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“States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing”

Leonora Carrington, British, active Mexico and United States, 1917–2011, Crookhey Hall, 1987. Color lithograph. Gift of David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958. © Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Princeton University Art Museum Exhibit Explores Wellness and Illness, Care and Suffering, Across Time and Cultures

By Laurie Pellichero | Images Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

Pandemics and infectious disease. Mental illness. The hopes and dangers of childbirth. The complexities of care. These concepts and many others are explored through more than 80 art objects from around the world — from antiquity to modern times —including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, and multimedia, in “States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum November 2 through February 2, 2020.

“With the medical humanities a growing field, ‘States of Health’ afforded us an extraordinary opportunity to pose important questions about how we visualize both wellness and disease,” says James Steward, Nancy A. Dasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “By positioning objects that have likely never been in dialogue with each other before, the exhibition draws on multi-disciplinary perspectives to consider health and healing today, how artists have interpreted these states over time, and how they both differ and share certain characteristics across many cultures.”

“States of Health” is displayed in four thematic groupings: “Confronting Contagion,” “States of Mind,” “Worlds of Care,” and “Birthing Narratives,” with cross-cultural juxtapositions throughout the exhibition considering both broad issues and specific historical events from a visual perspective.

Master of the Greenville Tondo, Italian, active 1500–1510, formerly attributed to Perugino (Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci), Italian, 1450–1523,
Saint Sebastian, ca. 1500–1510. Oil on wood panel transferred to canvas on pressed-wood panel. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to the New Jersey State Museum; transferred to the Princeton University Art Museum. Photo Bruce M. White.

It is organized by Veronica White, curator of academic programs, and Laura Giles, Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, curator of prints and drawings.

White says the idea for “States of Health” grew out of her work with medical humanities classes at the University. “For several years I’ve been working with classes exploring visual narratives of illness, different cultural interpretations of disease, and the different roles that art can play in the face of illness, healing, and caregiving. Those classes focused on works of art responding to the bubonic plague and AIDS,” she notes.

White then curated a mini-exhibition of four paintings and drawings in the gallery, all of which documented or evoked the bubonic plague in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

“That display received a strong response from both the campus community and the wider public, so we saw the potential to expand the concept into a full, multi-thematic, and multi-media exhibition with global context compelling broader conversations concerning universal and topical health-related issues,” says Giles.

“When the opportunity arose for a special exhibition, we realized that we could gather works that would not have been seen together in the past,” continues Giles. “Traditionally, museums present Egyptian works in one gallery, Renaissance objects in another, and contemporary art in yet another. But through this thematic approach we’ve been able to place works in conversation with one another to connect common threads across cultures and time.  It was wonderful how quickly the Museum’s curators came together and worked with us to seize this opportunity to create unique trans-cultural juxtapositions.”

White notes that the exhibition explores the multiple roles that art can play in the face of illness, healing, and birth. Some of these roles include grappling with knowledge, attempting to visualize the effects of a diseases before the disease is understood; trying to make a disease concrete, in the form of an object; art as activism, exploring unequal access to diagnosis and care; and art as a form of catharsis and healing for artists themselves.

“Modern and contemporary examples include Leonora Carrington, who created works that have been discussed in light of her own experience in an asylum; Mario Moore, who created a series of works while recovering from brain surgery; and Jo Spence, who talks about the therapeutic role of photography in the face of her own cancer,” says White.

Yorùbá artist, Twin commemorative figures (ere ibeji) with tunic, late 19th–early 20th century. Wood, tukula, metal, glass beads, cotton, abrus seeds, and leather. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. Photo Bruce M. White.

White also points out works of art that are seen as having healing functions in and of themselves. “For example, praying to Saint Sebastian was believed to have the potential to heal someone stricken with the bubonic plague. The small prayer book devoted to Saint Margaret would have been held by a woman while giving birth, as it was believed to provide protection,” she says.

According to the curators, the Museum collaborated with a wide range of disciplines, programs, and faculty voices at the University — including experts in molecular biology, anthropology, literature, psychology, and creative writing — to provide various points of view about the objects on display.

“Overall, this exhibition is the product of an academic institution and reflects ways of thinking from multiple disciplines,” says White. “That was the genesis of the project and has proved to be the most interesting aspect, approaching the objects from so many different viewpoints.”

As to how the exhibition plays into health care issues today, Giles notes, “one thread is that it includes work that comments on the inequities of health care. Examples include a LaToya Ruby Frazier photograph of a hospital in Braddock, Pa., that was the only resource for the African American community — before it was demolished.

Eric Avery, American, born 1948. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2000. Linoleum block print over lithograph. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library. © Eric Avery.

“Other examples include David Wojnarowicz’s photomontages, which address the U.S. government’s problematic response in the face of AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, and Gordon Parks’ photographs that investigate a family’s health problems in the favelas of Brazil.”

Highlights of “States of Health” also include “the painting of St. Sebastian, particularly the way it is presented in this exhibition in a completely different context,” says Giles. “We are taking the painting out of the Italian Renaissance gallery, out of the framework of devotional art, and are instead presenting it in juxtaposition with secular objects — Maya and American works, etc. — in a broader global context, both spiritual and secular.

“The Typhoid Fever work by Ruth S. Cuthand is another absolute highlight. It’s a contemporary work by an indigenous artist from Canada, and one of five new acquisitions being shown for the first time in ‘States of Health.’  She’s using beautiful images that tie-in with our flat screen of medical imagery. Her work looks like typhoid under a microscope, addressing a very dark period in North American history when indigenous populations were severely decimated by disease. Her depiction of typhoid is beaded and glittering — she uses visual beauty to evoking something horrific.”

The curators both say that correlations across time and place are at the heart of the exhibition.

“We show works about the bubonic plague alongside works about AIDS. In both cases, we see artists grappling with the disease before the disease is understood,” says Giles. “In our narrative section about childbirth, we have an ancient Etruscan terra cotta votive uterus juxtaposed with an 18th century French illustrated manual on midwifery.  And in ‘Worlds of Care,’ we present figures looked to for healing across cultures, including a Meso-American figure, an Egyptian statuette, a Tlingit shaman, and a Chinese scroll painting of Guan Yin.”

White points out that “States of Health” examines illness and tribulations, but it also focuses on hope. “Indeed, we end the exhibition with works examining childbirth and rituals associated with the start of life.”

“This is not a show of anatomical drawings or medical illustrations,” says Giles. “It goes far beyond that, showing how art has arguably anticipated the sciences in visualizing disease and healing.”

“There are so many cultures represented,” continues White. “And while specific cultures may interpret or represent these issues differently, there’s a kind of basic humanity in the exhibition that will speak to people about their own experiences, such as having been ill or having served as caregivers. Considering these themes provides an opportunity to reflect on that, and to feel a communal sense that goes beyond the self and extends to other cultures.

“This is why we have a reflection area in the gallery, with notebooks for people who wish to note their own experiences.”

Programs accompanying “States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing” include a curator’s lecture and student dance performance inspired by the themes in the exhibition on November 7 at 5:30pm; an all-day symposium followed by a reception on November 15; a concert by the Princeton Chamber Music Society on November 21 at 5:30pm exploring the intersection of music and medicine; and a Day With(out) Art community event on December 1 at 2pm marking the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10am to 5pm; Thursday 10am to 9pm; and Sunday 12 to 5pm. For more information, visit