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Jo Spence Archive

Spence, Jo

Last Updated: Apr-26-2012
Annotated by:
Metzl, Jonathan

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Visual Arts

Genre: Multimedia

Summary:

Unfortunately,the archive as described and annotated here is no longer available on line. The quotes, summary, and commentary below are nevertheless worth reading. Some images may be found as noted in Miscellaneous below.

Powerful series of self-portrait photographs documenting the artist’s fight against breast cancer, accompanied by a narrative describing her responses to the medical community. In early images, Spence undergoes mammography, lumpectomy, and finally, mastectomy (images 1-3, 5). These "clinical" images provide a temporal narrative of the course of Spence’s "illness," while concomitantly tracing the inter-relationship between the corporal/medical and the artistic body. In so doing, Spence calls into question medical notions of autonomy and ownership, while re-claiming her "right" to the representation of her body-parts.

In later images, Spence rejects Western medicine, in favor of alternative therapies such as acupuncture (image 4) and phototherapy (image 6). As Spence writes: "Women attending hospital with breast cancer often have to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the medical photographers as well as the consultant, medical students and visiting doctors. Once I had opted out of orthodox medicine I decided to keep a record of the changing outward condition of my body. This stopped me disavowing that I have cancer, and helped me to come to terms with something I initially found shocking and abhorrent."

Supporting text by Terry Dennett (Curator, Jo Spence Memorial Archive) at the end of the series of images provides additional excerpts from Spence’s writing, and several useful links to breast cancer awareness sites.

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The Courtroom

Layton, Elizabeth

Last Updated: Apr-26-2012
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Summary:

This is an aerial view of a comatose patient being force-fed by a funnel leading directly into her stomach. Surrounding the consultation table are six (identifiable) black-robed supreme judges gleefully pouring nutritious foods (grapes, fish, Quaker Oats, peanut butter, water and 7-Up) into her. Two tiny symbols, the scales of justice and a red-white-and-blue eagle contribute to the otherwise empty courtroom decor.

In the upper right corner, barely visible, is an open door with a "Keep Out" sign dangling from its knob, through which a doctor and nurse peer in. Four tiny red paper-doll figures holding hands, symbolizing the family, are also by this door. Hanging precariously over the patient and consultation table is an ugly, large, bare 25-watt light bulb.

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Frida and the Miscarriage

Kahlo, Frida

Last Updated: Apr-26-2012
Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Lithograph

Summary:

A female figure stands facing us, unclothed, her left side darker than her right, occupying the middle of the frame. She is surrounded with images from the process of human reproduction. The largest of the former is the well-formed male fetus in the frame’s lower left, which is connected by a thin umbilical cord wrapped around the figure’s right leg to a fetus in an early stage of development in the figure’s abdomen, which we see as if by x-ray.

Tear-shaped droplets of blood drip down the figure’s left leg and soak into a dark mass in the earth, where they nourish the roots of several plants. A tear rolls down each of the figure’s cheeks. Just above her to her left is a weeping crescent moon. Below it is an artist’s palette that the figure holds up with a second left arm.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

Painted while Neel was enrolled in the Works Progress Administration--a New Deal program to help the unemployed-- the work depicts a scene with which the artist was probably familiar, being herself impoverished at the time. The setting is a room at The Russell Sage Foundation, established by Margaret Olivia Sage in 1907 for "'the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.' In its early years the Foundation undertook major projects in low-income housing, urban planning, social work, and labor reform" (quote from http://www.russellsage.org/about) .

At the painting's rear center sits an elderly (gray haired) woman facing sideways, dressed all in black, head buried in her hands. From her clothing and affect, she is probably a widow. She is seated in front of a small table around which, in a semicircle, sit her interrogators - nine men and two women. They all face her. One of the women seems to be interviewing her while the other people listen with varying expressions on their faces, ranging from thoughtful to impassive. The men are all wearing suits and ties except for one (possibly two), with clerical collar. The women, including the elderly lady under investigation, all wear hats. All are white, with the possible exception of a clergyman, who may be a light skinned black. To the right foreground of the painting sit two men, facing sideways, who appear to be waiting to be questioned. The man closest to the viewer is elderly, with a white mustache, apparently Latino since his skin color is light brown; he is wearing a suit and tie and holds two bananas in his hand. The expression on his face is one of worry and fatigue. To the left foreground, with his back to the viewer, a man sits leaning forward, apparently one of the questioners.

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The Last Illness

Neel, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-18-2012
Annotated by:
Winkler, Mary

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

This portrait of the artist's mother was done a few months before her death in 1954. An elderly woman with white, feathery, unkempt hair sits facing the viewer, wearing a plaid wool bath robe. Although the chair is set on a slight diagonal with the picture plane, the impression is one of frontality: the subject faces (confronts) the viewer with a combination of fortitude and vulnerability.

Neel has suggested spiritual and emotional conflict by dividing the face and accentuating the frightened eyes behind large spectacles. The strong geometrical pattern of the bathrobe gives a sense of stability to the form, while simultaneously setting up a contrast with the delicate hands and aged face of the sick woman.

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Self-Portrait

Neel, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-18-2012
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

In 1980, four years before her death at age 84, Alice Neel painted her first self-portrait. Grasping her paintbrush, the naked artist looks directly at the viewer without concern for pleasing. Bravely, she invites us to meet her fully in this deeply honest and vulnerable space.

The hard vertical bars of the chair encircle her soft and abundant flesh. One arm is raised in readiness for work, the other hangs limp, mimicking the heavy droop of her breasts and stomach. Eyeglasses hint at frailty yet proclaim her as one who sees. These opposing elements mark her singularity.

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City Hospital

Neel, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-18-2012
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Summary:

In 1953 Alice Neel created a series of ink and gouache drawings depicting the last weeks of her mother's life, which were spent in a New York city hospital. One of these is at the Robert Miller website linked to this annotation. In the drawing, a black nurse comforts a prone elderly lady. The pale hues of the painting--blue, black, white--evoke a somber mood and imply sickness. This sense of despair is augmented by a harsh cityscape background beyond a dark river, which the viewer sees through a window.

Compassion counters these desolate surroundings, however, for a bond is apparent between the nurse and elderly patient. The nurse's hands rest on the patient in a partial cradling gesture, and the trajectory of the lines made by the nurse's arms and hands and the elderly patient's flowing hair establishes a visual and emotional link. The connection between the two figures is supplemented by the thin smiles on both women's faces.

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Loneliness

Neel, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-18-2012
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

An empty, old, red chair sits at a three-quarter view. One leg is cut off by the painting's frame. The chair is the only subject visible in the foreground, suggesting that the room it occupies is empty. In the composition's center is a window with a stark black blind pulled nearly halfway down. The view outside the room reveals two windows in a building across the way. These windows are stacked vertically, one on top of the other, and are nearly identical in appearance.

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Well Baby Clinic

Neel, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-18-2012
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

A nurse clothed in white and holding a baby stands in the center of a hospital ward. Surrounding her sit adults colored brown and grey. Naked babies lie mostly unattended on white beds. Most of the newborns share the same posture--their arms are splayed and their legs are raised towards the ceiling. A handful of adults in the room attend to the children. Their blurred faces and pallid coloring assign them a baleful monstrousness.

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The Gross Clinic

Eakins, Thomas

Last Updated: Jul-22-2010
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

Professor Samuel D. Gross of Jefferson Medical College is demonstrating an operation for osteomyelitis of the femur in the surgical amphitheater in 1875 in this highly dramatic, powerful scene. Light glints off his forehead, and his visage is stern, calm, and surrounded by a halo of gray-white hair. The bloody fingers of his right hand hold a blood-tipped scalpel. He appears to have just made an incision and is turning away to demonstrate his work.

To the surgeon’s left is the patient, lying in right lateral decubitus position, with exposed leg and buttocks. Assistants are retracting the wound, further dissecting within it, and holding the patient’s legs. Blood is on their hands, instruments, and the patient’s leg. The patient’s face is obscured by the chloroform soaked towel that the anesthetist is using to administer general anesthesia. The white of this towel and the operating table’s sheet are the only other bright white values besides the surgeon’s head in this mostly dark painting.

Adding to the drama is the stricken pose of the patient’s female relative--to the surgeon’s right. For charity cases, a family member was required to be present during the surgery. She averts her head and raises her hands, clenched in a claw-like fashion, to block her view.

In the gallery are variously interested and disinterested observers--mostly medical students--in casual poses and dimly seen. The exception is the artist’s self-portrayal--he is studiously drawing in the front row. Dr. Gross’s son (also a surgeon) is standing in the entry tunnel.

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