Depictions of STDs in Art History

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Engraving showing a man in a fumigation stove (1659), Jacques Laniet. Image from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956094/figure/F3/. A common treatment for syphilis at the time. Mercury would be placed inside the stove, and a fire would be started to vaporise the mercury around the patient.

Reader Question: “I remember hearing (learning?) years ago that some paintings depict people with physical indications of STDs. Perhaps syphilis? Is this true? Are other STDs depicted in art throughout history?”

Yes, this is true! This is a subject that really reflects how useful art history can be in studying the history of science and medicine, and how art has been used to educate people about medical conditions for hundreds of years. Beyond that, however, we can also use art to see how societal views of STDs have evolved – from simply fearful to judgmental and sexualised.

You’re right, by the way: syphilis is the STD that’s most commonly represented throughout art history, so it’s the one we’re going to focus on (with one brief depiction of gonorrhoea). Syphilis is one of the only STDs that have been around for a really long time (along with, again, gonorrhoea), so it is a disease that has been widely depicted in art history.

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A Brief History of Hairless Vaginas in Art (NSFW)

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vagina, as the tea set is traditionally feminine.

Reader question: “I loved your post about penises, but what about vaginas? We think hairless vaginas started with porn, but I’ve definitely seen paintings in museums with hairless vaginas. What’s the deal? When did it all start?”

Aah, nudity in art, a subject dear to my heart. Vaginas and vulvas (with vulva referring specifically to the external genital region) in art have a quite different history than penises do, ranging from being symbols of fertility and life to being symbols of shame and impurity. As I wrote in my post on the Female Nude (a term I use to refer to the types of nude female subjects in paintings propagated by the French Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in the 17th – 19th centuries) hairless vulvas have been around in art for a long time. How long? At least 2,000 – 3,000 years, and maybe even since the beginning of art as we know it.

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“I come from Bangladesh and find that Western art history doesn’t do much to help understand the artistic traditions where I’m from – how is this addressed in your study of Art History?”

 

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Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) by Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abudin, who helped form the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University.

Reader Question: “I come from Bangladesh and find that Western art history doesn’t do much to help understand the artistic traditions where I’m from – how is this addressed in your study of Art History? Is it addressed at all?”

Western art history – or at least mainstream Western art history – really does very little to address the artistic traditions of non-Western countries. Many people find this perfectly acceptable, arguing that Western art history is about Western countries and shouldn’t have to address anything beyond that. For me, there are three problems with this point of view that should push us towards a more inclusive art historical mainstream.

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“Do you know anything about silver gelatine photography?”

by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange is one of the most famous silver gelatine photographs, and exemplifies the photojournalistic, realistic style that ended up defining the process.

I sure do! Silver gelatin photography, or the “dry plate” process, was actually the main form of photography used from around the 1880s up until the introduction of instant colour photography in the 1960s. It was especially popular in photojournalism, linking a technical process to an aesthetic imbued with meanings of authenticity. Since your question is quite general, I’ll do a quick overview of this method, starting with its history and technical process and then looking at its cultural impact.

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“2D Op Art makes you feel like it’s 3D. So how do you create 3D Op Art?” – The Art of Optical Illusions

 

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Movement in Squares, 1961, by Bridget Riley.

Reader question: “2D Op Art makes you feel like it’s 3D. So how do you create 3D Op Art?”

I received this question from a jewelry designer interested in creating jewelry inspired by Op Art, but did not know how to recreate the effect in a more sculptural form. It’s true that most Op Art is created on a 2D surface – creating the effect that it seems to be jumping off the page – but, as I will go through in this post, there were actually a few sculptors even in the original Op Art movement.

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“What do you think are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively studied in art history.

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively explored in art history.

Reader question: “What do you think are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Oh – this is a tough but great question!

It’s tough because there are just so many areas of art history that haven’t been properly explored. There are certain “popular” areas of art history that tend to get the most amount of attention in scholarship. These areas usually adhere to the Western art history canon.

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“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

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“I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past”: A Very Short History of Colours.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

Reader question: “I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past – is that true and does it have any importance for the evolution of art?”

It is true! But it’s actually not cobalt blue that you’re thinking of, it’s ultramarine.

The history of colours in art is really weird and interesting. It’s true that the availability of various colours has often determined which ones are used and what importance they have. This is especially true the further back we go in history, when all colours were not readily available in the nearest art shop.

A surprising variety of methods were used to make different colours. To make bright red, for example, an early 8th century process was described by Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan: you had to heat mercury and sulfur in a flask, vaporize and recondense it, and then grind it to create a red colour.

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