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    Picturing pain

    Biernoff, Suzannah (2021) Picturing pain. In: Padfield, D. and Zakrzewska, J. (eds.) Encountering Pain: Hearing, Seeing, Speaking. London, UK: UCL Press. ISBN 9781787352636.

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    When Charles Darwin was searching for illustrations for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he initially turned to art. To his surprise, he found nothing that accurately depicted the expression of pain. In works of art, he mused, ‘beauty is the chief object; and strongly contracted facial muscles destroy beauty.’ Yet even if we confine ourselves to the art historical canon of Darwin’s day there is no shortage of examples of pain as the subject of art. Suffering and its transcendence pervade both the Classical tradition and Christian iconography. Rarely, however, do we find pain in these contexts that is not ennobling, instrumental or exemplary. Disfiguring pain – the kind that ‘unmakes’ the world, as Elaine Scarry puts it – makes a surprisingly belated appearance in Western art. Twentieth-century modernism’s rejection of conventional beauty coincided with developments in pharmacology and clinical medicine that undermined the idea that pain is necessary (let alone ennobling) by approaching it as a bodily phenomenon that can be treated either surgically or chemically. Pain, in modern art, is not something to be overcome or borne in silence; it is a tool of protest and provocation: an event that transforms the meaning of spectatorship as well as art’s contract with beauty and visual pleasure.


    Item Type: Book Section
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Historical Studies
    Research Centres and Institutes: Medical Humanities, Centre for
    Depositing User: Suzannah Biernoff
    Date Deposited: 16 Mar 2021 13:04
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 17:50


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