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Art History and the Representation of Disabled People

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Art is a way of exploring underneath the ‘skin’ of life, and the body has always been the place to look at for me. Since I was diagnosed with scoliosis from a young age, I learned to live with this ‘disability’ and the pain that it caused. Researching more into medical literature I decided to broaden my knowledge by exploring all types of disability in relation to the art world. Using Dr Ann Millett-Gallants book; ‘The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art’ in conjunction with ‘The Broken Column’ by Frida Kahlo and ‘Constructed Identities’ exhibition by a more contemporary artist Persimmon Blackbridge; I will discuss how disability art has been represented in art history and how Millet Gallant’s book informs the discussion of disability and art. Millett-Gallant's goal is to cancel these discriminating observations of visual arts-related to disability that have been recognized in history of art and disability researches. In this essay I am also exploring the body in modern art in order to reveal the possibilities to which physical and theoretical characteristics are and have been expressed, and to show how disability such as, sexuality or ethnicity is a social conception.

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An artwork that I feel has a deep connection with Ann Millett-Gallant book is “The Broken Column” painted in 1944 by Frida Kahlo. Millet-Gallant even opens her book with references to the Mexican artist as a symbol of how disability in art was viewed by society. Frida Kahlo was a famous feminist and surrealist painter. She had several disabilities, such as polio from the age of six but also thoracic and pelvic injuries due to a car accident. This forced her to wear a spinal brace because of numerous injuries, that she portrayed in her self-portraits; one of them being “The Broken Column”. At the age of eighteen, Kahlo was involved in an accident, that, drove a handrail into her back and came out of her pelvis. The Broken Column was created soon after Kahlo had undergone back surgery. In this artwork she portrays herself on the coast. Her lonely appearance on a broken and bare landscape became a symbol of her pain and isolation (Finger et al., 2013). The same way an earthquake crashes the landscape, Kahlo’s tragic crash cracked her body. In the background, a large land is illustrated symbolizing isolation and the nails planted in her skin, on her face and body raises the effect of misery. Her torso is shown to tear up in the center, revealing a metal bar in place of her spine and a rigid medical brace that was required to wear almost all her life. The metal corset is a symbol of her history of polio, and generally it is portrayed to ‘hold Kahlo’s damaged body together’ (Grosenick and Becker, 2011). The tough dullness of this implanted column is reminiscent of the metal handrail that ‘pierced the artist's vagina during her streetcar accident’ (The Art Story, 2019). The column seems to be near the edge of breaking into dust. Sharp nails are inserted all over her head, legs, arms, breasts and stomach, but also her left thigh which is covered with a piece of fabric. The nails and cloth wrapped around her leg are a reference to ‘Christian iconography of Christ’s winding sheet’ (Kahlo and Kettenmann, 2000). We can also see some tears coming down her face.

Even though this self-portrait is a clear, iconic image of Frida Kahlo, it accordingly reflects something a lot deeper; an expression of identity that incorporates race, ethnicity, standards and Kahlo’s disability struggles of her body. The subject of suffering shows in the artist paintings and sometimes openly covers them. In this painting Kahlo’s physical and mental challenges are coming to the surface from deformities of her body, that is distorted, duplicated, flipped inside-out and combined with non-human aspects. Frida Kahlo used the graphic representation of extreme pain in a long-term effort to understand mental pain and this is visible in ‘The Broken Column’.

‘Constructed Identities’ by Persimmon Blackbridge is an ongoing contemporary exhibition that is based from the history of art yet breaks away from its beliefs, as does Millett-Gallant book. Persimmon Blackbridge is a Canadian writer and artist that focuses on disability, feminism and mental health problems. She has been creating disabled artwork for a long time. Art came out of disability for her, it came out of a nervous breakdown and it meant that she had stellar discipline because there was that horrible time, and making art was something that could keep her away from that; it has always been connected for her.

‘Constructed Identities’ was the first exhibition to open Tangled Art Gallery (Ontario, Canada) in 2016. In the exhibition there are small wooden figures or part of figures displayed on grey frames. For this exhibition the artist used carved wood pieces with natural materials to debate how impairment is presented as a break in normal life instead of an ordinary, assumed aspect of it. Her study of the figure starts in disability; but necessarily complicates itself as our embodied identities intersect and overlap (identities, 2019). Blackbridge chose to display figures that were in memory of some friends who died, and other figures were just mixed materials that had personal connection for her. For example, she used the oxygen pipe her mother had when she passed away from cancer. However, these narratives are not clearly shown in the artworks. Instead, the artist wants the viewer to form their own personal narratives into the artworks. The goal of this exhibition was to guide the audience into understanding disability, how to deal with disabled artists who help strengthen the art world and communicate with equitable technologies that reinterpret how art is encountered. In her exhibition, Blackbridge displayed a piece that was touchable and had interesting textures and seemed to be put together really solidly and didn’t have anything that you could injure yourself on, but she realized that even though the work was touchable is was made for sighted people. With this in mind in the exhibition she had an acoustic record so people with vision loss would be able to listen to a narration of the artwork on headsets.

Generally, Persimmon Blackbridge always loved found objects and incorporated them in her artworks a lot; one example is this exhibition. The artist does not create the traditional beautiful wood cravings, because she wants to argue what is natural and what’s unnatural. There’s a particular kind of ordinary beauty that she wants to address by using those pieces. The artist wants to communicate about mundane things, rather than precious objects and objects that people throw away or they consider broke or seen as junk, because that is a metaphor of how disability is viewed and treated. These figures also indicate dominance and elegance as a result of courage, beauty, and astonishment, inseparable from our agony, embarrassment and annoyance.

The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art is the first book to go through the specialties of art history and disability studies (Google Books, 2010). The book talks about how the disabled and deformed bodies are characterized in contemporary art along with its diverse contexts, from painting to art history to medical events to the “nineteenth and twentieth century freak show” (Millett-Gallant, 2010). Achieving this by identifying the work of artists without and with disabilities in critical dialogue. According to the disability studies agenda, this book analyses the history of Western art over a fresh perspective and portrays similarities to classism, racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

Dr. Ann Millett-Gallant book is well known for two reasons. First, it dares to combine art history and disability studies. Secondly, a concept for disability in art is evolved that withstands decreasing aesthetic portrayal to discrimination. Millett-Gallant is capable to discuss the disturbing aspects of disability in art history, and still manages to express how these worrisome conditions resist suffering. Her perception is a complicated idea of artistic depiction, and her evaluation does not fail to admire this intricacy, but somewhat establishes it by ‘providing a dense articulation of works of art’ (Siebers, 2012), their references and their significance. The introduction outlines the central theory of Millett-Gallant's on contemporary art; that its obsession for “disfiguration” (organs that are distracted by asymmetry, shape, size, missing or additional features) conflicts ideas of the natural and unnatural, requiring concentrated interpretive actions, if comprehension is to happen. She starts her introduction with an iconic figure in modern art, the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. Her self-portraits uncover a lot about herself and her disability. Kahlo’s symbolism has opened the way for more upcoming artists such as Kathy Vargas, Miriam Schapiro and Carmen Lomas Garza to examine themes of deformity and disorder, showing provocatively instead of concealing her physical deformity. Millett-Gallant explores how we look at people with disabilities and analyses how that look is returned by contemporary artists and models with disabilities who choose to “twist their anomalies” in order to “shake notions of normality to the core” (Millett-Gallant, p15).

“Disarming Venus”, the author presents the image of Venus de Milo; an ancient Greek statue and a perfect example of feminine beauty, as a spotlight for her argument on artworks and artistic representations that question traditional stereotypes of the body in art as “whole” and “broken” (Millett-Gallant,p21). She discusses Many Duffy’s acts whose weak body doesn’t quite comply to the idealized traditional form, associating these acts to the movement of feminist art. One of the strong points of Millett-Gallant’s debate is how she builds on the historical examples of publicly presented “imperfect” female figures, as well as Anne E. Leake-Thompson photographs (Armless Wonder) and Saartjie Baartman (Hottentot's Venus). The author picks up on the “gaze/stare” theme of Garland-Thomson to prove that artists like Susan Harbage and Sandie Yi are discovering “new languages and representations for disability in the public eye” (Millett-Gallant, p49).

Moving on, the “Sculpting Body Ideals”, discusses the style of public art throughthe controversy caused by paraplegic artist Alison Lapper nude's marble sculpture by Marc Quinn. Alison Lapper was born with no arms and shorter legs and this enormous artwork portrays her nude when she was seven months pregnant. Lapper’s sculpture is especially powerful due to its influential eighteen-month residency at one of the huge stands in Trafalgar Square next to statues of heroes. Many artworks of public art have created quite a controversy. The author reviews the position of public art and concludes the discussion by raising the question of where Quinn’s installation is a boring design of exploitation or if it actually raises concerns of disability, isolation, and diversity to the people. She associates Marc Quinn’s sculpture with the traditional and modernist statues, evidently in contrast to the agreement of the ideal feminine model, but also with a related balance between its beliefs of distinctive similarity and social symbolism. Alison Lapper mentioned that she sees the sculpture as “a modern tribute to femininity, disability, and motherhood,” and the author believes that it’s just as noble as the monuments of the male army heroes that ‘control’ Trafalgar Square (Millett-Gallant, p55).

Next comes the “Performing Amputation”, which concentrates on disability interpretation as a cultural theme, illustrated in pictures by Joel-Peter Witkin's. The strange, creepy images of disfigured or mutilated people displayed in theatrical scenery (“corporeal tableau vivants”) are accused for “fetishize”, prey on and also add to human misery (Millett-Gallant, p101). The author recognises this judgment but provides a different viewpoint, proposing that Joel-Peter’s artwork turns into a final phase from which disabled people can freely celebrate their physical elegance. Millet-Gallant appears in one of these images. She debates that his art is linked to classical depictions of disability: recent clinical images where handicapped people were researched, visibly documented and identified as 'monstrous others' (Millett-Gallant, p107). Also, the reflections of early twentieth century gift images of “freak show” individuals. In conclusion, Witkin’s artworks test the viewer to ask why rather than how they offend us. In reality the pictures ask both and few make for an uncomfortable interpretation.

“Exceeding the Frame”, seeks to establish the thesis of the book that attracts and returns the stare of disabled people in modern art, thereby forming communicating interaction. It shifts to Diane Arbus visual photographs of people who make impressive “spectacles of themselves” and thus become strange (Millett-Gallant, p113). Maybe where Hevey sees Arbus as an intense disability in this spirit, others might see Hevey as damaging Arbus and her subjects. The confusion created by this debate expresses Millett-Gallant’s eye-to-eye involvement on specific physical characteristics that are evidently characterized as harm and some that might be considered as purely unnatural. By closely studying Frida Kahlo’s painting, Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938), the author discusses this in detail as an interpretation of the intersectional relationship of sexual identity, and orientation, ethnicity and disability. Because of its different looks and classifications, Millet-Gallant reveals the inability of precisely portraying disability. After all, the recession from recent art to art that foreshadows studies of impairment, showing Kahlo’s work in the 1930s, appears to be working in contrast to the concept that contemporary art is an evolution outside the solid principles of modernism.

At the end Millett-Gallant claims that staring at bodies 'articulates, mediates, and informs everyday social interactions, as well as larger social constructions' (Millett-Gallant, p141). The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art strongly presents her proposal that new viewpoints on artworks can be formed when considered in the context of disability. The book makes a valuable improvement to disability research and art history.

Both Frida Kahlo’s painting and Persimmon Blackbridge exhibition are breaking the stereotypes of disability seen as something ugly or unpleasant, but they show it in a different way. Kahlo’s self-portrait is not really focused on her disability and that’s why her disability identity has not being studied, but instead just believed because of her major injuries she experienced at a young age. It was clear that the bus accident had formed a large part of her disability identity. Most people, in the Mexican and other societies masked their impairments because of this contradictory stigma surrounding them. However, Kahlo decided to embody hers into her artworks using surrealism. It is difficult to imagine a unified disabled society in a post-revolution Mexico that appreciated capable bodies which would enable Kahlo to reach into its mutual impaired recognition. At that period of time the Mexican community did not have a clear principle for disabled people rights, and it wasn’t surprising that there was a lack of disability awareness. Embracing Frida Kahlo as a disabled figure, came much later in the time period, so this argument for the disabled cause carries with it many unresolved questions that not even Kahlo could answer. Frida Kahlo does not overpower her impairments, nor does she evolve into a role model for disabled people who; in an intelligent world are the most loved ones. Alternatively, she demonstrates the complicated methods where the rebuilding of disability identity transforms and differs all through life, moving away from every absorbing disability, to reflecting on her older self, and back again. The process of figuring out Kahlo’s artworks with impairments is just starting. Using an academic method which associates disability research and cultural studies, we have the recourses to create this greater level of awareness.

Blackbridge’s choice to exhibit her work at the Tangled Art Gallery was very special because Tangled Art + Disability is committed to improving possibilities for disabled artists and bravely interpreting how are people’s experiences with art and those who produce it (Tangledarts.org, 2019). In Blackbridge’s case when an artist makes a figure it is never just a figure, social meaning has been attached to our bodies so firmly, so relentlessly, over such a span of history; that we mistake these sociopolitical constructs for immutable reality. People don’t see bodies; they see ethical principles. Disability is tragedy; race is biology and our rare genders are made to move in stereotypical formation.

Since the 1970s art is associated with disability theories and to people with impairments. It concentrates on personality expressions, and challenges public standards, but also art gatherings, for the recognition of the body. Disability is a dynamic socio-cultural structure, but also a case of individuality and physicality, and that the art which implements disability eventually tests one-sided perception of the disabled. Both Kahlo and Blackbridge saw themselves as conquering their physically disabled nature in the utmost possible approach they could, considering their situation. In a community where people with disabilities are not appreciated and are suffering physically, they seek the escape of the true self. Disabled people haven’t entirely determined how they should be depicted in the art world, or have ever engaged in the development of the art pieces where their own bodies played a part in. Alternatively, many artists and writers have been using multiple disorders to express their views about darkness, misery, kindness, and human behavior, as well as to strengthen stereotyping about impairment.  

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