Cross-posted at HNN.
“The Mysteries of Lam Qua” is a gallery of nineteenth century oil portraits by a Chinese artist known as Lam Qua (林官) (1801-1860). His paintings are beautiful, grotesque physiological studies of patients with extreme tumour growths. Lam Qua’s paintings were specially commissioned by Reverend Dr Peter Parker, who established the first American hospital in Guangzhou in 1835 and who successfully introduced several Western surgical techniques to China: amputation, anesthesia and reconstructive surgery.
I visited the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh this past summer and recall the same sense of wide-eyed, horrified fascination which many of its exhibits evoked in me: a tiny, perfect fetus curled into itself, baring a spine like a ridged toothpick; a plaster cast of a dissected human torso; a meticulous diagram of tooth extraction. Exhibits of medical conditions arrest a moment of pain, and render it frozen and motionless. My sense of unease must come, I suppose, from the sympathy of pain (a deeply private but nonetheless very universal thing) and from the stillness which we all know is so inappropriate to the experience of pain (for in pain, we squirm, we flail, we cry — in pain, we are not still, unless in sleep or death).
The Lam Qua paintings are unsettling in a further way. Captured in oils, the patients bear their anomalies calmly, as if they were props: like a rose borne delicately in one hand, say, or a pearl earring. Their characters shine through in the way they hold themselves, the way they gaze at the viewer, their expressions, the way they dress — some are even set amidst landscape. In all respects, then, these paintings are portraits, except for the grotesque and painful anomalies they depict (almost as though incidental to the portrait), and the juxtaposition is unsettling.
Apart from everything else, then, the paintings made me think a lot about how we feel about, view and come to terms with physical abnormality. And this is why I thought the small related display, Ways of Seeing, was right on topic. It’s a flash program which imposes a narrow field of vision on a Lam Qua portrait, and then widens out to slowly permit us full view. Exhibit #2 begins with the face of a woman — we meet her dignified, regal gaze — and then widens to show us the ghastly blight on her breast. We are first impressed, then repelled; perhaps if we met her in real life, our gaze might follow the same trajectory from her normality to her abnormality. But the widening of our vision can work the other way around too. As Exhibit #3 suggests, we might begin staring with horrified fascination at an abnormality, but widen our vision to acknowledge the whole human, and perhaps, to recognize the humanity of the whole.
The wonderful “Mysteries of Lam Qua” project, by Stephen Rachman, grew out of a seminar taught at Michigan State University in 2001 on Medicine, Race and Culture. Lam Qua’s paintings are held in the Peter Parker Collection at the Yale University Medical Historical Library and the Gordon Museum at King’s College London. You can view the whole gallery here.