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Body politics – how physical illness affects an artist’s work

24 October 2022

From the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Intimations of death topped and tailed Cézanne’s career. Grisly scenes of murder and autopsy in his twenties; later, bleached skulls performed a Provençal vanitas. By his early fifties, diabetes was making itself felt in the painter’s movements as well as his mood. Cézanne was an intensely physical artist: he worked in the landscape and had a bodily response to natural phenomena. The motion of his brushstrokes invites you to fling your arms like saplings thrilling to the wind. We are used to thinking of art as the business of the mind, but it also requires strength, agility, touch and vision. It is a product of the body. When the artist is unwell this, too, translates into their work.

Last month I encountered two artists who had experienced serious illness. For each, and for different reasons, a medical condition had transformed the way they worked. One, the Mexican painter Manuel Solano, lost their sight to an HIV-related infection in their twenties. The other, Irish sculptor Bridget O’Gorman, developed a debilitative spinal condition as a young mother. For a time, each considered the possibility they might never make art again. They faced the eviscerating loss not only of an identity, but also a form of expression and the clarity gained in thinking through making. The period of adjustment brought rage. Anything that keeps you from the studio can become the subject of fury. Here, that impediment was the artist’s own body.

Between 1973 and 1979, poet Carol Merrill spent weekends with Georgia O’Keeffe at Abiquiú, New Mexico, providing hands and eyes as the artist became frail and macular degeneration claimed her sight. Physical afflictions, such as an injured arm, prevented O’Keeffe from expending her creative energy and provoked an outburst of temper. She could still ‘see’ the art she wanted to make, but her body would not permit it. O’Keeffe made her last unassisted painting in 1972, but her peripheral vision allowed her to see enough to sketch. Sometimes she supervised assistants as they translated the preparatory work into paintings. Merrill attempted to work for O’Keeffe at her easel, but was informed that her brushwork sounded wrong. To O’Keeffe, Merrill didn’t sound like she was painting. Thus, the poet and the brush parted company.

Carolee Schneemann

Known/Unknown: Plague Column (1995–96), Carolee Schneemann. Carolee Schneemann Foundation, New York. Photo: Marcus J Leith; © 2022 Carolee Schneemann Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Both Solano and O’Gorman found ways to keep working. Solano currently has an exhibition of paintings at Dundee Contemporary Arts (until 20 November). After a long sabbatical, during which she wrote and researched the philosophy of illness, O’Gorman is planning a return to sculpture. Non-Verbal 1, 2 and 3, her texts and diagrams on the body and pain, were shown earlier this year at VISUAL Carlow. Returning to art meant working with assistants, which both artists experienced as a relinquishing of independence. They had to learn to ask for help, to express visual ideas verbally, to think a work into existence before it could be made. At the time of their illness, neither had reached a career stage that demanded a busy studio. Art had been a solitary endeavour; the end of that was experienced as a loss. As I listened to each describe the mental readjustment, I thought of the artist-businessmen, beloved by the market, who preside over huge teams and seldom dirty their hands. Had they, too, experienced loss as they transitioned away from physical making?

‘Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics’ opened at the Barbican just months after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Naturally, much talk of the show has concerned women’s rights: Schneemann’s explorations of intimacy and her proposal that the naked female body could be an active subject. Almost 50 years on, we are hardly shocked by works such as Interior Scroll (1975), in which Schneemann reads a text pulled from her vagina. Her once notorious works have become part of general culture, and naked performance art standard fare.

Much less discussed is Schneemann’s later engagement with the politics of illness. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and breast cancer in 1995, she rejected surgical intervention, preferring to design and administer alternative treatment. In Known/Unknown: Plague Column (1995–96), Schneemann related contemporary culture’s response to cancer to the earlier Christian belief that disease had a moral basis, and that prayer could protect you from afflictions. She also addressed the militaristic language commonplace in discussing treatment: the war with cancer that the medical profession wished to wage within the battlefield of her body. Known/Unknown: Plague Column brings together images of a Viennese devotional statue venerated in times of plague, fresh oranges (that progressively rot) used for syringe practice and video footage, for which the artist filmed herself having sex. All this, too, is body politics. It remains discomforting territory. The urge is to look away.

We are well used to art that responds to mental anguish or maladies of the mind – William Blake’s hallucinations, Edvard Munch’s anxiety, Alice Neel’s depression, and on and on. We seem less comfortable dealing with art that addresses physical illness. We are more comfortable engaging with Frida Kahlo’s heartbreak than her polio, with Francis Bacon’s torment than his asthma. Are we still so caught up in Romanticism that we can’t marry the high-minded wonder of art with the possibility that the artist’s body is hurting? Art responding to illness is too easily dismissed as the fruit of late-career dwindling. We should learn to value it, and look again.

From the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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