Health and The Ganges: Imperial Representations of Illness and Death

AAH New Voices Conference

Friday 7th November 2014

Wellcome Collection and Birkbeck College, University of London

A Picture of Health: Representations and Imaginations of Wellbeing and Illness addressed the relationship between art and health across different historical periods and disciplines. Focusing on the recently emerged Medical Humanities, the conference attracted a series of scholars working with images and art objects to explore the culture of medicine, illness and health.

Hosted by the Association of Art Historians, the schedule included a range of PhD candidates exploring the themes through art practice and history. Ross MacFarlane (Research Engagement Officer, Wellcome Library) opened the morning with an introduction to the Wellcome Library resources. Founded on the collections of Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), the library provides a diverse collection of materials for the study of medical history. Developed during the late 1890s, the collection includes archives, manuscripts and art and material culture relating to the history of medicine, alchemy, witchcraft, anthropology and ethnography. Since 2010, the library has been engaged in a large scale digitalisation project providing global access to its collections for researchers. This can be accessed through the online catalogue.

The first panel: Illness, Class and Race included three papers from Amy Robson (Plymouth University) Class Contagions and Canine Culprits: Rabid Representations and the Middle Class Imagination in Victorian Britain, Cleo Roberts (University of Liverpool) Health and The Ganges: Imperial Representations of Illness and Death and Samuel Raybone (Courtauld Institute of Art) The pathological working-class body: Charles Negre and the Asile imperial de Vincennes in the French Second Empire.

Cleo Roberts presented her research on The Ganges as a site of conflicted notions of health, illness and wellbeing during the 19th century. The paper used a selection of images including items from the Wellcome Trust Collection and British Library read in conjunction with political, medical and religious texts to argue that the representations of sickness and ill-health in and along the Ganges formed part of an animated Baptist missionary campaign. The anglicising of ‘Hindoo’ practices surrounding the river were said to reveal disjunct ideological approaches to the water. Deemed ‘ghaut murders’, images such as Marshall Claxton’s oil submitted to the Royal Academy National Exhibition 1857 evidenced the finality attached to these acts. The paper concluded that the misconception of these health rituals gave insight into the river as a formative part of the British Empire in India.

The conference included three other panels and a key note address from Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck College) The ruptured portrait: war and the aesthetics of disfigurement. The paper explored the First World War production of portrait masks for disfigured servicemen in relation to contemporary depictions of conflict in popular culture. Situated in a culture of dramatisation, the paper argued that the work of American photographer Nina Berman was an exception. Her portraits of veterans were said to challenge narratives of sacrifice, courage and redemption.

Panel Two: Photography and the Clinical Encounter

Agnese Sile (University of Aberdeen): Voicing the Unspeakable – Dialogue and Dialectic Space in Dorothea Lynch and Eugene Richard’s photo essay Exploding into Life
Maija Tammi (Aalto University, Helsinki): Gallstone in a Gallery: Image as AbjectPat Walton (University of Cumbria): Chronic pain within a family context: an art project informed by lived experience

Panel Three: Art as Therapy

Martin Beaulieu (L’Université du Québec, Montréal): The National Film Board of Canada and the Theraputic Film: the Creation of the series Mental Mechanisms
Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham): Exhibiting The Arts in Therapy: The Museum of Modern Art and Rehabilitation During the Second World War

Panel four: Faces of Pain

Danny Rees (Wellcome Trust): Duchenne and ‘electric’ emotions
Gary Haines (Birkbeck, University of London): A Purchase Made a Debt Repaid: The representation in the Imagination of the Blinded British Soldier of the First World War


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