Sunday, April 22, 2007


Last week saw the opening of Stethoscape, the Medical Humanities art exhibition at Imperial College. I was pleased to attend the opening night although I have to admit a certain degree of scepticism before hand – what should I expect of art works created by medical students? Yet, as I wandered around the exhibition it soon became clear that I need not have worried.

Inevitably, the quality of works on show varied enormously. What impressed me, however, was the quality of the ideas behind them which was consistently high. These works were, without exception, fresh, inventive, engaging and provocative. Some stood out more than others - Leonie Williams' Still Life is a particularly intelligent and accomplished piece - but all displayed a thoughtful engagement with the themes of the course. With more than a passing nod to Foucault, the students produced a body of work which examined the role of the doctor, the patient, the medical student, physical and mental health, power relations, emotional involvement and clinical detachment. The list goes on…

Some students used themselves as the subject of their work, others used the body in different ways, while others absented the body entirely. It was, perhaps, this later group which was most interesting from an art historical perspective. For, it is here we have an opportunity to consider the minds and bodies which are pivotal to the efficacy of the doctor-patient relationship without (re-)subjecting them to the gaze of the beholder. After all, haven’t they been poked and prodded and scrutinized enough all ready? It would seem not, since much of the work reflected on important themes in new ways, revealing new insights and leaving the beholder with much to consider.

The self-reflexive manner in which many of the students worked showed a willingness to be self-critical, an openness to the possibilities offered by medical humanities and perhaps a process of self-discovery which even they themselves did not expect. I don’t know to what extent the students considered affect – they way in which their work might impinge upon the consciousness of the beholder. How might those who visit the exhibition re-evaluate their own medical relationships whether as doctor, patient, relative or anything else? The value of artistic practice is its potential to make people look again at a situation and think, just for a moment, how that situation might be transformed.

On that note, I leave you with Alice Monk’s Statement of Interpreter(above), a piece which grips you with its presence. The brief catalogue entry relays an awful situation, one which makes your stomach churn, but you have to keep on looking...

Stethoscapes continues at the Blyth Gallery, Level 5, Sherfield Building, Imperial College London until 30th April.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Tamzin Cuming has published an interesting piece about Keat's poem 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' in the British Medical Journal (subscription needed for the full text). Apologies for subjecting you to my holiday snaps (feel free to be 'sans merci'), but I did think of this poem a fortnight ago in Rome when we passed by the house where Keats died. I did not venture in -- or even any closer given the crowds. Also, having two children and a Grandma in tow, eager for the delights of the park at the top of the Spanish steps, was a disincentive, but I plan to visit it some day.

I can't resist plugging Keats House in Hampstead, London. This is a wonderful little museum in a beautiful setting and they have a good programme of events.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Picasso, the prostitutes and the medical student

Medical Humanities students at Imperial will know that I am very fond of showing the 'Head of the Medical Student', a preparatory sketch for one of Picasso's most famous works, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (shown above). I've just heard a snippet on Radio 4's 'Pick of the Week' that suggests a possible explanation for the rather curious conjunction of subjects that informed the work. A medical historian has suggested that the painting might be warning of the dangers of syphilis, particularly as three of the women have mask-like faces -- possibly showing ravages of the disease, especially the deformed nose of the figure on the bottom right. Medical students at the time (early 1900s) would have toured wards of syphilitic patients. If Picasso based his paintings on real subjects, it could explain the association with the student. The medical student didn't retain his identity in the final composition -- he became the 'curtain raiser' on the right-hand side of the painting.

In the National Gallery, you can see Bronzino's An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which is also thought to have a lurking figure suffering from syphilis (on the left of the picture), as a warning of the dangers of illicit love.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Song of Los

I've posted before about the little tidbits the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine contains. A welcome break from the horrors of revising glomerulonephritides was this beautiful picture from William Blake's the Song of Los. It depicts a cloud-borne Los leaning over his hammer, looking down at the sun. The authors of the Oxford Handbook felt this was rather more representative of a 'haemotologist hammering a red cell into shape', based on this quote:
"Every space larger than a red globule of man's blood is visionary, and it is created by the Hammer of Los"
[Los was a mythological character, a fallen god, and his hammer represented creative energy.]

Monday, April 02, 2007

Medical Humanities Society AGM

This Thursday 5th April there is an Annual General Meeting for the Medical Humanities Society. The following positions are available:

Responsible for union affairs, liaison with BSc events and overall responsibility
Responsible for co-running with President, Fresher's Fair and overall responsibility in the President's absence
Responsible for subs and funding
Finance Officer
Responsible for outside sponsorship
Publicity Officer
Responsible for advertising the schedule and poster production
Social Sec
Responsible for outside events, e.g. theatre trips, exhibitions as well as social gatherings.

The meeting will be held at 7:30pm in room S303A in the new Humanities area, Sherfield Building (3rd floor), Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus.
Directly afterwards we will be watching The Motorcycle Diaries, which chronicles Che Guevara's travels around South America whilst he was a medical student.
If you can't make it on Thursday and would like to stand for a position, you can leave your email address below and I will contact you.