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Book and Media Reviews |

The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals

Christopher Hamlin, PHD
JAMA. 2012;308(15):1589-1590. doi:10.1001/jama.308.15.1589-b.
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In his book of 25 chapters and more than 400 beautifully reproduced plates, most in color, master historian of Western art Richard Cork is concerned with the hospital as occasion for the production of art, an issue Cork explores chronologically from 14th-century Siena to late 20th-century London. But art in hospitals includes several modes of relation. Roughly half of Cork's vignettes concern the commissioning of works of art for display in hospitals and his assessments of the works created in response. For medieval and Renaissance artists who specialized in religious art, charitable hospitals (intended more for reception of orphans and the indigent than for cure of the ill) were an obvious extension of their craft. In later centuries, there was greater diversity and ambivalence toward the propriety, purpose, and priority of hospital art. Discussions focused both on the design and decoration of hospital buildings as well as on making the hospital a site for public display of original works of art. Hospitals have also been key sites for the creativity of artists who were long-term patients—entire chapters or lengthy sections of chapters focus on the 19th-century painter (and murderer) Richard Dadd, longtime resident of the Bethlem and Broadmoor asylums for criminal lunatics, but also on Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Frida Kahlo, and Antonin Artaud. For the first 3, artistic creation was seen to have some quasi-therapeutic function.

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