The Healing Power of Art – Dr. Richard Cork

As I was headed out toward the exit to head back home, walking past the daily announcement board near the reception, I saw that there was a lecture based on a book launch that evening. “Richard Cork: The Healing Power of Art,” it said. The possible implications on the scientific function of art was a rather unusual subject, so I quickly read over the description, and the mention of Rogier van der Weyden grabbed me. Two years ago, I have attended a presentation about his Beaune Altarpiece and its commission for the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, and I remembered that I was fascinated by the fiery damnation depicted in the work and the reason for its display for the hospital’s dying patients. Fragmented memories and the feeling of my earlier questions rose up to the surface.

After considering it for a little longer as I emptily continued reading (…El Greco…Mattias Grünewald at Isenheim…), I decided to attend the lecture. I quickly went up the three flights of stairs to the top floor entrance. Slightly winded, I placed my ears near the door, and listened. A male voice was talking about traveling, and there was a polite laughter. The lecture had already begun, but I could tell that Cork wasn’t that far along in his presentation. I opened the door cautiously and with a quick, shuffling walk up to an empty section in to the door side, near the front row.

Thankfully, Cork had not started talking about the artworks yet. I probably missed the part where he explained why he decided to take on this project, which, in hindsight, would have clarified some lingering questions I had about the talk. I initially intended to just sit and enjoy the talk, but as I began to listen to him talk about his first encounter in his travels, the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, I opened my bag, took out my notebook and pen, and began taking notes.

Cork led us through his travels to uncover the art in hospitals in the Continental Europe and the UK within a mostly chronological and geographical framework. He relayed his studies from his visit to the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, passing through Sienna to Beaune to see Rogier van der Weyden’s panels of the Last Judgement, then to Isenheim and Grünewald’s altarpiece.

Some of the more vivid examples, such as van der Weyden’s depictions of the extremes of redemption and damnation, and Grünewald’s affecting image of the suffering Christ on the cross, looking diseased and his face contorted in pain in the Isenheim piece. These pieces in particular seems to offer a glimpse of the diverse attitudes of societies toward their sick to today’s audiences.

His focus moved to Spain from there, lingering on El Greco and his contributions like the Madonna of Mercy (1603-1605) for the Illescas Church Hospital, deemed blasphemous during his time for representing figures in contemporary dress, and his dynamic portrayal of the apocalypse at the Tevera Hospital in Toledo, depicting St. John and the murdered people abandoning themselves to the End, their faces and bodies reaching up to the heavens.

He then traced his steps to London, where he encountered Caius Gabriel Cibber’s contorted faces and bodies of madness that once decorated the gateway into the Royal Bethlam Hospital, James Thurnhill’s English Baroque paintings adorning the dining room of William and Mary Hospital for Seamen (now known as the Painted Hall in Greenwich), William Hogarth’s hopefully thematic Healing of Bethesda (1736) at the Baths Hospital, and Richard Dowd’s numerous works that were created on the premises while mad and confinement to the Broadmore Hospital. For more recent examples, Cork also looked at Leger’s Le Fleur qui Marche (1952), and Naum Gabo’s public sculpture for the fountains at St Thomas’s.

Through these many examples, he gave a vivid telling of stories about a selection of artworks and their connection to hospitals. As my interest lay in getting a further understanding of unusual functions of visual arts, I felt that Cork could have given us a bit more, because although he gave us some conjectures about what contemporary viewers would feel while looking at these works, he did not explicitly addressed the issue of why art would be used in the hospitals for each historical context within the lecture. But it may have been a strategy to prompt the audience to refer to the book, and in that the lecture gave a taste of the small selection of artworks included in his book, it was a good presentation to accompany a book launch.