentation as a deserving disabled person.

Picture29 blind beggar with stick and childPicture30 Blind Beggar with stick

 

Blind beggars as well as dogs also used child guides, who had a reputation derived from a long history of ‘trickster’ stories of being mischievous and deceitful and just as capable of tricking their blind masters as helping them – note the mischievous expression of the child in this drawing.  Or they would negotiate the teeming streets of London with ever-longer canes – the blind beggar in this print is described as ‘beating the kerbstones with his cane’ as he walked.

 

Picture30 Multiple impairments with aids

And finally, note just once more the ingenuity of design fashioned from the most basic of resources to provide adaptive solutions to complex disabilities. Here a beggar with two amputations to the lower legs at different heights rests his knees on two differently-sized wooden blocks to give him balance and mobilises himself with two sticks.

So to finish, in an age where notions of disability were at times closely linked to Enlightenment fears about order and disorder and political instability, and where the nature and origin of your disability could determine whether you were seen as a deserving or undeserving disabled person, we should not forget the sheer ingenuity with which disabled people negotiated a complex world and ensured that they remained very much a part of it.

Simon Jarrett   simonj@jarr.demon.co.uk    Birkbeck University of London  Research Supported by Welcome Trust



Disability aesthetics and the body beautiful: Signposts in the history of art Tobin Siebers 2008- Sculpture

September 15, 2017 by richard

Disability aesthetics and the body beautiful: Signposts in the history of art

L’esthétique du handicap et la beauté du corps : des indications dans l’histoire de l’art

Under an Elsevier user license
open archive

Abstract

The discovery of fragmentary classical sculpture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reorients the making of art toward broken bodies, changing the nature of sculpture as an aesthetic form. But this category shift in the ideal of beauty also makes an opening for the emergence of disability aesthetics: the recognition that the disabled body becomes a valuable resource for the creation and appreciation of new art forms. The idea of disability aesthetics may be traced via disability signposts in which ancient works reminiscent of disability and modern works devoted to disability cross historically to create a powerful line of descent for the emergence of disability as an aesthetic value in itself.

Résumé

La découverte de sculptures classiques, fragmentaires, au xve et xvie siècles réoriente l’art vers les corps abîmés et transforme en même temps la nature propre de la sculpture en tant que forme esthétique. Ce déplacement dans la conception de l’idéal de beauté permet également l’émergence de l’esthétique du handicap, c’est-à-dire la reconnaissance que le corps handicapé devient une source de grande valeur pour la création et l’appréciation des formes nouvelles de l’art. On peut repérer cette idée de l’esthétique du handicap, au long de l’histoire de l’art dans certaines manières d’indiquer que les oeuvres anciennes peuvent évoquer le corps handicapé et dans des oeuvres modernes consacrées au handicap. Ainsi se manifeste un courant puissant qui met au jour le handicap comme valeur esthétique en soi.

Keywords

Disability aesthetics
Disability
Fragmentary sculpture
Venus de Milo

Mots clés

Esthétique du handicap
Handicap
Sculpture fragmentaire
Vénus de Milo

On the cusp between the 15th and 16th centuries, classical Greek and Roman statuary began to rise out of the ground–with the help of shovel and pick. The Apollo Belvedere was unearthed around 1490. The Laocoön was discovered in 1506. Probably the most beautiful sculpture of all, the Torso Belvedere (not to be confused with the Apollo Belvedere), was above ground for a century before it was discovered and championed by Michelangelo. Unearthed sculpture has one obvious and defining feature. It is nearly always broken. The Apollo Belvedere was discovered intact, the Laocoön nearly so, but the Torso Belvedere was little more than a beautiful fragment and, according to the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, most beautiful because it is so severely mutilated. The head, collar-bone, and shoulders of the Torso are split off and lost forever. Both limbs are severed at the knee. Almost 300 years later, the history of beauty was shaken once more, this time by the discovery of the female counterpart of the Torso. The Venus de Milo emerged from the ground in 1820, arriving late to the ball, but immediately declared to be the eternal standard of aesthetic and female beauty, despite the fact that she is missing both her arms.

The dazzling image of shattered bodies presented by fragmentary classical statuary penetrates almost immediately into the eye and mind of artists, who turn toward the artworks with feelings of awe rather than away from them in revulsion, who fight to preserve their fragmentary state rather than make the slightest effort to restore them to wholeness, who begin to mutilate their own works in order to imitate the perfection of the ancient broken bodies. Because the artists fall in love with broken bodies, so over time do we, the beholders of the art objects. No one bats an eye today at the fact that the Venus de Milo, although damaged, holds an honored place in the Louvre. She is not ruined by her flaws but beautified.

Leonard Barkan notices in Unearthing the Past this surprising evolution in the history of beauty, charting the impact of fragmentary statuary in the early modern period. He labels a “category shift” the development that transformed in this era sculptural fragments, separate from any possibility of becoming whole again, into objects of beauty capable of receiving attention and admiration (122). The “whole project of making art,” Barkan concludes, is reoriented “in response to broken bodies” (209).

This category shift constitutes, to my mind, one line of descent for the emergence of what I call “disability aesthetics,” the sea change affecting the history of art that increasingly provokes a preference for disabled bodies over non-disabled ones as we enter the modern age (Siebers, 2007). Another line of descent, almost concurrent, is the emergence of depictions of Christ’s suffering and defiled body in artworks representing the Passion cycle (Stiker, 2006, 2007). Disability aesthetics asserts the incontestable conclusion that modernist techniques and formal experiments render bodies whose shapes mimic deformation, whose coloration resonates with disease conditions, and whose subject matter takes on explicitly the representation of physically and mentally disabled people. The history of aesthetics evolves in the direction of disability, and we are all growing ever more conscious of this fact with every passing moment (Siebers, 2008).

If beauty is supposed to be flawless, and disability shows nothing but flaws, how do we account for the remarkable fact that modern art is preoccupied with human bodies that can only be described as disabled? How does beauty thought broken at first glance becomes beauty adored as perfect at second glance? And, finally, how might we expect the idea of beauty given to us by the history of art to change our everyday idea of beauty? Will we ever get to the stage where we see in our neighbor’s disabled body the same radiant beauty that we experience when we gaze upon the Torso Belvedere or the Venus de Milo?

Here are a few snapshots capturing important moments in the evolution of disability aesthetics. We might call them “disability signposts”–at first strange and then more frequent appearances of disability, not quite recognizable as such, certainly not designed as such, and then unrecognizable as anything else, until the subject of disability emerges explicitly as itself, chosen consciously by both non-disabled and disabled artists. A disability signpost is a work through which the influence of disability on the history of aesthetics may be read. Signposts are often crossing points where historical forces mingle. They are at once deeply chronological and anachronistic, simultaneously historical and non-historical. They make evident that disability as a concept bears weight backwards in time, giving meaning retroactively to images and ideas for the advancement of disability aesthetics. It is through these signposts, I want to suggest, that the aesthetic value of disability arises and comes to dominate the history of art.

The Torso Belvedere is badly damaged (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Belvedere_torso_by_jmax.jpg). Fig 1a

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fig 1a Torso Belvedere OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But Michelangelo supposedly declared that no attempts be made to restore it. Kneeling before it as before an altar he found that “this is the work of a man who knew more than nature” (Barkan, 200). Winckelmann saw in the Torso the perfect masculine form. He explained that the sculpture stirred the beholder to powerful feelings because it was incomplete. Headless, the sculpture nevertheless presents as a seat of noble and lofty acts of contemplation; armless, the work lifts the world around it; legless, it seems the height of mobility, ready to stand up and leave behind in the distance those viewing it (Winckelmann, 527–29). The seal of the Torso as perfection personified reaches its zenith in the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Michelangelo smashed with a hammer one of his finished works in order to complete it. In any event, Michelangelo’s “habit of abandoning, not finishing, or even mutilating his sculptures” may be ascribed, Barkan claims, to the category shift in aesthetic beauty brought about by the influence of works such as the Torso Belvedere (206). Michelangelo’s Slaves and Prisonersdo not need to be finished to be thought beautiful. Fig 1b

Florence-Michelangelo-Prisoners-Slaves-1b

Although the Torso represents the height of masculine form, its beauty is neither represented as disabled nor reproduced as fragmentary, except in drawings, until much later in time. Michelangelo obviously incorporates his vision of the Torso into many of his works, including Victory and various figures in the Last Judgment, especially notable in the depictions of Christ and Saint Bartholomew. But none of these figures is missing head and limbs. At that moment in history, to make such an image would have been too radical a gesture, and we have to wait until Auguste Rodin to find a sculptor who revels in broken beauty, sometimes radically fragmentary, as in L’Homme qui marche (1900–1907), a heroic male body missing its head and arms but not its legs.

It is the Venus de Milo, however, that represents the most singular signpost in the evolution of disability aesthetics, for she becomes as time advances increasingly associated with the disabled body (Fig. 1). When the statue was found, discovered with it was the Venus’s left hand, but it was never attached to the body because it was less finished than other parts of the artwork. The Venus was from her discovery conceived as most complete and beautiful in her fragmentary state. The Venus is also the occasion for the first artistic statement in art history on the inevitability of seeing broken statuary as the representation of disabled people. René Magritte, the surrealist painter, took a dramatic turn toward realism or hyperrealism by depicting the Venus as a double amputee. He painted his version of the masterpiece, Les Menottes de cuivre (1931), in flesh tones and colorful drapery but splashed blood-red pigment on her famous arm-stumps, giving the impression of a recent and painful amputation (Fig. 2).

Venus de Milo, circa 100 B

Fig. 1Venus de Milo, circa 100 B.C.E. The Louvre, Paris. (C) RMNj/© Hervé Lewandowski.

René Magritte, Les Menottes de cuivre 1931, © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of…

Fig. 2. René Magritte, Les Menottes de cuivre 1931, © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. (C) 2008 C. Herscovici, London/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A transitional figure in the conception of the Venus as a disabled woman is Aristide Maillol, the celebrated French sculptor. He did not name his versions of the Venus as disabled, but a number of his works are strongly suggestive of the conflict between disabled and non-disabled bodies in conceptions of female beauty. Most obvious is the sculpture, Harmonie(1940), but more significant may be an earlier and little discussed painting. Les Deux Baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil (1938) shows Maillol trying to import into painting the concern with volume indicative of a sculptor. He paints two versions of Dina Vierny, seen from behind and in profile and facing each other, in order to gesture toward the image of a three-dimensional sculpture (Fig. 3). But the confrontation between the two figures produces as well a face-off between a disabled and non-disabled woman. The non-disabled woman, lying in the grass next to the pool, exists in the here and now. She is certainly beautiful. But the armless and legless woman floating on the surface of the pool, whether the reflection of the non-disabled woman or her twin rendered limbless by immersion in water, arises as the undeniable apparition of beauty. She is the dream of woman, whether haunting her non-disabled twin or Maillol himself. It is the armless and legless woman, then, whom Maillol appoints as the summit of aesthetic perfection, mimicking the captivating vision of female magnificence given to him by the Venus de Milo.

Aristide Maillol, Les deux baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil 1938

Fig. 3. Aristide Maillol, Les deux baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil 1938. Musée Maillol, Paris © 2008 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

It takes disabled artists to bring the evolution of disability aesthetics to a next stage in which disability is deliberately and explicitly represented as disability, not in the name of surrealism but in the name of a different aesthetic value–disability itself. Mary Duffy, the Irish performance artist, begins in the 1990’s to impersonate the Venus de Milo. Born without arms, Duffy presents herself to the audience fully nude or draped, while reciting statements challenging the vision of her as defective and claiming her place alongside the Venus as a disabled beauty (Fig. 4). She repeats the questions routinely posed to her by those unable to grasp her disability: “Were you born like that or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” She also throws back into their face the speech of doctors: “You have words to describe me, congenital malformation.” But she disputes the power of medical vocabulary, claiming a body image whose aesthetic beauty has been celebrated for almost 200 years and that feels right to her: “I felt my body was right for me … Whole, complete, functional” (Mitchell and Snyder). Mary Duffy emerges as a modern day Venus not by shunning disability but by incarnating it.

Mary Duffy, video-still taken from Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, Vital…

Fig. 4. Mary Duffy, video-still taken from Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back 1995.

Whether Marc Quinn discovered the inspiration for his signally important and beautiful series of sculptures, The Complete Marbles, in his vision of sculptural fragments at the British Museum or took it from the work of one of his subjects, Alison Lapper, is not clear and may not be significant. The combination of their vision catapulted Quinn and Lapper into controversy, celebrity, and another vision of beauty when Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnantwas placed on the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2005. Lapper, born without arms and with foreshortened legs, had already begun to represent herself as the next incarnation of the Venus de Milo before she met Quinn. In Untitled (2000), she photographed herself in series against a black backdrop, mimicking the standard photographs of the Venus de Milo in art history textbooks (Fig. 5). The year before, she had photographed herself in wings, representing herself in Angel (1999), as the Nike of Samothrace (see Millett). Like Duffy, Lapper engages in a deliberate recuperation of her own image as belonging among the most celebrated and valued representations of female beauty in the history of art.

Alison Lapper, Untitled 2000

Fig. 5. Alison Lapper, Untitled 2000.

These artworks produce a baffling but crucial bending of time in the historical interpretation of aesthetic beauty. The images that Duffy and Lapper make of themselves are seen as beautiful because they recall so powerfully the vision of beauty affirmed in the history of art by the Venus de Milo. But these images also change retroactively the perception of the Venus, for her beauty now incorporates necessarily the presence of disability. We cannot see Duffy and Lapper without seeing the Venus, and we cannot see the Venus without seeing Duffy and Lapper.

Marc Quinn’s Complete Marbles probes to the heart of this historical puzzle. The series, of which Alison Lapper Pregnant is a part (Fig. 6), devotes itself to the representation of disabled people born without arms or legs or who have lost them in accidents. The subjects are cast in beautiful, snow-white Carrara marble, and upon first glance, they appear to be updates of classical fragmentary statuary. Only a second glance reveals that Quinn is not mimicking breakage as did his forebears, Michelangelo, Rodin or Maillol, but representing disabled people. Consider a few examples of the subjects and their reactions to Quinn’s project. The subject of Catherine Long was born having no left arm. “People like myself–disabled people,” Long understands, “have felt that people relate to a broken statue differently to the way they might to a person with a disability” (Quinn 26). Tom Yendelldepicts a subject who was born without both arms. “Sculpting an unfinished human form as a finished form,” Yendell thinks, “is absolutely brilliant” (Quinn 43). The idea for the sculptures came to Quinn when visiting the British Museum and observing the reactions of people to the artworks “in a condition of mutilation.” He began to think that “if someone from real life came in who had a similar form, the reaction would be completely the opposite. In this instance, avoidance would replace aesthetic scrutiny” (Quinn 4). The thought experiment eventually brings Quinn to the conclusion that I have been tracing here, one synonymous with the emergence of disability as a modern aesthetic value of increasing interest: “if the Venus de Milo had arms it would most probably be a very boring statue” (Quinn 4). This conclusion compels Quinn to create a series of sculptures of people missing body parts. These sculptures are not boring but exhilarating precisely because they depict disabled people. They are beautiful for the same reason.

Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005

Fig. 6. Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005. Trafalgar Square. Photographed by Steven Mullaney.

Fig 6a  Tom Yendell Marc Quinnb 200 Complete Marbles

4 T

Figure 6a  Tom Yendell

Figure 6b Katherine Long

Katherine Long Marc Quinn

These last images by Duffy, Lapper, and Quinn are not images of disability at the periphery, such as the dwarfs in Vélasquez’s Las Meninas,

 

300px-Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez

 

 

but images of disability that demand to stand at center stage. For this reason, it is only right and just that Alison Lapper Pregnantfound an honored place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

My point is not that all the artworks discussed here represent disability intentionally but that intentions are rendered obsolete by the force of a retroactive reading of disability that recoups any semblances of disability in past works and demands that they be viewed anew as avatars of disabled people. Disability presents increasingly as the key figure in the production and appreciation of art, one that becomes synonymous with aesthetic value itself (Siebers, 2009). Not only is this evolution crucial because it embeds the perception of disability in some of the most creative and valued practices in human history but because it throws open the door to the work of disabled artists, whose images of themselves and other disabled people must now take their place alongside other treasured visions of beauty.

How far the evolution of disability aesthetics will advance is difficult to predict. We are a long way from picking out disabled people in the street as the pinnacle of human beauty. Unfortunately, they are almost everywhere stigmatized and disdained as inferior and ugly. But in the world of art, things are changing. In this one corner of the human universe, the one with the greatest claim to create and recognize beauty, people with disabilities are radiant.

References

Barkan, 1999
Leonard BarkanUnearthing the past: Archaeology and aesthetics in the making of Renaissance culture
Yale University Press, New Haven (1999)
Mitchell and Snyder, 2000
Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder, directors, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back, Chicago, Brace Yourselves Productions, 1996, 2000.
Quinn, 2004
Marc QuinnThe complete marbles
Mary Boone Gallery, New York (2004)
Millett, 2008
Millett, Ann, “Sculpting body ideals: Alison Lapper Pregnant and the public display of disability,” Disability Studies Quarterly 28,3 (2008): http://www.dsq-sds.org (accessed October 17, 2008).
Siebers, 2007
Siebers, Tobin, “Disability aesthetics,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 7,2 (2007): http://www.dsq-sds.org/2007_winter_toc.html (accessed October 17, 2008).
Siebers, 2008
Tobin SiebersZerbrochene Schönheit: Essays über Kunst, Ästhetik und Behinderung
Transcript Verlag. (Forthcoming), Bielefeld (2009)
Stiker, 2006
Stiker, Henri-Jacques. (2006). Les fables peintes du corps abîmé. Les images de l’infirmité du xvieau xxe siècle, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf.
Stiker, 2007
Stiker, Henri-Jacques. (2007). Approche anthropologique des images du handicap. Le schème du retournement ; Alter, European Journal of Disability Research, Revue européenne de recherche sur le handicap, vol.1-no  1.
Winckelmann, 2005
Johann Joachim WinckelmannHistoire de l’art dans l’antiquité
Librairie Générale Française, Paris (2005)


Disability in Art History

September 1, 2017 by richard

Disability in Art History

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FIRST THINGS FIRST…

This class will look at examples of the disabled human body as it has been represented in art history. What does it mean to be human? How is the body used and represented in visual culture? How are formations of disability articulated in relation to ideas of normality, hybridity, and/or anomaly, and how do artists use visual culture to affirm or subvert notions of the normative body? From Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Diego Velázquez to Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, artists have included images of the disabled body in their work. Other artists, including Orlan and Stelarc, have used their bodies to push notions of normality.

This lesson plan explores the body in visual culture to uncover the ways in which bodily difference is and has been articulated physically and theoretically and demonstrates the ways in which disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construction. This lesson includes artwork from across stylistic and historical periods in order to demonstrate the ways in which disability is historically and culturally contingent. Considerations include the changing role of images of the body in visual culture and the place of those representations in society.

Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just a few artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.

Themes:

  • Historical Representations of Disability
  • “Freakshows,” Power, and Privilege
  • Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

Chronologically, “disability studies” emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and “body art” was established as a category of contemporary art in the 1970s, but disabled bodies occur in art dating to at least the 1st century CE. Still, a class on the disabled body might come quite late in the semester, after looking at other issues of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. A lecture on “Disability in Art” can be a good opportunity to reflect on a central narrative of art history—representation of the human figure—and to reflect on the ways in which art contributes to and challenges the construction of normative culture. Disability studies offers an alternative methodology and point of departure for the study of the body in art history.

Consider past material covered with the class—how has the body, both abled and disabled, appeared within the course? Why do we tend to ignore the disabled bodies that appear in works such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)? How much have we learned about the lives and impact of people with disabilities throughout history? Why might that be?

300px-Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez 1656

Ableism is defined in disability studies as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. The ableist views able bodies as the norm in society, implying that people who have disabled bodies must strive to become that norm. Disability is thus held as an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity; disability is seen as a “bad” thing that must be overcome. Use this definition to prompt a discussion about the ways ability bias has impacted art making and the ways it can affect our understanding of history. Ask students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the above questions, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of works that include representations of disability. Consider the biases of historians who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions.

BACKGROUND READINGS

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568.

220px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Cripples

Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational disability studies texts and that address various applications of the topic outlined above (historical representations of disability; the “freakshow” and issues of power and privilege; and the body, performance art, and the posthuman) include:

  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body(New York: New York University Press, 1996).
  • Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  • Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives(New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  • Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement(New York: Times Books, 1994).

CONTENT SUGGESTIONS

Disability has always been part of the human condition. Throughout history, people with disabilities have often served as visual and cultural objects, rather than as active participants in and creators of culture and media. People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art, nor have they participated in the creation of the art objects in which their bodies appeared. Instead, artists and authors have used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature and to reinforce stereotypes about disability.

Disability is a subjective, corporeal, and complex sociocultural construction. Looking at disabled bodies in art history offers significant insight into the various ways in which art can support or subvert the construction and performance of normative values. Recognizing the ways in which art performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability and art.

The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in one hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

  • Polykleitos, Doryphoros, marble copy of bronze original, c. 450–440 BCE
  • Old Market Woman, 150–100 BCE
  • El Greco, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind,1570
  • Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (1180s)
  • Luttrell Psalter, 1325
    • Man with crutches
    • Crippled child
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, 1659
  • Francisco Goya, Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux, 1824–7
  • Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane, 1822
  • Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film,Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Francis Galton’s Composite Portraits (published in ThePhotographic News)
    • “The Jewish Type,” 1885
    • “Health, Disease, and Criminality,” 1885
  • Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Albrecht Dürer, frontispiece to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, 1645
  • Lavinia Fontana, Antonietta Gonzalez, 1656
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Myrtle Corbin, c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Eli Bowen “The Legless Acrobat,” c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Charles B. Tripp, c. 1880
  • Marion Post Wolcott, Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, 1939
  • Ben Shahn, Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, 1938
  • Russell Lee, Untitled, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 1938
  • Reginald Marsh, Sideshow Sign at Coney Island, c. 1939
  • Eudora Welty, Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair, c. 1939
  • Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Untitled, 1970–71
  • Otto Dix, War Cripples, 1920
  • Otto Dix, Scat Players, 1920
  • Orlan, Self-Hybridizations, 1994–Present
  • Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98
  • Lisa Bufano, Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, 2013
  • Matthew Barney with Aimee Mullins, Cremaster 3, 2002
  • Mary Duffy, Performance, 1995
  • Venus de Milo, 130–100 BCE
  • Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
  • Jake and Dinos Chapman, Übermensch(Portrait of Stephen Hawking), 1995

Old Market Woman, 100–150CE.

Historical Representations of Disability in Art History

What does the Classical world’s preference for idealism tell us about their ideology? Aristotle (384–322 BCE) believed, as did many in Ancient Greece, that men were the most highly evolved beings, and that women were an evolutionary step below, representing “the first step along the road to deformity.” Aristotle recommended euthanasia for “deformed children,” writing, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” Although Hellenistic art includes representations of “grotesques,” the elderly, and children, there were few representations of disability in the Ancient world. Ask students to compare and contrast Classical idealism in the Doryphoros and Hellenistic naturalism in the Old Market Woman and the ways in which stylistic preferences relate to societal values. Could the preference for naturalism and the inclusion of subjects with disabilities, including the elderly, the blind, and the lame, indicate tolerance or even respect for people with disabilities?

001Old Market Woman, 100-150CE.Doryphoros_MAN_Napoli_Inv6011-2

 

The rise of Christianity led to more depictions of people with disabilities, because in the New Testament, Jesus is frequently credited with showing kindness and performing miracles to cure people who were lame, blind, and otherwise disabled. These miracles were often depicted in art, for example in El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570) and the mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (Palermo, Italy), which show Jesus healing lepers.

DT407 Christ Healing the Blind El Greco 1540_41–1614 Toledo 157 NYMChrist healing Lepers 11784 on Cathedral Mosaic Montreale Palermo

Ask students to consider the ways in which the idea of “curing the sick” and Biblical miracles contributed to the historical understanding of people with disabilities and their place within society. For instance, the Church’s interest in disability was based on Jesus’ role as a miraculous healer and as a spiritual “physician.” Monks and nuns followed the seven “spiritual works,” which involved feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, and providing counsel and burial services.

“Spiritual works” may have been necessary at a time when much of the population, if they survived disease, famine, war and pestilence, would have had some degree of impairment. In Medieval England, the ‘lepre’ (leper), the ‘blynde’ (blind), the ‘dumbe’ (dumb), the ‘deaff’ (deaf), the ’natural fool’ (a person with a learning difficulty), the ‘creple’ (cripple), the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ (lunatic) were highly visible presences in everyday life and are represented in manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter.n medieval England, the 'leprechaun', the 'blynde', the 'dumbe', the 'deaff', the 'natural fool', the 'creple', the 'lame' and the 'lunatick' were a highly visible presence in Everyday life.

How do these depictions of people with disabilities as part of the fabric of everyday life differ from representations of miraculous cures? Christianity could be used to elicit empathy and support the humane treatment of people with disabilities, but it could also be used to support the belief that people with disabilities were cursed by Satan, and that their disability was a result of sin. As such, people with disabilities were often considered unclean and forced to live in exile. When traveling through a town, people with leprosy were required to ring a bell, alerting others to their presence.

At the time of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, persons with developmental disabilities were treated as subhuman organisms. Martin Luther (1483–1546) denounced children and adults with cognitive disorders as “filled with Satan.” Luther advised that children with severe mental retardation be drowned, because they lacked souls. Similarly John Calvin (1509–64) argued that people with disabilities were not among those predestined for salvation.

As the authority of the Roman Catholic Church diminished, many of the charitable services it provided ceased to exist. The poor and misfortunate, without the refuge of the church, became increasingly homeless at a moment of rapid growth in urban centers. In the city of Paris during the early 1500s, approximately one-third of the population resorted to begging as a means of survival. Many people with disabilities survived as mendicants, as pictured in The Beggars, by Pieter Bruegel (1568).

Christianity, then, often viewed disability as either a sin on the part of persons with disabilities or their families. However, they were also sometimes represented as an act of God for some divine purpose. In the first case, people were punished and excluded from society. In the second case, they were viewed as divine and considered holy. Perceived as sinners or saints, persons with disabilities were usually kept separate from mainstream society and their disabilities were thought to serve some divine purpose.

Have students compare and contrast Rembrandt’s Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple and Goya’s Beggars Who Get Around on Their Own in Bordeaux in small groups. Ask them to list their similarities and differences. What sorts of ideas and stereotypes about people with disabilities do these representations construct? What emotions do they evoke?

opnamedatum:2006-01-23

opnamedatum:2006-01-23

goya_beggar

Both images feature a man with a disability. In Rembrandt’s piece, there are two other characters as well: St. Peter and St. John, who stand over the “cripple” (the commonly accepted term of the time) in an attitude of benevolence and authority. In the biblical story, faith and divine intervention bring about a cure of the man’s disability.

Goya’s drawing focuses more closely on the disabled individual, a beggar riding in a wheelchair. The subject appears dirty and disheveled but also actively engaged in the world. Even the work’s title emphasizes mobility and independence. Goya’s beggar looks out of the piece at the viewer and is portrayed as an active person, whereas Rembrandt’s cripple sits passively, his back to the viewer; he waits to be healed so that he can then take part in the world around him.

Why are the two images so different? Is it because one is based on a religious theme, and the other focuses on contemporary nineteenth-century society? Might the circumstances of the artist’s lives impact their constructions? In 1792, Goya lost his hearing and had been deaf for thirty years when he made this drawing. Ask the class to discuss whether Goya’s deafness may have influenced his attitudes about disabilities? If so, how?

Building on, but diverging from the religious model that saw Jesus as the “spiritual physician,” the medical model of disability emerged in the nineteenth century and classified disability as an impairment, as something wrong with the body. Following the rise of modern scientific medicine and the professionalism of the discipline, doctors during the nineteenth century developed concepts of “disease” and “injury” to refer to deviations from normal body functioning. Disability became something to be healed by science rather than religion; it became a medical rather than a religious or social issue. Persons with disabilities became patients needing to be cured. By defining people by their disabilities rather than as full human beings, the medical model fosters classifications, dependence on professional care, and often involves painful treatments.

The medical model also lends itself to eugenics and Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, promoted by the nineteenth-century philosopher and political theorist Herbert Spencer, held that the theories governing the evolution of biological species—the “survival of the fittest”—held true for individuals and social systems as well. This belief helped to justify forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, and the incarceration of individuals with developmental disabilities in institutions. These “patients” often became subjects of artists and scientists who were interested in classifying people by type and appearance.

Among the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s greatest achievements are his Portraits of the Insane. There were ten of them originally, but only five have survived: A Woman Addicted to GamblingA Child SnatcherA Woman Suffering from Obsessive EnvyA Kleptomaniac, and A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command. In contrast to his teacher Jacques-Louis David, who had privileged heroic and athletic bodies in his Neoclassical paintings, Géricault, and others of his generation, created sensitive portrayals of suffering bodies that sympathized with victims rather than celebrating heroes.Portraits of the Insane

The fear of persons with physical deformities has long been popular in the media, with figures such as Quasimodo, Captain Hook, Dr. Strangelove, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. In addition to typecasting persons with disabilities as villains, this stereotype contributes to the fear of persons with disabilities living in the community. Students might be asked to discuss representations of people with disabilities in popular films such as: Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Stereotypes were reinforced through quasi-scientific theories like eugenics. During the “genetic scare” of the 1920s, people with developmental disabilities were often the objects of fear, believed to be driven by rage and intent upon harming others. “Ugly laws,” which made it illegal for people with visible disabilities to be seen in public, were passed across the country, many of which were not repealed until the mid-1970s. Twenty-eight states adopted statutes that sought sterilization, marriage restriction, and institutionalization of the disabled, and eugenicists advocated euthanasia for disabled infants. People with disabilities were systematically incarcerated, as well as subject to deportation under immigration law. Following the increased demand for segregated housing brought on by prejudicial medical diagnoses and public discrimination, states began building residential institutions at a rapid pace. Francis Galton, the father of the Eugenic Movement, used Composite Photographs to justify his belief in grades of humanity.Francis Galton Composite Types

Eugenic research had a direct influence on attitudes toward people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. As American professionals were calling for sterilization, Nazi Germany was blaming people with disabilities for wasting valuable resources. At the outbreak of World War II, Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life”; over 200,000 people with disabilities were killed during the holocaust.

There are similar concerns today in the bioethics community over Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” the suicide of Brittany Maynard, the fashion for “designer” babies, and the widespread acceptance of abortion of fetuses with possible cognitive or physical disabilities. Students might be asked to discuss: Who decides what constitutes a “life worth living?” How do media representations of ideal bodies influence our notions of what makes life worth living?

Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.

The “Freakshow,” Power, and Privilege

During the fifteenth century, people with physical and mental disabilities were boarded onto ships and exhibited for money before being abandoned at far-flung ports. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (1490–1500) depicts the lives of people with cognitive disabilities aboard such a ship.

In 1494, German satirist Sebastian Brant adapted Platos’ allegory of the ship of fools into a popular book that featured woodcut illustrations by Dürerand was the inspiration for Bosch’s painting by the same name. The allegory features a vessel without a pilot that is populated by deranged, frivolous, and oblivious inhabitants who are seemingly ignorant of their course. A parody of the Church’s “ark of salvation,” Ship of Fools inverted societal norms and critiqued the church’s mores and authority. The book became extremely popular, with six authorized and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Court fools were allowed to openly critique hierarchical societal structures, so by writing his work in the voice of Saint Grobian, whom Brant created as the patron saint of vulgarity, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.

Brant Ship of Fools300px-Jheronimus_Bosch_011 Ship of Fools

In the introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Jose Barchilon writes of the ship of fools:

Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then “knew,” had an affinity for each other. Thus, “Ships of Fools” crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.

Fools were also viewed as popular “pets” in the royal court, and dwarfs were featured in the work of Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez.

Velázquez painted many portraits of dwarfs, including his Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (1645), which can be compared to the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of ten-year-old Antonietta Gonzalez (1595), whose father Pedro, “The Hairy Man from Munich,” was the first documented case of “werewolf syndrome” or hypertrichosis (as it would be called once the fantastic ailment was scientifically and clinically classified by doctors in the early twentieth century).220px-Velazquez-MorraSuissa

 

What sort of life might these people have led? Are these portraits sensitive and humanizing, or do they contribute to the subordination of people with disabilities?

Although people with disabilities had been exhibited on “ships of fools” and at court, the heyday of such practices came with the opening of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1841. During the 1840s the term “freak” came to refer to “a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” This definition owes its place in the English vernacular to Barnum and his American Museum (1841–65), which relied on sensational exhibits to draw crowds.

The use of the word “freak” in this part of the lecture and in the scholarship is a conscious choice based on several factors. First, freak is the vernacular of the carnival and is thus historically based. Second, many have offered the word as one that has been reappropriated and inscribed with power, much like the word “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as well as academics performing queer studies. Moreover, the term connotes the absence of known categories of representation—it is outside representation if you will. The use of this word offers a theoretical discussion point for the class.

In Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, gender theorist Judith Butler has theorized the body as a discursive space, a text, where cultural and heterosexual hegemony exerts power. As she argues, identity, class, race, sex, and gender are socially constructed and thus performative. In many ways “freakiness” is performative, even when people are displaying their actual physical bodies. Photographs are also performative, so “freak” photography is compelling, not just in the sense that we are drawn to look—to stare unabashedly if you will—without the fear of getting caught (disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has theorized the “stare” in lives of people with disabilities), but also in that photographs are conscious constructions not just by the subjects, but also the photographers and the mores of society acting upon their representation.Butler Gender Trouble

At the same time, however, there are opportunities for rupture—places and moments where expectations are not met, where the bodies and the photographs of those bodies do not perform the way the viewer or audience might expect. These photos then, especially in the case of portraits, allow people with disabilities to challenge normative ideologies, to construct their own personas, and to create expanded discursive spaces.

Charles Eisenmann was a professional portrait photographer who made cartes de visite, or calling cards, for his exceptional clientele. He kept a studio in New York’s Bowery district, which in the 1880s was home to a mix of artists, performers, and prostitutes, close to Barnum’s American Museum. The performers used the calling cards as marketing and promotional tools. Eisenmann also sold them as collectibles to people who often assembled them into albums. He also kept his own archive. Here are some examples of his studio’s work.

Myrtle Corbin was billed as “the 4-legged girl from Texas,” a popular attraction for Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and Coney Island. One of the most popular sideshow freaks, she earned as much as $450 dollars a week (that would be about $14,000 per week today). At the age of nineteen, she married a doctor, with whom she had five children.220px-Myrtle_Corbin220px-Eli_Bowen_by_Atkinson,_1867Charle B GTripp

Eli Bowen was a tumbler and strong man who toured Europe with Barnum. He was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine during which he climbed a thirteen-foot pole, then swung around the pole holding his body parallel to the pole with one hand. He married and had four sons. He took great pride in his family and the majority of the photos featuring Eli feature his family as well.

A skilled cabinetmaker, Charles B. Tripp incorporated intricate wood inlay designs into his cabinets. In 1872, he joined Barnum’s circus and worked in his traveling World Fair for almost twenty-five years, then worked another twenty-five years with other circuses including Ringling Bros. In his acts, he performed such tasks as penmanship, portrait painting, and paper cutting. At the turn of the century, Charles became interested in photography and was known as “The Armless Photographer.” He worked as staff photographer to the Barnum circus and also taught others in the show photography.

Eisenmann closed his studio in 1898 after Barnum closed the American Museum and the sideshow went on the road. The traveling sideshow became a popular form of leisure and entertainment during the Great Depression, and several artists including Reginald Marsh, Eudora Welty, and the Farm Security Administration photographers Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott took photographs of the sideshow performers or the banners that advertised the acts of the sideshow.

The FSA collection in the Library of Congress contains about 180,000 images, but only 713 of these were taken at fairs. It appears that only Delano, Rothstein, Lee, Shahn, and Post Wolcott covered the fairs for the FSA, even though these fairs exhibited the products of the farms the FSA was aiding, and fair coverage would seem to fit FSA head Roy Stryker’s mandate of “introducing America to Americans.”

This may reflect attitudes toward persons with disabilities in the 1930s. During the 1930s, people with disabilities faced significant segregation and oppression. Considered by the medical and political establishments as “unfit” for normal roles in society, disabled people were excluded from jobs provided by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration programs, which, according to the WPA Workers’ Handbook, were reserved for “able-bodied” Americans who were “certified by a local agency.”

Of the images taken at fairs, the vast majority are of FSA exhibits, rides, or spectators, though Rothstein, Delano, Wolcott, and Shahn photographed banners, and Lee offered the viewer images of the sideshow, including one of a one-legged man biting the head off of a snake.

Ask students to discuss Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, Shahn’s Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, and Lee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana. How do these government-sanctioned photographs of difference contribute to and complicate our understanding of disability and its place within American history?

Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and CarnivalLee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana.

 

Other photographers of the period interested in the sideshow included Welty and Marsh. Lead students in a compare and contrast Marsh’s Sideshow Sign at Coney Island and Welty’s Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair.ahtr-disability-in-art-history-25-638 (1)

How does gender, both of the photographers and the signs’ subjects (“Mule-face boy” and “Mule-face woman,” respectively), influence these representations and our understanding of them?

Another photographer interested in unusual subjects was Diane Arbus. Her award-winning work has been exhibited in major shows, has earned her two Guggenheim Fellowships, and has attracted heated and divisive criticism, even after (and perhaps fueled by) her death by suicide in 1972. As she told a New Yorker reporter, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience […] Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Arbus’s photography offers the opportunity to facilitate a debate in class, as scholars are divided on the degree to which her photographs exploited her subjects.

Germaine Greer argues that, although Arbus operates within the tradition of freak photography, there is an important difference between her and her predecessors like Eisenmann. As she argued, “Eisenmann’s subjects had names, stage names and real names. The giants, dwarves, midgets, conjoined twins, bird-girls, bearded women and dog-faced boys whose photographs appear on thousands of postcards were all professionals. Often the notes on the postcards spoke of them as well-educated and happily married. Arbus’s nameless subjects are denied such confederacy and performativity. She often uses the devices of the older tradition in her treatment of otherwise unremarkable subjects. She reduced her subjects to generic phenomena by the names she chose for them: Jewish Giant, Mexican Dwarf, Albino Sword-Swallower.”

Jewish GiantMexican DwarfArbus Albino Sword Swalloer

As she says, “Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from self.” (“Wrestling with Diane Arbus,” The Guardian, 2005).

Similarly Susan Sontag suggests Arbus’s “interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe” and that her photographs are “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

On the other hand, John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, saw Arbus as a trailblazer in a new photographic aesthetic, and Sandra S. Philips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art argues that Arbus “was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of a new kind of photographic art.”

Do these photographs do violence to their subjects, as Sontag argued, or do they offer visibility to people who are otherwise marginalized?

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.

 

Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

The final section offers examples of modern and contemporary artists who engage with issues of disability in their work. A significant issue in contemporary theory is the deconstruction of the embodied nature of humanism. In humanistic thought, the mind and body are separate, with the body acting as a vehicle for the mind. Information technologies, scientific discoveries, and bioengineering challenge the role of the body, yet they are unable to fully replace the human body. Moreover, war, plastic surgery, and prosthetics have had a significant impact of the role of the body as well as of representations of people with disabilities, specifically as powerful subjects in critiques of war. Take for instance the German painter Otto Dix’s critique of WWI as seen in Scat Players and War Cripples.

War Cripples 1920 Dix1920-SkatPlayers

Just as Brant used the Ship of Fools to challenge the cultural hegemony of the Church and the Crown during the fifteenth century, Dix’s work incorporates the mangled bodies of war veterans to show the human costs of nationalism during the early twentieth century. World War I was the first industrialized war, and the mechanization of warfare had dramatic effects.

Brant Ship of Fools

Due to increased medical knowledge, wounds that would have killed soldiers in the past now left them disfigured amputees. These wounded veterans are a recurring theme in Dix’s work. The card players, who are outfitted with crude prosthetics, represent the German elite of the Weimar era. The soldier on the right wearing the Iron Cross represents the military. Opposite him sits a figure alluding to finance and capitalism. In the middle is a figure symbolizing the old aristocracy. The card players are propped up by technology, but the painting critiques the degree to which this can be considered progress.

While Dix used amputees as vehicles to parody political leaders in a fashion similar to Brant’s Ship of Fools, others have used prosthetics to investigate difference, the posthuman, and the transhuman. “Posthumanism” denotes an interest in the possibilities of life beyond human evolution and addresses questions of ethics, justice, language, and trans-species communication. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to transform the human condition through technologies that enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacity. ACFAE71 Orlan Self hybridisationand Stelarc (Third Arm) are two contemporary artists who investigate and push the boundaries of “humanness” by undergoing surgeries to transform their bodies into hybrids and cyborgs.

Lisa Bufano’s dance work has incorporated a variety of prosthetics and props, such as using orange Queen Anne table legs as legs and arms, as seen in Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Bufano was a professional dancer before she became a bilateral below-the-knee and total finger-thumb amputee due to a staphylococcus bacterial infection at the age of twenty-one. Unwilling to give up her passion for dance, she developed ways to use her work to investigate corporeal difference and sexual identity. Sadly, she committed suicide in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOzxvHncsf4  Lisa Bufano

Matthew Barney has also expressed an interest in corporeal difference and sexual identity, which he explored extensively in his Cremaster series. This still features Aimee Mullins, who was born with a medical condition that resulted in the amputation of both of her lower legs. She is known for her work as an athlete, actress, fashion model, and proponent of prosthetic innovation.

In Cremaster 3, Barney’s character undergoes Masonic initiation. A major theme of the film is the Masonic theory that you have to lose your “lower” self in order to reach a higher level. Mullins is literally without legs — the lower self — and is depicted alternately with crystal prostheses and cheetah legs; Barney must kill her to achieve the level of Master Mason. Barney’s film is controversial and has been interpreted as alternately fetishizing and demonizing the posthuman prosthetically/technologically enhanced body.2006AY2236_jpg_ds Aimee Mullins Dazed and Confused 1998 Nick Knight Photo V&A

Other performance artists have used their disabilities to challenge stereotypes and normative behavior. The Irish artist Mary Duffy was born without arms. In 1995, she did a Performance piece in which she posed in the nude and performed a monologue, during which she described the ways her body has been defined by medicine and society as lacking, inadequate, and undesirable. In the piece, she discussed her confrontations with medical and social gazes and described how they impacted her self-confidence. She used her body to invoke the famous “armless” broken sculpture Venus de Milo, and to challenge normative beauty standards.

As part of the performance, she relayed questions that people had asked her, including “Were you born like that, or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” Duffy’s performance exposed the nude disabled body visually and artistically, as it also revealed the social practices and values that render disability politically invisible.

As a challenge to invisibility, Young British Artist Marc Quinn sculpted fellow artist and activist Alison Lapper Pregnant in Carrara marble for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The work featuring Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, has been the subject of controversy and debate by those who view it alternately as offensive or progressive. The work, like Quinn’s other sculptures of amputee models for the series The Complete Marbles (2002), adopts the idealism of Neoclassicism to critique public representations of disability.ahtr-disability-in-art-history-37-638alexandra-westmoquetteKiss 3 Marc Quinn

In contrast, the Jake and Dinos Chapman’s portrait of Stephen Hawking rejects idealism. Labeled “the most detestable, the most repellent, and the most pointless work of art” by The Guardian, this lifelike twelve-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture depicts Hawking in his wheelchair on top of a rocky mountain. Although decried by The Guardian as crude and sarcastic, Art Monthly labeled it brilliant, and some disability rights scholars have defended it as an honest portrayal that captures the reality of both the subject and the artists.

Jake and Dinos Chapman Stephen Hawking Climbing the Rockies

Students might discuss the politics of representation present in this piece, and debate whether it is sardonic or sincere.

AT THE END OF CLASS…

Ask students to reflect on the various ways that disability has been constructed throughout history and how visual representations are powerful tools in the construction of societal values. This lecture has brought together religious and secular paintings, photographs, contemporary sculptures, performance, and digital media to examine the various visual constructions of disability and difference that they embody. If students are interested in further projects related to arts and disability, you might direct them to http://disartfestival.org/, an online resource. Whereas disability has rarely been a part of the American cultural imaginary, the DisArt Festival hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated.

Keri Watson (author) is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Central Florida, focusing on modern and contemporary art and issues of disability in visual culture.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/disability-in-art-history/



Disability Arts movement in UK

August 24, 2017 by admin

Four animations produced by the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive in collaboration with UKDHM.

The Social Model

 

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive

 

Portraiture & Representation

 

The Disability Arts Movement: Arts & Activism infused

 

Materials to do educational work around the NDACA Animations

Social Model Activity p1

Social Model Activity p2

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive Activity

Portraiture & Representation Activity

The Disability Arts Movement Activity

Artist Profiles

Tony Heaton

Tanya Raabe Webber

Paddy Masefield

Nancy Willis

Julie McNamara

Jane Campbell

Ian Stanton

David Hevey

Dave Lupton

Allan Sutherland

Alan Holdsworth



Healing Spas and Ugly Clubs: How Victorians Taught Us to Treat People With Disabilities

July 10, 2017 by richard

Healing Spas and Ugly Clubs: How Victorians Taught Us to Treat People With Disabilities

http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/healing-spas-and-ugly-clubs-how-victorians-taught-us-to-treat-people-with-disabilities/

— July 21st, 2015

V0015876 Portrait of Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman reading emboss

In Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, a 2015 adaptation of a 1960s Marvel comic, flashbacks reveal that an accident blinding a boy also enhances his other four senses and gives him one more—radar location. That means the adult Matt Murdock can be a lawyer by day and a masked crime fighter by night, using his extra-sharp hearing, smelling, touch, and reflexes to brawl with villains he can’t see. In reality, a person with one impairment will have other talents and rely on different senses to navigate the world, but it’s never beyond the scope of natural human capacity. Disability scholars refer to such myths of super-human skills as a “fantasies of compensation,” which, like most of our popular beliefs about disability, come from the Victorian Era.

“Disability is a continuum, and it’s actually difficult to decide, legally, who is disabled and who is not.”

In fact, society didn’t have a concept of “lacking ability” until industrialization, which, by the 19th century, had created an obsessive demand for “able-bodied workers” who could rapidly churn out mountains of goods. Unfortunately, in the 1800s the sciences of biology and medicine hadn’t kept pace with advances in mechanical technology, so one infection or unfortunate encounter with a factory machine could lead to invalidism, loss of a limb, or early death. As people with disabilities became more visible and regarded as problematic, able-bodied citizens started to feel compassion for what they perceived as tragic lives. What to do with all these “unproductive” bodies?

Everyone had different ideas. Social reformers in the 19th century attempted to “normalize” people with disabilities through rehabilitation, education, and discreet new prosthetics. Inventors created all sorts of bizarre quack devices to help people “overcome” their disabilities. Certain educators even waged a war against sign language to force deaf people to learn how to speak like regular folk. Darwin-inspired eugenicists supported sterilizing anyone thought to have inherited undesirable traits, which physiognomists asserted could be read on one’s face or body. Many people with obvious physical disabilities and deformities still made a living by being gawked at and mocked in freak shows, while men with deformities but deep pockets raised their own esteem by joining Ugly Clubs, even as cities were starting to pass “ugly laws” against “unsightly beggars.”

Top: An 1844 portrait of Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman, the first blind and deaf person educated at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of the Wellcome Library) Above: An early wheelchair, known as a "Bath chair," at the St John's Museum Store, Bath. (Via WikiCommons)

Before industrialization, British scholar Lennard J. Davis asserts in his book, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, people with disabilities were an integrated part of their community, though subjected to regular ridicule. For example, according to Davis, in ancient Greece, people with physical or mental impairments were likely to be given tasks suited to their unique abilities or that accommodated their slower pace. So-called freak shows got their start in medieval Europe, where men with hunchbacks, dwarfism, or other physical or mental disabilities, who were considered “natural fools,” were hired to create comedy routines that played up their differences; some eventually became trusted advisors to royalty as court jesters. Even in the 18th century, it was socially acceptable to point and laugh at a person who looked or moved in an obviously different way.

When capitalism exploded in the 19th century, it created a middle class obsessed with “normalcy,” and as industrialization spread, Western society put an emphasis on the body as a means of production and productivity as a means to citizenship. Then, having a disability was seen as more sad than funny. Men who couldn’t work were thought to have more in common with women, while disabled women had a harder time fulfilling their gender role of getting married and having children.

“Preindustrial societies tended to treat people with impairments as part of the social fabric, although admittedly not kindly,” Davis writes, “while postindustrial societies, instituting ‘kindness,’ ended up segregating and ostracizing such individuals through the discursivity of disability.”

In Edgar Allan Poe's 1849 short story "Hop-Frog," the titular little person, a king's "natural fool" with disabled legs, falls in love with a beautiful little person named Trippetta and seeks revenge against the royals for abusing her. Arthur Rackham drew this illustration in 1935. (Via WikiCommons)

In her new book, The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel, Karen Bourrier—who is also the project director of the fascinating web site “Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts”—explores how men with disabilities were portrayed in the literature of the era. While these characters lacked the ability to be “strong men of industry,” their perceived weakness was thought to give them incredible insight.

“An Ugly Club member would be an object of ridicule on the streets, but a superstar within the sanctum of the club.”

“When I started reading Victorian novels about disability, I noticed a strong masculinity that would be able to take up the challenges of industry was a priority,” says Bourrier, who is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. “But often the life story of the strong, self-made man is told through the perspective of a ‘weak’ or disabled male character to soften the contours of that kind of industrial masculinity. Often a character with a clubfoot or a hunchback has this terrible experience growing up. I’m thinking about Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, for example. It makes them feel excluded from society, but then, therefore, they’re more sensitive to other’s pain. That’s an idea that makes a lot of sense to us these days, but it was a switch from the 18th century when people might have viewed disability as just humorous.

“In the Victorian novel, a person with a disability often has all of these powers of observation, as a privileged spectator who can’t participate in other arenas of life,” she continues. “Disability study scholars call that a ‘fantasy of compensation,’ a stereotype that’s worrisome and pernicious. Literary critics of the era did ponder, ‘Why is there this saintly figure who’s directing the whole household from the couch and has special insight that seems to stem from his or her disability?’”

In Charles Dickens' "Dombey and Son," published between 1846 and 1848, Mrs. Skewton, seated in a three-wheeled chair, is greeted by a gentleman who tips his hat to her. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, scan by Philip V. Allingham, Victorian Web)

The disabled spinster cliché also comes up quite often in Victorian literature, but sometimes, Bourrier explains, the woman actually enjoys being released from her gender role, like in Dinah Craik’s novel, Olive. “In it, a woman is able to become an artist because she has a spinal deformity,” she says. “She figures she’ll never get married and may as well pursue her art.”

While Victorians didn’t use the term “disability”—they would use terms now considered offensive like “handicapped” or “crippled”—they applied a marginalizing “other” status to people with a wide variety of conditions, including blindness, deafness, invalidism, paraplegia, dwarfism, amputated limbs, mental retardation, undiagnosed autism, psychosis, clubfoot, and facial and spinal deformities. This is, in part, Davis explains, because the new science of statistics gave the average body real physical dimensions, and early Victorian culture celebrated the middle—a place where modesty and moderation indicated good morals and work ethic.

If a person didn’t possess the physical or mental ability to be a productive worker, they were seen as defective. That defectiveness was also thought to affect their character, sometimes poorly and sometimes positively, as Bourrier explores in The Measure of Manliness. Because physical appearance was believed to reveal a person’s moral compass and chances at success, even deformities that didn’t affect one’s ability to work were also seen as problems to be corrected.

In 1887's "Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements," photographer Eadweard Muybridge shows people with disabilities, such as this crawling child, in motion. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

According to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” the Victorian era laid the groundwork for a belief system still operating today known as the “medical model of disability,” which “sees disability as a personal tragedy that needs to be fixed or overcome through medical intervention.” Seeing disability through a tragic lens, however, sparked interest in the experiences of people with disabilities and made them more visible in the 1800s.

“An industrial mentality saw workers as interchangeable and therefore sought to create a universal worker whose physical characteristics would be uniform.”

“The 19th century was the first to portray disability as the cause of individual suffering, and many disabled persons expressed their lived experiences in writing or art,” says Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, a researcher who contributes to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” in an interview via email. “Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was deaf since childhood and an invalid for a few years; she shared her experiences in several essays, including her ‘Letter for the Deaf,’ in which she suggests conquering the ‘struggle’ over the constraints of deafness required first acknowledging the limitations of a deaf person’s social surrounding. British missionary John Kitto (1804-1852), deaf since age 12, was self-educated and wrote several books on religion and his travel experiences. American painter William Dunlap (1776-1839) painted a series of self-portraits depicting the permanent blindness in his right eye.”

As people with disabilities started telling their stories in the public arena, they also were photographed in ways that suggests their disabilities were crucial to their identity, explains Virdi-Dhesi, who has a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Toronto.

A 1786 mezzotint of James Hutton, a Moravian minister and bookseller, showing him using his ear trumpet, by J.R. Smith after R. Cosway. (Via The Science Museum in South Kensington, U.K.)

“Disabled persons were captured in photographs with the objects of their disability clearly presented,” she says. “Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) is depicted in a mezzotint holding an ear trumpet to his ear. A black-and-white photograph of Elizabeth Margaretta Maria Gilbert (1826-1885), the founder of the Association for Promoting the General Welfare of the Blind, shows her wearing a cape and shaded glasses. And amateur painter William Agnew (1846-1941), who was born deaf and mute, painted several scenes illustrating Queen Victoria conversing in sign language with a subject. These examples push forth the notion that disability in the 19th century was not always perceived negatively, to be hidden, or as though disabled persons were living in misery.”

Ear trumpets were among the myriad inventions that came out of the persistent belief that, even with the help of political or social institutions, it was the disabled individual’s responsibility to strive to become more “normal.”

“Having lost my hearing at age 4 following a serious bout of meningitis, my childhood was marked by my family’s attempts to cure my hearing loss,” Virdi-Dhesi says of growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s. “I recall the painful scent of burning chili peppers as a move to ward off the ‘evil eye,’ scores of visits to the temple for blessings, the chafing of copper bracelets possessing powers to extract the ‘disease.’ Among these attempts were visits to the ENT clinic, feelings of failure following hearing tests, the weight of hearing aids, and special speech lessons. Reading 19th-century medical case studies of all the attempts invoked to ‘cure’ a person of their hearing loss resonated through the passages of time and connects with me. I can sympathize with the patients, but I also understand the need for a ‘cure’ that was so tirelessly advocated by medical practitioners.”

The Hall Braille-writer was the first successful and widely used mechanical Braille-writer. (Via Antique Typewriters: The Martin Howard Collection)

On the plus side, useful Victorian inventions such as Braille, wheelchairs, typewriters, phonographs, and advancements in prosthetics offered people with disabilities more mobility, autonomy, and access to education.

“Braille was invented in the 19th century, and the phonograph, invented by Edison in 1877, gave the blind a way to listen to books and be more independent, even though it was not necessarily made for them,” Bourrier says. “The typewriter also became commercialized, in the 1860s and 1870s, so you could write a letter if you were blind. There were huge improvements in prosthetics, in part due to the Civil War in the U.S. Apparently, prosthetic eyes also weren’t very convincing before the mid-19th century, but they got a lot better, and that helped people who’d lost an eye become less stigmatized.”

Inventors also came up with many aids to hearing by studying the anatomy of the ear and exploring scientific principles of acoustics, Virdi-Dhesi says. “Some of them were brilliantly constructed, even designed to be camouflaged as ordinary furniture or hidden on the person,” she says. “There was an ‘acoustic headband,’ with a porcelain flower painted white and blue, and a hidden ear trumpet beneath the flower—it was designed to be disguised in a woman’s bouffant hairdo. There are ear trumpets designed as walking canes, so a gentleman could simply bring the cane up to his ear when he needed to. Most trumpets and aids were pretty standard in the 19th century—designed to increase hearing amplification through funnels, but the shape and weight of these aids depended on the user, as did their degree of success. A person with moderate hearing loss, for instance, could have their hearing increased by 20 dB with the use of a bell-shaped trumpet.”

A Victorian hearing trumpet swathed in black fabric and lace. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

But this push toward “normalization” also created what disability scholars call the “overcoming narrative,” which puts undue pressure on people with disabilities to excel despite their impediments.

“Often the life story of the strong, self-made man is told through the perspective of a ‘weak’ or disabled male character.”

“Simply put, the ‘overcoming narrative’ is this cultural idea that a person must overcome any limitations that set them back or prevent them from achieving success,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “For the most part, this requires ‘masking’ the disability to appear as ‘normal’ as possible, or managing to do ‘normal’ things in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of society. For deaf persons, this means to adopt technologies that allow them to hear, or to learn how to lip-read and articulate sounds, rather than using sign language, which draws attention to their status as a deafened person. For individuals with amputated limbs, this requires the use of prostheses to camouflage their disability, especially the use of prostheses that enables them to do ordinary things, such as use a fork, tie a shoelace, and so on.”

Quack doctors in the 19th century also subjected disabled people to plenty of inventions that just didn’t work, particularly devices that used new technology such as violet rays, electricity, and vibrations as well as strange orthopedic apparatuses and patent medicines that promised miraculous cures.

“The closing years of the 19th century and the early 20th century introduced a tremendous amount of interesting and quackish hearing devices, such as the artificial eardrums, tiny devices made of metal or rubber and inserted into the ear to increase residual hearing,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Many of these devices were experiments with the new marvel of electricity. Galvanism was a well-known remedy in cases of deafness that were diagnosed as paralysis of the auditory nerves; treatments required applying electricity to the ear in order to simulate ‘dead’ ear muscles.

In 1905, Dr. Guy Clifford Powell, of Peoria, Illinois invented and marketed a device he called the Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness. (Via JaIVirdi.com)

“Similar principles were governed in the Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness, a device invented and marketed by Dr. Guy Clifford Powell of Illinois in 1905,” she continues. “The apparatus apparently cured a patient of deafness by pumping air through the ears via cotton-covered electrodes soaked in salt water. After pumping in air, a jolt of electricity generated by the solenoid coils is sent to the patient’s head. Two Electro-Magneto Storage Cells batteries were placed inside the top cover. Several patented devices made use of violet-ray therapy, believing that ultraviolet rays could cure damages in the ear or ‘build-ups of calcium.’ Vibrating therapy was a popular design for apparatuses to cure deafness; some were advertised as ‘tissue oscillators.’ The rare battery-powered Violin Vibraphone—which used sound frequencies to stimulate ‘frozen’ inner-ear ossicles—is perhaps the strangest instrument I’ve ever come across!”

“Freak shows seem to be a way for communities to define who’s normal and who’s not, and assert those values in a troublesome manner.”

For deaf people in particular, the drive for normalization also held them back. Sign language, which Western societies developed in the early 18th century, helped deaf children communicate with their hearing family and friends, who may have never tried to communicate with deaf people before, Bourrier explains. But in the 19th century, American telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell led a movement to force deaf persons to give up sign language, which he insisted wasn’t a language, and learn how to speak, controlling the shape and volume of the sounds they made. He believed that “this capacity to speak is what makes you human and separates you from the animals,” Bourrier says. “These pernicious arguments made things worse for the deaf in the 19th century.”

In her research, Virdi-Dhesi has looked into why this cultural shift happened. “While the 18th century and first half of the 19th century was marked with a steady increase in the popularization of sign language as a mode for communication with the deaf, and the establishment of residential schools for the deaf, things changed after the 1850s,” she says. “As deaf persons from across America became integrated into a ‘Deaf culture,’ with a common language and community, they no longer felt isolated. Organizations, employment, events, and even newspapers for the deaf were created, further solidifying a sense of belonging and community. However, as Deaf identity and culture was coming into fruition, the deaf were in danger of being isolated from another vision of America. In her book, Words Made Flesh, R.A.R. Edwards shows how education outlined on the Prussian model of practicality and efficiency was believed to be the cure for all of America’s problems, from poverty and crime to disease, and ignorance. Tying Americans under a common culture would unify the country under the same nationalistic banner. And that included the Deaf, who had to learn English, rather than sign language, and share in the same oral culture.”

A postcard print of William Agnew's popular 1889 painting shows Queen Victoria using sign language to communicate with a deaf woman. The queen sided with the manualists even after sign language was banned from schools. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of Wellcome Images)

This led to a “war” between sign-language advocates, known as “manualists,” and the “oralists,” who pushed for speech and articulation. “By the 1870s, this shift additionally coincided with newer scientific theories, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection—signing was reminiscent of ‘ape-like’ behavior, crude and below the parameters of human reason,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Fierce debates amongst educators for the deaf questioned the value of sign-language: Was it beneficial for introducing the deaf-mutes to ideas of the world, giving them tools for constructing knowledge and understanding in order to assimilate themselves into ‘normal’ society? Or was it isolating them from the common culture by creating a sense of comfort incomprehensible by others? Oralists rejected sign language as primitive and argued that sign language should be removed from all schools and replaced by emergent sound and writing technologies, in order to teach deaf students to speak and understand English.”

“An ‘acoustic headband’ was designed to disguise an ear trumpet in a woman’s bouffant hairdo.”

In 1880, educators from around the world came together in Milan, Italy, for the second International Congress on Education of the Deaf where they debated a resolution on banning sign language in schools and replacing it with oral instruction. “Even though sign language and its earlier variations of ‘finger-spelling’ were used since the 1600s, delegates voted to ban sign language as a mode of instruction,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “A historic event, the ban had a significant impact on the education and culture of the deaf. It was devastating. Deaf teachers lost their jobs to hearing teachers for the deaf. Sign-language instruction was forbidden. And as historians have shown, the congress was biased from the start, as more than half of its delegates were well-known oralists; furthermore, out of 164 delegates, only one person was deaf. Almost all deaf schools used the oral method by 1920. Even as sign language was banned in classrooms, it still flourished in communities and was supported by the National Association of the Deaf. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that sign language returned to the classroom.”

For people with physical deformities, some of the medical interventions to normalize people put them in danger, too. “There was a group of doctors starting in the 1830s in France and in Germany who decided that they were going to start operating on ‘orthopedic deformities,’ which they defined as any and every asymmetry in the human body,” Bourrier says. “So it could have been like a clubfoot or a harelip or a spinal problem, all these deformities that may not necessarily have been causing people all that many problems. In some cases, the surgery actually caused more harm than good. The idea was that they were going to operate by splitting the tendons and straightening them out, but it was risky to operate before the development of antisepsis in the end of the 19th century. People would get gangrene sometimes, and the surgeries weren’t all that successful.”

Orthopedic medicine began as a practice of child rearing in France, thanks to Nicolas Andry’s 1741 book "Orthopaedia," translated into English in 1743. In the mid-19th century, orthopedic medicine became a specialized branch of surgery that aimed to correct asymmetries in the human frame. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine)

The emphasis on looking normal also fed into pseudo-sciences like physiognomy and phrenology, which, respectively, associated types of facial features and skull measurements with moral character and criminality.

“It is not the person with a disability who is defective, but the society that builds the world around one standard kind of body.”

“Phrenologists reinforced the medicalization of disability, the idea that disability was a medical problem that could be solved through the application of science and invasive treatments,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Concerned with the functions of the brain, phrenologists believed that the shape of an individual skull can reveal the person’s morality, personality, and other intellectual characteristics, as placed on their brain. As the founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall believed one’s madness, criminal nature, or moral deviance could thus be ‘read.’ More so, phrenologists argued that the shape of the cranium was correlated to one’s intelligence, and certain races had differently shaped craniums, thus accounting for their lower position on the hierarchy of race supremacy. The idea of brain localization was a powerful science and used to justify an abundance of discriminatory atrocities against disabled persons.”

British statistician Sir Francis Galton first pushed to establish the normal or average body as ideal. He also employed a method of composite photography to layer images of different faces on top of one another to determine the average face. His goal was to deduce physiognomic traits that would reveal a person’s state of health or criminal tendencies. But after Galton read 1859’s On the Origin of the Species,by his half-cousin Charles Darwin, Galton began to reject averageness or mediocrity in favor of the survival of the fittest. He developed a science about perfecting the human race, known as eugenics, in 1883.

Phrenologists believed the shape of one's skull could determine "Philoprogenitiveness," or one's capacity for parental love. (Via Special Collections and Rare Books, University of Missouri Library)

In eugenics, the most average traits were no longer the most desirable; instead, one extreme, like tallness or high intelligence, would be the most ideal and the other extreme, like shortness or low intelligence, the least. Since evolution theory posited that such traits are hereditary, eugenicists pushed to sterilize or prevent those with unwanted characteristics from having children. (Eugenics remained a well-respected science in the United States and Europe until the 1930s when Adolf Hitler adopted it for a campaign of genocide.)

“Treatment included the use of domestic rituals, such as tea parties and gardening, in order to reinforce social norms of good manners.”

During the late 19th century, “eugenics became obsessed with the elimination of ‘defectives,’ a category which included the ‘feebleminded,’ the deaf, the blind, the physically defective, and so on,” Davis writes, explaining that “fitness” became a national concern in Great Britain. “If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national body will not be fit … as if a hunchbacked citizenry would make a hunchbacked nation. … This belief combined with an industrial mentality that saw workers as interchangeable and therefore sought to create a universal worker whose physical characteristics would be uniform. … One of the central foci of eugenics was what was broadly called ‘feeblemindedness.’ The term included low intelligence, mental illness, and even ‘pauperism,’ since low income was equated with ‘relative inefficiency.’ Likewise, certain ethnic groups were associated with feeblemindedness and pauperism.”

The idea that you could read someone’s character by reading their body played out in literature, too. “In addition to the sympathetic view of disability, which is the one I concentrate more on in my book, in the Victorian novel, a physical deformity can be a shorthand for a villain,” Bourrier says. “Quilp, the hunchback dwarf in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, or Silas Wegg, who has a peg leg in Our Mutual Friend, would be good examples of someone who’s seen as villainous because of his disability. I think that comes from 19th-century theater, because it was a quick visual to suggest this person is evil.”

Harold Copping's 1924 illustration for Charles Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend," written 1864-'65, shows Mr. Boffin addressing Silas Wegg, who keeps his foot warm in a basket. (Via Victorian Web)

In fact, the term “degenerate,” meaning an immoral person, comes from the idea that evolution could go in reverse, so that a criminal’s corruption would manifest in his body in some way. “People like Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso started taking photographs of criminals to see if they were degenerating physically,” Bourrier says. “Because if Darwin had proved that we could evolve forward, maybe we could go backward as well. Again, it’s this terrible idea that who you were was marked on your body and could be legible to people in some way.”

“Disability in the 19th century was not always perceived negatively, to be hidden, or as though disabled persons were living in misery.”

While eugenicists promoted sterilization, more compassionate social reformers and philanthropists put their energy into making people with disabilities productive members of society. “The nineteenth century was an age when people self-consciously boasted about philanthropy,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Charities became popular avenues for the lay public to demonstrate their moral and social values as a way of contributing to national responsibility. Many institutions were directed toward the goal of ‘normalizing’ defective or disabled bodies, in order to eventually integrate them into society as productive citizens, or else isolate them within secured gates. These institutions were based on the predilection that there existed a clear boundary between the ‘normal’ and the ‘pathological.’ Medicine was directed toward dealing with the body, whereas ‘moral therapy’ was directed toward dealing with the mind.

“Institutions for the deaf in Britain emerged as part of a wider evangelical movement for social reform,” she continues. “Beginning with John Townsend’s Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor (informally, the Bermondsey Asylum) in 1792, residential institutions for the deaf grew exponentially. These institutions claimed that the deaf were capable of communication, and thus, worthy of education, and were driven by a missionary zeal that constructed education as a charitable enterprise. Relying upon private benevolence and public donations, these institutions advocated intellectual development, religious instruction, and material well-being, directed toward protecting the deaf until they were trained to venture or assimilate into society.”

The lithography frontispiece of "Ben Rhydding: The Principles of Hydropathy and the Compressed-Air Bath (1858)" shows the Ben Rhydding spa where Victorians sought the "water cure" for various ailments. This cure involved taking baths, having steams, and drinking loads of mineral water. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, WikiCommons)

Then, as now, the level of comfort and access to new technology a person with a disability experienced depended on his or her wealth. Those with physical or mental impairments in the higher classes were whisked away to elegant country institutions that resembled spas or vacation resorts. Some of these places, like J. Langdon Down’s Earlswood Asylum, which specialized in Down’s syndrome care, offered education or at least basic literacy. But if you were impoverished and mentally ill, you often got locked up in a brutal asylum that was more like a jail.

“Institutions for the ‘mad’ offered a sense of care that left individuals in a comfortable and accommodating space in order to allow their bodies to recover,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Most of these institutions were privately managed and for the wealthy. Treatment included the use of domestic rituals, such as tea parties and gardening, in order to reinforce social norms of good manners. The Royal Hospital for Incurables was one such private charitable institution, offering treatment for both the disabled and those with long-term illnesses. The Holloway Sanatorium was another ‘resort’ for rest and recovery for caring for the middle-class insane. But madhouses such as London’s Bethlem Hospital, the York Asylum, or the Brookwood Asylum create a more sinister picture of institutionalized care for mental illnesses: They were dumping grounds for unmanageable family members or workhouse employees, for hysterical women, for violent and mad persons. These people were subjected to invasive and horrendous medical treatments, confined into hydrobaths, chained to walls or beds, and otherwise restrained.”

Joseph Carey Merrick, a.k.a. "The Elephant Man." (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, WikiCommons)

A person who was impoverished and obviously disabled but not seen as threatening might end up begging or selling shoelaces on the street. But there was another way to survive: As much as Victorians saw themselves as enlightened by progress, science, and social reform, they still paid to gawk at people they found strange at freak shows. Steam-powered trains and ships guided by improved navigation systems were allowing Western adventurers and scientists to explore the previously unknown parts of the world. People were excited to gather natural wonders and marvels as well as travel souvenirs for their personal cabinets of curiosities. World’s Fairs celebrated the achievements of industry and design and brought diverse cultures together. But the shadow side of all this earnest curiosity is the fact that humans, particularly dark-skinned Africans, were regularly kept like animals at zoos in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, Warsaw, and New York at the same time other Africans were kidnapped, shipped to the American South, and treated as beasts of burden at slave plantations. The people who were visibly disabled or disfigured provoked the same sort of rubbernecking intrigue as people with dark-pigmented skin.

“Spearheaded with a rising interest in biology and classification, people became curious about physical and organic differences between humans and animals,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Deaf persons were certainly perceived as cause célèbres, as theatrical spectacles. Some persons with disabilities found success by acknowledging, and showcasing, their disability or deformity. Joseph Carey Merrick, known widely as the ‘Elephant Man’ supported himself by joining traveling freak shows and displaying his deformity. He became a celebrity and received the support of rich benefactors later in his life, but they still required him to display his deformities. For many, these shows were preferable to begging and becoming destitute.”

Conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, pictured in the 1890s, were born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851 and sold by their owner to a showman for $1,000. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, WikiCommons)

But freak shows also contributed to harmful social constructions about who’s an outsider to be ogled, involving racism and sexism as much as ableism. Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, also known as “the Hottentot Venus,” was a black able-bodied woman who was sexualized in freak shows for her large posterior. “Such shows seem to be a way for communities to define who’s normal and who’s not, and assert those values in a troublesome manner,” Bourrier says. “Blind Tom, who was black, blind, and probably autistic but a piano prodigy, was exhibited in a freak show.”

However, if a white man who had a physical deformity or who just wasn’t conventionally attractive had enough money and power, he could achieve a certain amount clout by joining a type of fraternal organization known as an Ugly Club. “The first person who wrote a memoir of being physically disabled was a member of Parliament called William Hay, who had a hunchback,” Bourrier says. “In 1754’s ‘Deformity: An Essay,’ he talks about being hooted at on the street and Ugly Clubs were sort of a response to that. They survived throughout the 19th century. It does bring up the idea that disability is a continuum, and it’s actually difficult to decide, legally, who is disabled and who is not.”

Ugly Clubs rejected the dogma of physiognomy, which said facial features revealed one’s character. “The Ugly Face Clubs, gentlemen’s clubs whose members prided themselves on their facial eccentricities, are a perfect example for how deformity was juxtaposed with social exclusion: a member would be an object of ridicule on the streets, but a superstar within the sanctum of the club,” Virdi-Dhesi says.

From an advertisement for an Ugly Face Club anniversary celebration (1806) reprinted with the frontispiece in Edward Howell’s edition of "Ye Ugly Face Clubb, Leverpoole, 1743-1753" (Liverpool, 1912). (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of Gretchen E. Henderson)

However these clubs did perpetuate the stigma that equated disability with ugliness, which eventually pushed disabled people out of public spaces. In the late 19th century, cities and towns around the United States passed laws banning “unsightly beggars.” In The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, Susan M. Schweik investigated how such laws criminalized people with disabilities.

These laws stayed on the books until the 1970s, when lawmakers started to relent to pressure from the disability rights movement, which rose in the 1960s along with the civil rights, gay rights, and women’s liberation movements. Disability rights activists campaigned to replace what they identified as the medical model of disability with a new “social model of disability” which, according to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” “argues that it is not the person with a disability who is defective, but the society that stigmatizes physical difference and builds the world around one standard kind of body.”

It wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on disability, was signed into law in the United States. The law—which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month—requires schools, businesses, and public buildings to install accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, wheelchair-accessible door handles and restrooms, and Braille signage. Television programs, for example, are obligated to provide captioning for the hearing impaired. For the first time, American society was forced to change, as opposed to the people with disabilities shouldering the burden of adapting.

Alexander Graham Bell and Clarence J. Blake's ear phonautograph incorporated an actual human ear, taken from a corpse, into machinery designed to draw shapes based on a deaf student's vocalizations. The phonautograph inspired Bell to invent the telephone. The image comes from Count du Marcel's 1879 book, "The Telephone, the Microphone and the Phonograph." (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, via <a href="https://archive.org/details/telephonemicrop00moncgoog">Archive.org</a>)

“The Americans with Disabilities Act is an enormous improvement for people with disabilities,” Bourrier says. “And medical technology has done a lot to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the 20th and 21st centuries. But I also think that in some ways, because the Victorians lived with so much disability, they might have had a more fluid and compassionate understanding of it. Today, if we’re able-bodied, we tend to think of disability as something that will never happen to us. But the truth is we’re all, scarily enough, one car accident away from becoming disabled. Victorians might have had a better understanding of the fragility of the body.”

“Phrenology was used to justify an abundance of discriminatory atrocities against disabled persons.”

Today, as it was then, money determines whether, say, a double amputee ends up using a skateboard to beg on the street or has access to the most advanced motorized wheelchairs or prosthetics. And we still celebrate narratives of overcoming and compensation—think of any sports drama like “The Karate Kid,” in which the title character goes on to win the karate tournament in spite of a seriously injuring his foot. Politicians that promote the idea of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” are eager to cut public funding for disability checks and health care, because any challenge can be overcome with a can-do spirit, right? According to compensation stories like “Daredevil,” you might even have special powers that give you an advantage.

“We still have the overcoming and compensation narratives today, and they aren’t very helpful,” Bourrier says. “The more you look at the Victorian era in the present day, the more you see the way we regard people with disabilities today is not that different. What’s so interesting about the Americans with Disabilities Act is that it gives disability rights to people who have all sorts of conditions—like morbid obesity, clinical depression, ulcerative colitis, work injuries, or heart disease—that we wouldn’t necessarily traditionally see as a disability. It’s anything that impairs your day-to-day life. Most people eventually have a condition like that.”

An artificial left leg with a thigh socket for amputation above the knee, circa 1920. (Via Nineteenth-Century Disability, courtesy of Wellcome Library, London)

(Learn more at “Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts.” For further reading, pick up Karen Bourrier’s new book “The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel”; Lennard Davis’ book “Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body”; Susan M. Schweik’s book “The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public”; and R.A.R Edwards’ book “Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture.” Explore the history of medicine at the Wellcome Library’s web site.)



A short history of mental illness in art From Hogarth to Van Gogh, art has challenged our understanding of mental illness. Jonathan Jones’ shares his top ten for our mental health appeal

by richard

A short history of mental illness in art

From Hogarth to Van Gogh, art has challenged our understanding of mental illness. Jonathan Jones’ shares his top ten for our mental health appeal

'Vincent’s eyes are crystal blue, his gaze acute and penetrating. He is neither “sane” nor “insane” but a fellow human being who speaks to us with courage and honesty.' Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889.
 ‘Vincent’s eyes are crystal blue, his gaze acute and penetrating. He is neither “sane” nor “insane” but a fellow human being who speaks to us with courage and honesty.’ Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Photograph: Peter Barritt/Getty Images/SuperStock RM

Art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience. Modern art has even celebrated mental suffering as a creative adventure. This psychiatric modernism started with the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh and led to work by patients being discovered as a new kind of art. Yet it has much deeper historical roots. Albrecht Durer portrayed genius as melancholic as early as the Renaissance and Romantic painters identified with the “mad”.

Perhaps it is not hard to see why artists often show empathy for what society calls illness: all creativity is an irrational voyage. The idea of going outside yourself to see things afresh is probably as old as the torchlit visions of cave artists and was expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato when he wrote that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth. “Madness is a gift from the gods”, as Plato put it.

1. Vittore Carpaccio – The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto (c. 1496)

Painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1460-1525), an Italian painter of the Venetian school, trained in the style of the Vivarini and the Bellini.
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 Painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1460-1525), an Italian painter of the Venetian school, trained in the style of the Vivarini and the Bellini. Photograph: David Lees

This painting of everyday life in 15th century Venice reveals how mental illness was understood and treated in the middle ages. It is sometimes called “The Healing of the Madman”, but “possessed” is closer to contemporary ideas about the mind. For the man being miraculously healed by a priest amidst the human drama of the Rialto bridge has been taken over by a demon. His suffering is neither a medical nor social problem, but a religious experience.

2. Matthias Grunewald – The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1512 – 16)

The Temptations of Saint Anthony and the Conversation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528), oil on panel.
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 The Temptations of Saint Anthony and the Conversation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528), oil on panel. Photograph: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Late medieval artists were fascinated by the story of the early Christian hermit Saint Anthony the Great who was tempted by devils. For Grunewald, this becomes a truly personal and psychological terror, an image of a man whose sanity is under threat. The infinite horrible shapes of the demons are like malformed thoughts. It is a compassionate work, for this is part of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted for a hospital that treated people with disfiguring illnesses. One of the devils has the sores and grey skin that appear in other parts of the altarpiece and evoke the illnesses treated there. Does this swarming scene therefore portray the threat to mental health posed by extreme physical suffering? It influenced German expressionism and is to this day a masterpiece of the threatened mind.

3. Albrecht Durer – Melancholia (1514)

Johan Wierix; after Albrecht Durer, Melancolia. Engraving on paper, Scottish National Gallery
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 Johan Wierix; after Albrecht Durer, Melancolia. Engraving on paper, Scottish National Gallery. Photograph: Antonia Reeve

This visionary work of art is both a diagnosis and heroic celebration of what might now be seen as illness. Melancholia was known and experienced in the middle ages, a darkness of the mind resulting from an inbalance of the humours. That darkness is marked on the brooding face of Durer’s spirit of melancholy. In her despond, she appears unable to continue with her great works. She is to judge by her tools a mathematician, geometer, and architect: a Renaissance genius. Durer portrays through this emblem his own inner life and intuits the mind’s complexity. For Melancholy in his eyes is the badge of genius – to aspire to know and create is to slump into despair. Unhappiness is noble, for Durer. This print is arguably the beginning of modern psychology.

4. William Hogarth – The Rake in Bedlam (1733)

The insight of Durer – not to mention Shakespeare and Cervantes – that mental shadows are part of human life was lost on the founders of London’s Bethlem Hospital. The notorious “Bedlam” was founded in the middle ages and may have specialised in mental illness as early as the 14th century. When Hogarth in the 18th century portrayed a young man whose career of gambling and spending had led him there, it was a place where Londoners could come and look at the “mad”. Hogarth shows two “sane” women enjoying the spectacle of madness, which includes people who think they are kings and bishops. Of course, in Hogarth’s view, the boundary between sanity and insanity is not that obvious at all.

5. Francisco Goya y Lucientes – The sleep of reason produces monsters (c. 1799)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. (Capricho No 43). Found in the collection of State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
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 The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. (Capricho No 43). Found in the collection of State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Goya’s depiction of a sleeping man – the artist – assailed by monsters of the night is an image of reason’s frailty made at the end of the Enlightenment, the great 18th century movement that sought to change the world with encyclopaedias, scientific demonstrations and the first factories. Goya’s pessimistic yet also compassionate view is that reason only ever rules part of our minds. It must share the world with nightmares. At the dawn of the modern age, this great image echoes old depictions of the Temptations of St. Anthony, whose assailants have not gone away after all.

6. Theodore Gericault – Portraits of the Insane (1822)

A woman addicted to gambling, by Jean-Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824).
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 A woman addicted to gambling, Portraits of the Insane, by Jean-Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824). Photograph: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

In the Romantic age extreme states of mind and inner suffering were the stuff of poetry and art. This mood of introspection opens new eyes on mental health in Gericault’s portraits of the “insane”. He painted ten of these, of which five still exist, all depicting patients of his friend Dr Etienne-Jean Georget. In this painting, there is deep respect and human sympathy for a woman whose illness seems mostly visible as deep unhappiness. Escaping from stereotypes and prejudice, Gericault portrays mental illness as a part of the human condition that he himself – as an artist whose paintings dwell on death and violence – clearly feels close to.

7. Gustave Courbet – Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man) (c. 1843 – 45)

The painting 'The Desperate Man' by French painter Gustave Courbet can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, central Germany, October 14, 2010.
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 The painting ‘The Desperate Man’ by French painter Gustave Courbet can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, central Germany, October 14, 2010. Photograph: FRANK RUMPENHORST/AFP/Getty Images

In a moment of Romantic exhilaration Courbet portrays himself as a “madman”, his face ecstatic and terrified. His desperate state of mind is not a shameful sickness but a badge of artistic pride. In a tradition that goes back to Durer’s Melancholia but reached new power in the Romantic age, he equates genius and madness. This face of desperation is the face of the 19th century avant garde, risking and even courting sickness with drink and drugs. Courbet looks like a character in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, his mind unravelling in a way the first modern artists were fascinated by.

8. Vincent van Gogh – Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
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 Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Photograph: Peter Barritt/Getty Images/SuperStock RM

Vincent van Gogh was fascinated by a 19th century painting called The Madness of Hugo van der Goes. In this picture the medieval artist Hugo van der Goes – who in real life was confined to a monastery because of mental illness – broods in torment, while those around him despair of helping the afflicted man. Van Goghwrote that he sometimes identified with this painting. Here, shortly after cutting off his own earlobe, he scrutinises himself as a man similarly afflicted. Or is he? Vincent’s eyes are crystal blue, his gaze acute and penetrating. He looks at his wounded face objectively, with deep truth. He is neither “sane” nor “insane” but a fellow human being who speaks to us with courage and honesty.

9. Edvard Munch – The Scream (1893)

People look at Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
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 People look at Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Madness is the modern condition in this work of art that has the clarity of a theorem. The Scream is universal. This is how life today makes us feel, says Munch. Far from a pathology afflicting individuals, the desire to scream out in pain and isolation under the wobbly sky is a sane response to an insane world. Munch takes the artistic revaluation of mental illness that started in the Romantic age to its logical conclusion: there is no Bedlam but the world itself.

10. Josef Forster – Untitled work in the Prinzhorn Collection (after 1916)

Once Munch and Van Gogh made “madness” a positive value in modern art, a key to visionary truth, it was only a matter of time before the medical profession too started to see new connections between art and the mind. Before his death in 1933, Dr Hans Prinzhorn assembled a collection of art by mentally ill patients that was the beginning of what is now known as “outsider art”. This example has the eerie power of Goya. From something to be depicted by artists, “madness” has become a source of artistic originality in itself.

Topics

https://www.theguardian.com/society/christmas-charity-appeal-2014-blog/2015/jan/13/-sp-a-short-history-of-mental-illness-in-art



Art History and Disability

by richard

http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/disability-in-art-history/

FIRST THINGS FIRST…

This class will look at examples of the disabled human body as it has been represented in art history. What does it mean to be human? How is the body used and represented in visual culture? How are formations of disability articulated in relation to ideas of normality, hybridity, and/or anomaly, and how do artists use visual culture to affirm or subvert notions of the normative body? From Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Diego Velázquez to Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, artists have included images of the disabled body in their work. Other artists, including Orlan and Stelarc, have used their bodies to push notions of normality.

This lesson plan explores the body in visual culture to uncover the ways in which bodily difference is and has been articulated physically and theoretically and demonstrates the ways in which disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construction. This lesson includes artwork from across stylistic and historical periods in order to demonstrate the ways in which disability is historically and culturally contingent. Considerations include the changing role of images of the body in visual culture and the place of those representations in society.

Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just a few artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.

Themes:

  • Historical Representations of Disability
  • “Freakshows,” Power, and Privilege
  • Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

Chronologically, “disability studies” emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and “body art” was established as a category of contemporary art in the 1970s, but disabled bodies occur in art dating to at least the 1st century CE. Still, a class on the disabled body might come quite late in the semester, after looking at other issues of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. A lecture on “Disability in Art” can be a good opportunity to reflect on a central narrative of art history—representation of the human figure—and to reflect on the ways in which art contributes to and challenges the construction of normative culture. Disability studies offers an alternative methodology and point of departure for the study of the body in art history.

Consider past material covered with the class—how has the body, both abled and disabled, appeared within the course? Why do we tend to ignore the disabled bodies that appear in works such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)? How much have we learned about the lives and impact of people with disabilities throughout history? Why might that be?

Ableism is defined in disability studies as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. The ableist views able bodies as the norm in society, implying that people who have disabled bodies must strive to become that norm. Disability is thus held as an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity; disability is seen as a “bad” thing that must be overcome. Use this definition to prompt a discussion about the ways ability bias has impacted art making and the ways it can affect our understanding of history. Ask students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the above questions, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of works that include representations of disability. Consider the biases of historians who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions.

BACKGROUND READINGS

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568.

Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational disability studies texts and that address various applications of the topic outlined above (historical representations of disability; the “freakshow” and issues of power and privilege; and the body, performance art, and the posthuman) include:

  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
  • Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  • Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  • Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Times Books, 1994).

CONTENT SUGGESTIONS

Disability has always been part of the human condition. Throughout history, people with disabilities have often served as visual and cultural objects, rather than as active participants in and creators of culture and media. People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art, nor have they participated in the creation of the art objects in which their bodies appeared. Instead, artists and authors have used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature and to reinforce stereotypes about disability.

Disability is a subjective, corporeal, and complex sociocultural construction. Looking at disabled bodies in art history offers significant insight into the various ways in which art can support or subvert the construction and performance of normative values. Recognizing the ways in which art performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability and art.

The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in one hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

  • Polykleitos, Doryphoros, marble copy of bronze original, c. 450–440 BCE
  • Old Market Woman, 150–100 BCE
  • El Greco, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind, 1570
  • Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (1180s)
  • Luttrell Psalter, 1325
    • Man with crutches
    • Crippled child
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, 1659
  • Francisco Goya, Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux, 1824–7
  • Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane, 1822
  • Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film,Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Francis Galton’s Composite Portraits (published in The Photographic News)
    • “The Jewish Type,” 1885
    • “Health, Disease, and Criminality,” 1885
  • Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Albrecht Dürer, frontispiece to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, 1645
  • Lavinia Fontana, Antonietta Gonzalez, 1656
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Myrtle Corbin, c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Eli Bowen “The Legless Acrobat,” c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Charles B. Tripp, c. 1880
  • Marion Post Wolcott, Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, 1939
  • Ben Shahn, Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, 1938
  • Russell Lee, Untitled, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 1938
  • Reginald Marsh, Sideshow Sign at Coney Island, c. 1939
  • Eudora Welty, Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair, c. 1939
  • Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Untitled, 1970–71
  • Otto Dix, War Cripples, 1920
  • Otto Dix, Scat Players, 1920
  • Orlan, Self-Hybridizations, 1994–Present
  • Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98
  • Lisa Bufano, Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, 2013
  • Matthew Barney with Aimee Mullins, Cremaster 3, 2002
  • Mary Duffy, Performance, 1995
  • Venus de Milo, 130–100 BCE
  • Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
  • Jake and Dinos Chapman, Übermensch (Portrait of Stephen Hawking), 1995

Old Market Woman, 100–150CE.

Historical Representations of Disability in Art History

What does the Classical world’s preference for idealism tell us about their ideology? Aristotle (384–322 BCE) believed, as did many in Ancient Greece, that men were the most highly evolved beings, and that women were an evolutionary step below, representing “the first step along the road to deformity.” Aristotle recommended euthanasia for “deformed children,” writing, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” Although Hellenistic art includes representations of “grotesques,” the elderly, and children, there were few representations of disability in the Ancient world. Ask students to compare and contrast Classical idealism in the Doryphoros and Hellenistic naturalism in the Old Market Woman and the ways in which stylistic preferences relate to societal values. Could the preference for naturalism and the inclusion of subjects with disabilities, including the elderly, the blind, and the lame, indicate tolerance or even respect for people with disabilities?

The rise of Christianity led to more depictions of people with disabilities, because in the New Testament, Jesus is frequently credited with showing kindness and performing miracles to cure people who were lame, blind, and otherwise disabled. These miracles were often depicted in art, for example in El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570) and the mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (Palermo, Italy), which show Jesus healing lepers.

Ask students to consider the ways in which the idea of “curing the sick” and Biblical miracles contributed to the historical understanding of people with disabilities and their place within society. For instance, the Church’s interest in disability was based on Jesus’ role as a miraculous healer and as a spiritual “physician.” Monks and nuns followed the seven “spiritual works,” which involved feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, and providing counsel and burial services.

“Spiritual works” may have been necessary at a time when much of the population, if they survived disease, famine, war and pestilence, would have had some degree of impairment. In Medieval England, the ‘lepre’ (leper), the ‘blynde’ (blind), the ‘dumbe’ (dumb), the ‘deaff’ (deaf), the ’natural fool’ (a person with a learning difficulty), the ‘creple’ (cripple), the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ (lunatic) were highly visible presences in everyday life and are represented in manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter.

How do these depictions of people with disabilities as part of the fabric of everyday life differ from representations of miraculous cures? Christianity could be used to elicit empathy and support the humane treatment of people with disabilities, but it could also be used to support the belief that people with disabilities were cursed by Satan, and that their disability was a result of sin. As such, people with disabilities were often considered unclean and forced to live in exile. When traveling through a town, people with leprosy were required to ring a bell, alerting others to their presence.

At the time of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, persons with developmental disabilities were treated as subhuman organisms. Martin Luther (1483–1546) denounced children and adults with cognitive disorders as “filled with Satan.” Luther advised that children with severe mental retardation be drowned, because they lacked souls. Similarly John Calvin (1509–64) argued that people with disabilities were not among those predestined for salvation.

As the authority of the Roman Catholic Church diminished, many of the charitable services it provided ceased to exist. The poor and misfortunate, without the refuge of the church, became increasingly homeless at a moment of rapid growth in urban centers. In the city of Paris during the early 1500s, approximately one-third of the population resorted to begging as a means of survival. Many people with disabilities survived as mendicants, as pictured in The Beggars, by Pieter Bruegel (1568).

Christianity, then, often viewed disability as either a sin on the part of persons with disabilities or their families. However, they were also sometimes represented as an act of God for some divine purpose. In the first case, people were punished and excluded from society. In the second case, they were viewed as divine and considered holy. Perceived as sinners or saints, persons with disabilities were usually kept separate from mainstream society and their disabilities were thought to serve some divine purpose.

Have students compare and contrast Rembrandt’s Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple and Goya’s Beggars Who Get Around on Their Own in Bordeaux in small groups. Ask them to list their similarities and differences. What sorts of ideas and stereotypes about people with disabilities do these representations construct? What emotions do they evoke?

Both images feature a man with a disability. In Rembrandt’s piece, there are two other characters as well: St. Peter and St. John, who stand over the “cripple” (the commonly accepted term of the time) in an attitude of benevolence and authority. In the biblical story, faith and divine intervention bring about a cure of the man’s disability.

Goya’s drawing focuses more closely on the disabled individual, a beggar riding in a wheelchair. The subject appears dirty and disheveled but also actively engaged in the world. Even the work’s title emphasizes mobility and independence. Goya’s beggar looks out of the piece at the viewer and is portrayed as an active person, whereas Rembrandt’s cripple sits passively, his back to the viewer; he waits to be healed so that he can then take part in the world around him.

Why are the two images so different? Is it because one is based on a religious theme, and the other focuses on contemporary nineteenth-century society? Might the circumstances of the artist’s lives impact their constructions? In 1792, Goya lost his hearing and had been deaf for thirty years when he made this drawing. Ask the class to discuss whether Goya’s deafness may have influenced his attitudes about disabilities? If so, how?

Building on, but diverging from the religious model that saw Jesus as the “spiritual physician,” the medical model of disability emerged in the nineteenth century and classified disability as an impairment, as something wrong with the body. Following the rise of modern scientific medicine and the professionalism of the discipline, doctors during the nineteenth century developed concepts of “disease” and “injury” to refer to deviations from normal body functioning. Disability became something to be healed by science rather than religion; it became a medical rather than a religious or social issue. Persons with disabilities became patients needing to be cured. By defining people by their disabilities rather than as full human beings, the medical model fosters classifications, dependence on professional care, and often involves painful treatments.

The medical model also lends itself to eugenics and Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, promoted by the nineteenth-century philosopher and political theorist Herbert Spencer, held that the theories governing the evolution of biological species—the “survival of the fittest”—held true for individuals and social systems as well. This belief helped to justify forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, and the incarceration of individuals with developmental disabilities in institutions. These “patients” often became subjects of artists and scientists who were interested in classifying people by type and appearance.

Among the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s greatest achievements are his Portraits of the Insane. There were ten of them originally, but only five have survived: A Woman Addicted to GamblingA Child SnatcherA Woman Suffering from Obsessive EnvyA Kleptomaniac, and A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command. In contrast to his teacher Jacques-Louis David, who had privileged heroic and athletic bodies in his Neoclassical paintings, Géricault, and others of his generation, created sensitive portrayals of suffering bodies that sympathized with victims rather than celebrating heroes.

The fear of persons with physical deformities has long been popular in the media, with figures such as Quasimodo, Captain Hook, Dr. Strangelove, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. In addition to typecasting persons with disabilities as villains, this stereotype contributes to the fear of persons with disabilities living in the community. Students might be asked to discuss representations of people with disabilities in popular films such as: Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Stereotypes were reinforced through quasi-scientific theories like eugenics. During the “genetic scare” of the 1920s, people with developmental disabilities were often the objects of fear, believed to be driven by rage and intent upon harming others. “Ugly laws,” which made it illegal for people with visible disabilities to be seen in public, were passed across the country, many of which were not repealed until the mid-1970s. Twenty-eight states adopted statutes that sought sterilization, marriage restriction, and institutionalization of the disabled, and eugenicists advocated euthanasia for disabled infants. People with disabilities were systematically incarcerated, as well as subject to deportation under immigration law. Following the increased demand for segregated housing brought on by prejudicial medical diagnoses and public discrimination, states began building residential institutions at a rapid pace. Francis Galton, the father of the Eugenic Movement, used Composite Photographs to justify his belief in grades of humanity.

Eugenic research had a direct influence on attitudes toward people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. As American professionals were calling for sterilization, Nazi Germany was blaming people with disabilities for wasting valuable resources. At the outbreak of World War II, Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life”; over 200,000 people with disabilities were killed during the holocaust.

There are similar concerns today in the bioethics community over Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” the suicide of Brittany Maynard, the fashion for “designer” babies, and the widespread acceptance of abortion of fetuses with possible cognitive or physical disabilities. Students might be asked to discuss: Who decides what constitutes a “life worth living?” How do media representations of ideal bodies influence our notions of what makes life worth living?

Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.

The “Freakshow,” Power, and Privilege

During the fifteenth century, people with physical and mental disabilities were boarded onto ships and exhibited for money before being abandoned at far-flung ports. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (1490–1500) depicts the lives of people with cognitive disabilities aboard such a ship.

In 1494, German satirist Sebastian Brant adapted Platos’ allegory of the ship of fools into a popular book that featured woodcut illustrations by Dürerand was the inspiration for Bosch’s painting by the same name. The allegory features a vessel without a pilot that is populated by deranged, frivolous, and oblivious inhabitants who are seemingly ignorant of their course. A parody of the Church’s “ark of salvation,” Ship of Fools inverted societal norms and critiqued the church’s mores and authority. The book became extremely popular, with six authorized and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Court fools were allowed to openly critique hierarchical societal structures, so by writing his work in the voice of Saint Grobian, whom Brant created as the patron saint of vulgarity, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.

In the introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Jose Barchilon writes of the ship of fools:

Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then “knew,” had an affinity for each other. Thus, “Ships of Fools” crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.

Fools were also viewed as popular “pets” in the royal court, and dwarfs were featured in the work of Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez.

Velázquez painted many portraits of dwarfs, including his Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (1645), which can be compared to the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of ten-year-old Antonietta Gonzalez (1595), whose father Pedro, “The Hairy Man from Munich,” was the first documented case of “werewolf syndrome” or hypertrichosis (as it would be called once the fantastic ailment was scientifically and clinically classified by doctors in the early twentieth century).

What sort of life might these people have led? Are these portraits sensitive and humanizing, or do they contribute to the subordination of people with disabilities?

Although people with disabilities had been exhibited on “ships of fools” and at court, the heyday of such practices came with the opening of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1841. During the 1840s the term “freak” came to refer to “a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” This definition owes its place in the English vernacular to Barnum and his American Museum (1841–65), which relied on sensational exhibits to draw crowds.

The use of the word “freak” in this part of the lecture and in the scholarship is a conscious choice based on several factors. First, freak is the vernacular of the carnival and is thus historically based. Second, many have offered the word as one that has been reappropriated and inscribed with power, much like the word “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as well as academics performing queer studies. Moreover, the term connotes the absence of known categories of representation—it is outside representation if you will. The use of this word offers a theoretical discussion point for the class.

In Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, gender theorist Judith Butler has theorized the body as a discursive space, a text, where cultural and heterosexual hegemony exerts power. As she argues, identity, class, race, sex, and gender are socially constructed and thus performative. In many ways “freakiness” is performative, even when people are displaying their actual physical bodies. Photographs are also performative, so “freak” photography is compelling, not just in the sense that we are drawn to look—to stare unabashedly if you will—without the fear of getting caught (disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has theorized the “stare” in lives of people with disabilities), but also in that photographs are conscious constructions not just by the subjects, but also the photographers and the mores of society acting upon their representation.

At the same time, however, there are opportunities for rupture—places and moments where expectations are not met, where the bodies and the photographs of those bodies do not perform the way the viewer or audience might expect. These photos then, especially in the case of portraits, allow people with disabilities to challenge normative ideologies, to construct their own personas, and to create expanded discursive spaces.

Charles Eisenmann was a professional portrait photographer who made cartes de visite, or calling cards, for his exceptional clientele. He kept a studio in New York’s Bowery district, which in the 1880s was home to a mix of artists, performers, and prostitutes, close to Barnum’s American Museum. The performers used the calling cards as marketing and promotional tools. Eisenmann also sold them as collectibles to people who often assembled them into albums. He also kept his own archive. Here are some examples of his studio’s work.

Myrtle Corbin was billed as “the 4-legged girl from Texas,” a popular attraction for Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and Coney Island. One of the most popular sideshow freaks, she earned as much as $450 dollars a week (that would be about $14,000 per week today). At the age of nineteen, she married a doctor, with whom she had five children.

Eli Bowen was a tumbler and strong man who toured Europe with Barnum. He was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine during which he climbed a thirteen-foot pole, then swung around the pole holding his body parallel to the pole with one hand. He married and had four sons. He took great pride in his family and the majority of the photos featuring Eli feature his family as well.

A skilled cabinetmaker, Charles B. Tripp incorporated intricate wood inlay designs into his cabinets. In 1872, he joined Barnum’s circus and worked in his traveling World Fair for almost twenty-five years, then worked another twenty-five years with other circuses including Ringling Bros. In his acts, he performed such tasks as penmanship, portrait painting, and paper cutting. At the turn of the century, Charles became interested in photography and was known as “The Armless Photographer.” He worked as staff photographer to the Barnum circus and also taught others in the show photography.

Eisenmann closed his studio in 1898 after Barnum closed the American Museum and the sideshow went on the road. The traveling sideshow became a popular form of leisure and entertainment during the Great Depression, and several artists including Reginald Marsh, Eudora Welty, and the Farm Security Administration photographers Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott took photographs of the sideshow performers or the banners that advertised the acts of the sideshow.

The FSA collection in the Library of Congress contains about 180,000 images, but only 713 of these were taken at fairs. It appears that only Delano, Rothstein, Lee, Shahn, and Post Wolcott covered the fairs for the FSA, even though these fairs exhibited the products of the farms the FSA was aiding, and fair coverage would seem to fit FSA head Roy Stryker’s mandate of “introducing America to Americans.”

This may reflect attitudes toward persons with disabilities in the 1930s. During the 1930s, people with disabilities faced significant segregation and oppression. Considered by the medical and political establishments as “unfit” for normal roles in society, disabled people were excluded from jobs provided by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration programs, which, according to the WPA Workers’ Handbook, were reserved for “able-bodied” Americans who were “certified by a local agency.”

Of the images taken at fairs, the vast majority are of FSA exhibits, rides, or spectators, though Rothstein, Delano, Wolcott, and Shahn photographed banners, and Lee offered the viewer images of the sideshow, including one of a one-legged man biting the head off of a snake.

Ask students to discuss Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, Shahn’s Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, and Lee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana. How do these government-sanctioned photographs of difference contribute to and complicate our understanding of disability and its place within American history?

Other photographers of the period interested in the sideshow included Welty and Marsh. Lead students in a compare and contrast Marsh’s Sideshow Sign at Coney Island and Welty’s Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair.

How does gender, both of the photographers and the signs’ subjects (“Mule-face boy” and “Mule-face woman,” respectively), influence these representations and our understanding of them?

Another photographer interested in unusual subjects was Diane Arbus. Her award-winning work has been exhibited in major shows, has earned her two Guggenheim Fellowships, and has attracted heated and divisive criticism, even after (and perhaps fueled by) her death by suicide in 1972. As she told a New Yorker reporter, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience […] Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Arbus’s photography offers the opportunity to facilitate a debate in class, as scholars are divided on the degree to which her photographs exploited her subjects.

Germaine Greer argues that, although Arbus operates within the tradition of freak photography, there is an important difference between her and her predecessors like Eisenmann. As she argued, “Eisenmann’s subjects had names, stage names and real names. The giants, dwarves, midgets, conjoined twins, bird-girls, bearded women and dog-faced boys whose photographs appear on thousands of postcards were all professionals. Often the notes on the postcards spoke of them as well-educated and happily married. Arbus’s nameless subjects are denied such confederacy and performativity. She often uses the devices of the older tradition in her treatment of otherwise unremarkable subjects. She reduced her subjects to generic phenomena by the names she chose for them: Jewish Giant, Mexican Dwarf, Albino Sword-Swallower.”

As she says, “Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from self.” (“Wrestling with Diane Arbus,” The Guardian, 2005).

Similarly Susan Sontag suggests Arbus’s “interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe” and that her photographs are “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

On the other hand, John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, saw Arbus as a trailblazer in a new photographic aesthetic, and Sandra S. Philips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art argues that Arbus “was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of a new kind of photographic art.”

Do these photographs do violence to their subjects, as Sontag argued, or do they offer visibility to people who are otherwise marginalized?

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.

Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

The final section offers examples of modern and contemporary artists who engage with issues of disability in their work. A significant issue in contemporary theory is the deconstruction of the embodied nature of humanism. In humanistic thought, the mind and body are separate, with the body acting as a vehicle for the mind. Information technologies, scientific discoveries, and bioengineering challenge the role of the body, yet they are unable to fully replace the human body. Moreover, war, plastic surgery, and prosthetics have had a significant impact of the role of the body as well as of representations of people with disabilities, specifically as powerful subjects in critiques of war. Take for instance the German painter Otto Dix’s critique of WWI as seen in Scat Players and War Cripples.

Just as Brant used the Ship of Fools to challenge the cultural hegemony of the Church and the Crown during the fifteenth century, Dix’s work incorporates the mangled bodies of war veterans to show the human costs of nationalism during the early twentieth century. World War I was the first industrialized war, and the mechanization of warfare had dramatic effects.

Due to increased medical knowledge, wounds that would have killed soldiers in the past now left them disfigured amputees. These wounded veterans are a recurring theme in Dix’s work. The card players, who are outfitted with crude prosthetics, represent the German elite of the Weimar era. The soldier on the right wearing the Iron Cross represents the military. Opposite him sits a figure alluding to finance and capitalism. In the middle is a figure symbolizing the old aristocracy. The card players are propped up by technology, but the painting critiques the degree to which this can be considered progress.

While Dix used amputees as vehicles to parody political leaders in a fashion similar to Brant’s Ship of Fools, others have used prosthetics to investigate difference, the posthuman, and the transhuman. “Posthumanism” denotes an interest in the possibilities of life beyond human evolution and addresses questions of ethics, justice, language, and trans-species communication. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to transform the human condition through technologies that enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacity. Orlan (Self-Hybridizations) and Stelarc (Third Arm) are two contemporary artists who investigate and push the boundaries of “humanness” by undergoing surgeries to transform their bodies into hybrids and cyborgs.

Lisa Bufano’s dance work has incorporated a variety of prosthetics and props, such as using orange Queen Anne table legs as legs and arms, as seen in Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Bufano was a professional dancer before she became a bilateral below-the-knee and total finger-thumb amputee due to a staphylococcus bacterial infection at the age of twenty-one. Unwilling to give up her passion for dance, she developed ways to use her work to investigate corporeal difference and sexual identity. Sadly, she committed suicide in 2013.

Matthew Barney has also expressed an interest in corporeal difference and sexual identity, which he explored extensively in his Cremaster series. This still features Aimee Mullins, who was born with a medical condition that resulted in the amputation of both of her lower legs. She is known for her work as an athlete, actress, fashion model, and proponent of prosthetic innovation.

In Cremaster 3, Barney’s character undergoes Masonic initiation. A major theme of the film is the Masonic theory that you have to lose your “lower” self in order to reach a higher level. Mullins is literally without legs — the lower self — and is depicted alternately with crystal prostheses and cheetah legs; Barney must kill her to achieve the level of Master Mason. Barney’s film is controversial and has been interpreted as alternately fetishizing and demonizing the posthuman prosthetically/technologically enhanced body.

Other performance artists have used their disabilities to challenge stereotypes and normative behavior. The Irish artist Mary Duffy was born without arms. In 1995, she did a Performance piece in which she posed in the nude and performed a monologue, during which she described the ways her body has been defined by medicine and society as lacking, inadequate, and undesirable. In the piece, she discussed her confrontations with medical and social gazes and described how they impacted her self-confidence. She used her body to invoke the famous “armless” broken sculpture Venus de Milo, and to challenge normative beauty standards.

As part of the performance, she relayed questions that people had asked her, including “Were you born like that, or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” Duffy’s performance exposed the nude disabled body visually and artistically, as it also revealed the social practices and values that render disability politically invisible.

As a challenge to invisibility, Young British Artist Marc Quinn sculpted fellow artist and activist Alison Lapper Pregnant in Carrara marble for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The work featuring Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, has been the subject of controversy and debate by those who view it alternately as offensive or progressive. The work, like Quinn’s other sculptures of amputee models for the series The Complete Marbles (2002), adopts the idealism of Neoclassicism to critique public representations of disability.

In contrast, the Jake and Dinos Chapman’s portrait of Stephen Hawkingrejects idealism. Labeled “the most detestable, the most repellent, and the most pointless work of art” by The Guardian, this lifelike twelve-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture depicts Hawking in his wheelchair on top of a rocky mountain. Although decried by The Guardian as crude and sarcastic, Art Monthly labeled it brilliant, and some disability rights scholars have defended it as an honest portrayal that captures the reality of both the subject and the artists.

Students might discuss the politics of representation present in this piece, and debate whether it is sardonic or sincere.

AT THE END OF CLASS…

Ask students to reflect on the various ways that disability has been constructed throughout history and how visual representations are powerful tools in the construction of societal values. This lecture has brought together religious and secular paintings, photographs, contemporary sculptures, performance, and digital media to examine the various visual constructions of disability and difference that they embody. If students are interested in further projects related to arts and disability, you might direct them to http://disartfestival.org/, an online resource. Whereas disability has rarely been a part of the American cultural imaginary, the DisArt Festival hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated.

Keri Watson (author) is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Central Florida, focusing on modern and contemporary art and issues of disability in visual culture.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

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