Association of Art Historians 40th Annual Conference
12th – 14th April 2014
The Royal College of Art, London
Session Title: Portraiture and Pain
Pain is often understood as invisible and inarticulate; it is one of the most intensely personal sensations, and one of the hardest to convey. Elaine Scarry famously describes the ‘unsharability’ of pain in terms of its resistance to language; this implies that the visual field might offer the most productive opportunities for communicating the experience of pain. Indeed, pain is a consistent motif in Western art and visual culture. Expressions of the suffering body range from the Laocoön group to Michelangelo’s Pietà, Picasso’s Guernica and modern performance art such as the work of the Viennese Actionists. Representations of psychological distress hold a similarly central place in the art historical cannon, from Dürer’s Melencolia to Munch’s Scream.
Portraiture and self-portraiture often have a privileged role in communicating pain – consider for example Frida Kahlo’s Broken Column or van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear – yet art historical investigations of physical and mental suffering have rarely focused on this as a specific genre. This session seeks to understand why portraiture might offer a particularly valuable framework for the articulation of pain. What issues does portraiture raise in relation to the practical and ethical consequences of objectifying pain? And how might the de-objectifying work of pain itself challenge the boundaries of traditional portraiture? We welcome papers on all aspects of portraiture and physical or psychological pain, including injury; minor, chronic, or terminal conditions; mental illness; and mourning, melancholia and depression.
To propose a paper for this panel, please submit a 200 word abstract by email to the convenors Dr Suzannah Biernoff and Fiona Johnstone from Birkbeck, University of London, by the deadline of November 11th. Further details can be here.