Academic Session 28: RCA 2014

40th Anniversary Conference & Bookfair
Royal College of Art, London
10 - 12 April 2014

Portraiture and Pain

Session Convenors:

Suzannah Biernoff, Birkbeck, University of London,
Fiona Johnstone, Birkbeck, University of London,

Pain is often understood as invisible and inarticulate; it is one of the most intensely personal sensations, and one of the hardest to convey. Elaine Scarry famously describes the ‘unsharability’ of pain in terms of its resistance to language; this implies that the visual field might offer the most productive opportunities for communicating the experience of pain. Indeed, pain is a consistent motif in Western art and visual culture. Expressions of the suffering body range from the Laocoön group to Michelangelo’s Pietà, Picasso’s Guernica and modern performance art such as the work of the Viennese Actionists. Representations of psychological distress hold a similarly central place in the art historical cannon, from Dürer’s Melencolia to Munch’s Scream. Portraiture and self-portraiture often have a privileged role in communicating pain – consider, for example, Frida Kahlo’s Broken Column or van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear – yet art historical investigations of physical and mental suffering have rarely focused on this as a specific genre. This session seeks to understand why portraiture might offer a particularly valuable framework for the articulation of pain. What issues does portraiture raise in relation to the practical and ethical consequences of objectifying pain? And how might the de-objectifying work of pain itself challenge the boundaries of traditional portraiture?

Heidi Kellett (Western University, Canada) Skin Portraiture: The epidermal communication of pain and cultural belonging

Tamar Tembeck (McGill University) Hannah Wilke’s Autopathographic Pose

Leticia Fernández-Fontecha (University of Greenwich) and Beatriz Pichel (de Montfort University) Children in Pain: Photography and the performance of pain in British hospitals (1902-1940)

Lauren Sapikowski (Birkbeck, University of London) Familial Expressions of Pain in Portmortem Portraiture

Natasha Ruiz-Gómez (University of Essex) ‘In the Land of Pain’: Portrait and specimen at the Musée Charcot

Diane Silverthorne (Central St Martins, University of the Arts) The Viennese Condition: Alienated self and the gaze as self-portrait

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