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The Healing Presence of Art by Richard Cork.

The Healing Presence of Art by Richard Cork

New Haven & London, Yale University Press: 2012

ISBN 978 0300170368,496pp, h/b, 50 [pounds sterling]


Richard Cork has written a large, well-illustrated survey of the use of art in clinical settings and as a medium of personal survival, which begins in ancient Greece and ends with Naum Gabo's Revolving Torsion fountain, outside St Thomas's Hospital in London. His central--and surely uncontroversial --thesis is stated early: 'art can do an immense amount to humanise our hospitals, alleviate their clinical harshness and leave a profound, lasting impression on patients, staff and visitors' (p. 5). But his title seems to promise more than this. In what sense can the presence of art be a healing factor in the lives of patients, their families, and the staff who care for them? Approaching this book as a priest and psychotherapist, rather than as a professional artist or art critic, I have been searching for an answer to this question.

Thoughts abound in the pages devoted to artists of the modern period who used their art as a means of personal survival. Individual chapters are devoted to Richard Dadd, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch. According to Patricia Allderidge, Dadd survived as a person, during his 30 years' seclusion in Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals, because he survived as a painter (p. 272). Van Gogh killed himself, but not before stating his trust that another might carry on his work (p. 306). Munch shocked his doctor with his murderous myth of Alpha and Omega, yet told him that 'a strange feeling of peace came over me as I was working on this series--it was as though all the pain was leaving my body' (p. 345). Featured more briefly, Frida Kahlo's paintings provided 'a way of coping with pain, warding off despair and regaining control over her crushed and broken body' (p. 398). No one doubts the therapeutic power of art to the artist, but what of the beholder? Cork's detailed historical survey begins in the 14th Century, with the adornment of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena. Here Domenico di Bartolo's frescos may well have served to encourage and educate patients by illustrating the charitable activities and compassionate intent of those caring for them. Through the later Middle Ages, pre dominantly in Italy, France, Spain and Holland, Cork catalogues a series of remarkable hospitals and institutions in which the architecture, painting, sculpture and other ornamentation humanised the environment and offered ways in which patients could locate their lives and deaths within the wider context of the Christian story. Specially striking was Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece--'the most violent and distressing image of the Crucifixion in Western art' (p. 74)--specifically designed to enable those suffering from 'St Anthony's Fire' (an excruciating skin disease) to contemplate the crucified bearing their condition. This may have brought comfort to some, but did it bring healing? As the later middle ages gave way to the Reformation and Counter Reformation periods, the image of the doctor comes to the fore. For a while, in 17th-century Holland, the surgeon 'was even seen as a man capable of providing humanity with a greater insight into God' (p. 120). At the same time doctors were satirized unmercifully, an ambivalence later displayed by Hogarth. It was left to Goya to provide perhaps the greatest illustration of the power of the therapeutic relationship in his Self-Portrait with his Doctor Arrieta (plate 256).

Space precludes a more detailed summary of the contents of this book, but two further aspects struck me with special force. Concluding his survey of Gericault's Monomania portraits, Cork writes, 'Disturbing, poignant and utterly clear-sighted, these honest studies executed with such deft authority in the gloom of asylums herald a turning point in Western Society's attitude towards demented humanity' (p. 269). Gericault enables us to see the person rather than their illness. And, Diego Rivera's mural, The History of Medicine in Mexico (plate 397), powerfully displays the contemporary rift between scientific medicine and traditional approaches to healing. It does not heal that rift but maybe, by manifesting it, it can sharpen our longing to transcend it.

Can art bring healing? No one doubts that humane surroundings--a combination of architecture, decoration and furnishing--have an ancillary role to play. Beyond this, no one can predict the mysterious exchange that may, or may not, take place between an image and an individual.

Christopher MacKenna is Director of the St Marylebone Healing & Counselling Centre
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Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:MacKenna, Christopher
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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