Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Portraits, Patients and Psychiatrists

Last week I attended a very interesting seminar at King's College London's new Centre for the Humanities and Health. Artist Gemma Anderson and psychiatrist Tim McInerny have collaborated on a project called 'Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists'. Dr McInerny, a forensic psychiatrist working at Broadmoor, was inspired by seeing Gemma's etchings at the RCA's graduate show. He felt that they had parallels with psychiatry in that they gave an insight into the personalities of her sitters. They decided to collaborate on a series of portraits of psychiatrists and their patients, supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award.

The portraits are deliberately ambiguous -- doctor and patient are not immediately discernable. One of the strengths of the project is that it honours both sitters as individuals, rather than highlighting the differences in status between them.

Gemma works from life on a large wax tablet. She gets to know her sitters, finding out what interests them. She then incorporates imagery from their narraties into the portrait, often drawing from natural history museum collections. The portraits reminded me of frontispieces to 18th century books -- full of symbolism and 'emblems'.

Because anonymity needs to be respected, the line-drawing nature of the etchings is ideal. There is not too much facial detail, but each is still recognisable as a portrait. Gemma stressed that she was not trying to capture the entire life story of her subjects, although this informs her work. The portraits are her interpretations, rather than a transcription of her sitters' stories. She did not seek 'approval' from the sitters about what to include.

Dr McInerny explained that the patients and the doctors enjoyed having their portraits made. The natural imagery and the sense of calm that pervades the portraits serves as a counterbalance to the often very negative imagery that abounds about psychiatric patients in the press. Of course, it is tempting to focus on the patients' portraits because their life stories have had such a profound influence on their circumstances, but this is also true of the doctors who treat them. The portraits remind us that there is more to the personality than the sum of our personal or profession actions.

You can read more about the project and find out about the fascinating working methods employed in making the etchings on Gemma's blog.

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