Two recommendations from Switzerland…

…following on from Silvia’s post last week about anatomical museums in Bologna, for readers with an interest in medicine and art, and via an otherwise unrelated (to medical humanities) conference trip I took to francophone Switzerland a little while ago; if you find yourself in this part of the world, do see them!

First recommendation: the incredible automata designed by the watchmaker Pierre-Jacquet Droz, on more or less permanent display in the Musée d’art et d’histoire, Neuchâtel, and part of a special exhibition while I was there. These clockwork figures are primarily famous in the history of technology. ‘The Writer’, in particular, is often seen as a proto-computer, because its ability to generate any text is mechanically ‘programmable’ (video here). They are superb technical and artistic productions, especially in the flesh–as it were–which also connect with many preoccupations of cultural history and theory. They are also of course rather uncanny, the classic thinking on this being inspired by their fictional descendent Hoffmann’s ‘Olympia’, and reliably summon unsettling feelings in spectators (I was entertained to see a very close imitation prop used in the illusionist Derren Brown’s most recent stage show). And there are probably many other ways in which they might suggest or intersect with the more complicated branches of post-psychoanalytic theory. More directly, however, the machines made me think about medicine and materialism. Long a theme in the historiography of the medicine of the period and its immediate forebears (the ‘iatromechanical era’), literary and cultural studies are increasingly turning to Gothic and Romantic materialism. The Droz dolls encapsulate this apparently paradoxical formulation, and an anxiety about the question ‘what is (and what is not) a human body?’, not only in terms of the uncanny, but the burgeoning range of late eighteenth century medical, scientific, and philosophical ideas positing humans-as-machines. In turn this reminded me of some fascinating recent scholarship on the subject (e.g. the work of Jessica Riskin at Stanford).

The second recommendation follows a museum experience which was perhaps more focused and more sobering, but equally inspiring. This was a visit to the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne, the legacy of the French artist Jean Dubuffet and, alongside the Sammlung Prinzhorn in Heidelberg, one of Europe’s premier museums of outsider art. Much of the work in the collection was produced in institutions, typically psychiatric, but also more general medical hospitals, sanatoria, children’s homes, prisons, and (in early examples) workhouses. A key premise of outsider art is that these are a form of duress which brings forth creativity in its most ‘pure’ and ‘primitive’ forms (the quotes indicate that I find some of these terms questionable). What struck me instead was the definitely non-primitive sophistication and artistry of many of the items. They were never simple, even when they told a heart-breakingly direct and embodied narrative about a damaged life. This dress made by Marguerite Sir, for example, reminded me very strongly of the following passage by Hilary Mantel on chronic illness and identity:

I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being… How then can you create a narrative of your own life? Janet Frame compares the process to finding a bunch of old rags, and trying to make a dress. A party dress, I’d say: something fit to be seen in. Something to go out in and face the world. (Giving Up the Ghost, 2003)

Two aspects of study in the humanities (in terms of museum-going): surprising, curious, unexpected, bringing together many ideas together in historical and creative objects, richly suggestive of confrontations and challenges to notions of human agency; while also proclaiming its tenaciousness and affirming its necessity.


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