Last week David Lomas, Professor of Art History at Manchester University, came to speak to the Centre for the Humanities and Health about Diego Rivera’s murals, commissioned for the creation of the Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City. Along with Rivera, the driving force for the murals was Dr Ignacio Chavez, who was Director of the Institute until 1960. The murals form a diptych, are 6m x 4m in size, and are hung facing each other inside the Institute.
Ostensibly, the murals depict the history of cardiology, which was still a relatively new speciality in 1944, when the Institute was created. Yet this is a very particular view of history; both the content and style of the murals suggest a dialectics of both history and science, and Chavez himself instructed Rivera that the murals
“should indicate the ascending trend of knowledge and if possible should express how slow and difficult has been the advance, how each of those men had to fight routine, prejudice, ignorance and fanaticism […] If you could find the way, it would be beautiful to paint this group of men moving, striving in an upward march.”
This teleological view of progress posits William Harvey, author of De Mortu Cordis and the proposer of a double, pulmonary and systemic, circulatory system, as the founding father of the discipline, forming the apex of a triangle – or arrowhead – pointing upwards towards a depiction of the Institute at the top of the second panel. Professor Lomas’ idea of a “dialectics of circulation” not only applies to the composition and style of the individual murals, but extends to Rivera’s adoption of a red and blue colour scheme, long figured as emblematic of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in medical textbooks, as a way of uniting the two panels.
In Rivera’s hands, the murals escape simple propagandising and take a more complicated view of cardiology, and modern medicine. Progress is not a simple onward march, and the benefits of technological advances are complicated by the image of Pierre Charles Potain, a French cardiologist, performing a direct auscultation on a patient. The two murals themselves confirm this; they are not opposing but complementary figurations of the development of cardiology. Embroiled in dialogue, the murals point towards a vision of history outside the Marxist-Trotskyist mould, and show that a celebration of a discipline can also be suffused with the complications of its gestation.