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LEARN: Review of The Healing Presence of Art

Book Review by Victoria Lupascu.


The book develops chronologically over twenty-five chapters from early Renaissance to the present day and follows the most prominent displays of art in hospitals across Western Europe. In the last two chapters, the author engages with art works outside Western Europe, but present in Palestine, Mexico and United States. Cork presents a history of “the finest arts in hospitals” (p.2), and considers how “the medical profession has been depicted by artists during [their] period]” (p.4). Moreover, the book is conceived following the conviction that “across the world, there is an ever-increasing awareness that art can do an immense amount to humanize our hospitals, alleviate their clinical harshness and leave a profound, lasting impression on patients, staff and visitors.” (p.5)

The chapter attends, individually, to a specific place, from Paris to London, to Barcelona, to New York, to Norway and Mexico, and to a specific building, such as the Bethlem Hospital, Hôtel des Invalides, Coram Hospital, Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Hospital de Sant Pau, or the First Psychiatric Hospital in Holland. In each of these locales, famous painters, sculptors, and architects have worked to represent the medical profession, the suffering of patients and to allow for an inclining of hope for patients and their caregivers. The author analyses in detail works by Michelangelo, El Greco, Enrique de Egas, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Artus Quellimus the Elder, Thomas Cartwright, William Hogarth, Goya, Theodore Géricault, Vincent van Gogh, Emma Brownlow, Allen Munby, Constantin Brâncuși, Antonin Artaud, Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo and many other notable artists.

This is a formidable overview of art’s long history of entanglement with the medical profession and the historical environment. Although the chapters follow a clear internal sequential logic, they are stand-alone units that can be read according to the readers’ interests, theme (mental health, plague, war etc.), or historical period.

What are the key topics covered?

Arts in history; case studies; arts in healthcare; history of art forms.

Which art forms are discussed?

Painting, sketching, architecture, sculpture, tiling.

What disciplines are involved?

Visual art; galleries and museums; hospitals; clinics; art therapy; artists in residence; photography; sculpture; anatomy.

Who is it aimed at?

This book, with its perfect balance between technical details and easy-to-follow descriptions can be approached by a vast readership. It is a useful intellectual tool for anyone interested in the history of Western art in hospitals, anyone who needs a starting point in arts-based projects with a connection to hospitals, and anyone else interested in the long-standing relationship between visual arts and medical institutions.

Thanks so much to Victoria for writing this book review. If you are interested in reviewing a book for the blog, please get in touch!

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