Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2017
Mary Hunter The Face of Medicine: Visualising Medical Masculinities in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. 280 pp.; 60 b/w ills. Hardcover $33.95 (9780719097577)
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Written from the perspective of visual culture studies, broadly speaking The Face of Medicine addresses “the entanglement of art, science, politics, and popular culture in the early Third Republic” (1). Knowledge of that political regime is assumed, and readers rusty on their French history may find themselves stymied. Of course such information is readily, and amply, available, whereas Mary Hunter’s examination of medical masculinities in late nineteenth-century Paris is unique, and a most welcome addition to the corpus of historical writings on art and medicine.

Much of the book focuses on three paintings: a depiction of Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, with French and foreign patients, by Lucien Laurent-Gsell; a painting of the surgeon Jules-Émile Péan by Henri Gervex, and a very famous picture of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot by André Brouillet. The author argues that these particular paintings are “crucial to the visualisation of elite medical masculinities in the late nineteenth century” (3). Throughout the book they function as specific examples of the French medical community’s “social and political uses of art and aesthetics,” and are thus also “vital for investigating artists’ cultural appropriation of scientific and medical principles in the last decades of the nineteenth century” (3). The Face of Medicine “explores how, why, and where artists and medical men worked collectively by examining archival sources surrounding the production, display, and reception of these works. It considers how doctors, artists, and scientists—as well as journalists, art critics, and art historians—partook in diverse rhetorics of realism, nationalism, and scientific and medical objectivity to varying degrees and different ends” (5). As a reader, I occasionally wondered about artists who were interested in scientific and medical principles but were not realists—did they exist? If yes, does it matter to Hunter’s argument?

The book is divided into more or less four parts: a substantial (but not overlong) introduction and three main chapters—plus a very short conclusion. The historical exegesis is careful and thorough, almost encyclopedic at times, but for me the best parts of the book were those that highlighted the ambivalence and insanity at the heart of realism itself. As Hunter notes, the “unrelenting desire to be purely objective” is not only “an impossible goal”—it is in fact a form of “madness” (12).

Chapter 1, “The Makings of a Scientific Hero: Portraits of Louis Pasteur,” focuses on the titular figure—an appropriate choice not only because of the intense nationalism around Pasteur, but also because he was “an avid collector and producer of images, in addition [to] having his image rendered and distributed by others” (37). Portraits of Pasteur “show the multiple layers of Pasteur’s public persona, particularly how his identity as a civilized Frenchman was at odds with his extreme professional ambition” (39). Hunter is especially interested in portraits of the chemist exhibited at the 1886 Salon because those were “the first paintings of Pasteur exhibited after his monumental discovery” of a rabies vaccine (39). As we learn while reading The Face of Medicine, valorizing Pasteur was considered an essential part of performing Frenchness. But portraits of Pasteur also represented something beyond this—“an aggregate of modern scientific ideas: the rising social, economic, and cultural status of scientific men; the integration of laboratory science into medical practice; the safety and danger of scientific discovery involving humans; and science’s crucial role in France’s industrial progress and colonial expansion” (39).

The flip side of this modern, republican confidence was an ambivalent fascination with criminality and illness, such that photographic portraits like Nadar’s 1878 pictures of Pasteur present a kind of detailed realism that invites “a physiognomic gaze” (51). Indeed, according to the author, “many of Nadar’s portraits display similarities to the photographs of patients and criminals from nineteenth-century hospitals and police stations” (49). Referencing Allan Sekula, Hunter explains that “with the emergence of the mug shot and the creation and collection of photographs of criminals by the police in Paris in the 1880s, photographic portraiture became as associated with social deviance, crime, and illness as with heroic healthy bodies” (50).

Rabies functions as a strange sort of doppelgänger for realism in The Face of Medicine, subverting its smooth narrative of progress by revealing the ragged underbelly of all these artistic and medical triumphs. For example, Hunter explains that despite the rampant French fear of rabies and pride in Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, there was a frequent “acting out of rabies symptoms . . . rabies fascinated the public with its . . . highly sexualised symptoms” (85). Documented cases of “hysterical rabies . . . point to an extreme pathological fear of this virus”; and the heroic Pasteur was himself taken in by at least one such case of hysterical rabies (85).

This sense of strangeness at the heart of realism increases exponentially in chapter 2, “The Sleep of Reason: Dr Péan’s Collection of Bodies in Paint and in Wax.” Here “the spectacle of realism produces insanity, compulsion, and hysteria,” which differs from paintings of Pasteur in 1886 and 1887, “where subject matter, sitter, and stylistic strategies produced realisms that were understood primarily as rational and documentary, and induced feelings of pride in French science” (108). Readers are asked to consider that realism’s “often contradictory characteristics” are not only evidence of its “obvious inability to produce reality,” but also “an essential part of its drive to do so” (108).

Much of chapter 2 looks at Gervex’s 1887 realist painting Avant l’opération: le Docteur Péan enseignant à l’hôpital Saint-Louis sa découverte du pincement des vaisseaux. By this point Gervex had been exploiting the theme of French medical progress in his art for over a decade. And in fact the most memorable parts of the 1887 painting are those that advertise the artist’s skill—and not the doctor’s. The promotion of Péan’s talents was almost crude, and some critics rejected the exaggerated heroism in Gervex’s portrayal of medical masculinity (113–14). The propagandistic function of this and other realist works is essential: contemporaneous commentators “suggested that the real purpose of the painting was to ‘preserve the memory of the invention of Dr. Péan’s famous surgical method,’ a comment of particular importance since Péan’s identity as inventor of the hemostatic clamp was controversial” (114).

The most compelling part of chapter 2, though, is the discussion of wax figures and moulages, whose “lifelike quality . . . provoked feelings of horror, fear, and fascination rather than simply rationality and reason” (153). In the realist drive to represent the body, wax is paradoxically both reassuring and unsettling—reassuring because its malleability hides trauma (141), but unsettling insofar as wax also “melts, crumbles, and deforms; it presages a body in pain, mutilation, and potential termination” (144). Hunter does not attempt to resolve this tension; instead she points to the fact that ultimately “real bodies failed to fulfil the realist demands of modern medicine” (150; emphasis added). This failure compelled Péan to obsessively commission over 600 moulages of “diseased body parts” (145), which were considered more “realistic” than actual preserved human parts with those same diseases. The physician was thus permitted to “become both surgeon and sculptor, and perhaps even pornographer” (152).

The third and final chapter, “Hysterical Realisms at the Salpêtrière: Images, Objects, and Performances chez Charcot,” is perforce less striking than the other chapters because of the extent of the preexisting literature on Charcot and hysteria. According to the author, however, although excessively reproduced, the painting Une leçon clinique la Salpêtrière remains underdiscussed. Hunter argues that Une leçon clinique is “both a realist rendering of hysteria and a realist portrayal of various realist forms of representing hysteria”; the idea is that paint, photography, wax, drawing, hypnosis, and electrotherapy “were all forms of realism” (168). Drawing on Jonathan Crary, Hunter ultimately argues that Une leçon clinique “demonstrates the ways in which representations . . . attempt to construct the most real image of hysteria” (227). The verisimilitude of the painting “was grounded—and guaranteed—by its relationship with the Salpêtrière networks of the real” (227). Each chapter subsection deals with a different aspect of Brouillet’s representation of hysteria, connecting it to contemporaneous practices at the Salpêtrière hospital as well as to the wider cultural context. Hunter argues that, like the other artists discussed, “Brouillet painted a fashionable, contemporary scene to get noticed by Salon reviewers, advertise his identity as a modern painter, and publicise his association with men of great import” (182). These men of import also supported one another staunchly—for example, Charcot “assertively and publicly defended Pasteur’s rabies vaccine” (214).

The Face of Medicine successfully demonstrates how the “scientific and medical personae and narratives” depicted in the examined artworks “shaped artistic decisions regarding style, composition, genre, and medium” (242). Moreover, throughout the book Hunter’s visual analysis seems both precise and insightful. Overall I would have enjoyed reading even more about the “individual ambition, competitive cultures, and subjective desires” (243) that, the author argues, undermined artistic realism and medical objectivity. Nevertheless, I was certainly convinced by Hunter’s conclusion that, although “medical men and artists emphasised the objectivity and reason of their realistic objects, whether in paint, wax, photography, or print, pleasure and subjectivity were a vital component of creating and collecting bodies” (244).

Kathryn Simpson
Independent scholar

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.