The Art of Care Exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art

A pandemic, a lockdown, and a wait for the vaccine kept me from viewing “The Art of Care” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the exhibit neared its end. I’m privileged to live less than 400 steps (a neighbor counted) from the Museum, but as I waited to feel safe enough to enter, the building felt as if it was miles away. I’m glad I finally made it and I’m sorry that so few will have gotten to see it. While I’m no judge of the art works on display, I can say I found them collectively and individually worth spending some time with, not least because I saw them in part through the lens of our current pandemic.

The prints and photographs that moved me the most were the ones that showed patients being touched. Thirteen months of social distancing, telemedicine, and fearful looks at people not wearing masks, makes these images stand out. Philadelphia artist Edgar Sorrells-Adewale’s “The Laying on of Hands is a Time Honored Ritual” a 1997 color lithograph is a beautiful and now-poignant reminder of the time when touching the afflicted was a centerpiece of care.

That sentiment is beautifully conveyed in Nicholas Nixon’s 1987 photograph of an HIV patient being touched on his head and shoulders, “Tom Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts, November 1987” displayed in the Museum’s page about the exhibit. Nixon photographed many people with AIDS and others dying in old age. Other images also show patients receiving care. One, taken circa 1910 by French photographer Henri Louis Meurisse titled “Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital for Children, London: Two Clowns Amuse a Young Patient Taking His Cure on the Terrace” shows two costumed clowns sitting with the young patient but no other healers in sight.

There are less than 30 images in the exhibit and many are portraits of doctors and nurses taken by famous artists. They include Mathew Brady’s 1861 “Walt Whitman as a Nurse in the Civil War,” August Sander’s 1924 “Parish Nurses,” and Paul Strand’s, “Cynthia Blavo, Korle-Bu Hospital Accra, Ghana, 1964. South Carolina nurse midwife “Maude Callen” from W. Eugene Smith’s Life Magazine series showing her visiting patients.

Among the images of healers at work, are several showing operating rooms, including Ellen Powell Tiberino’s “The Operation” which has an image of death hovering over the surgeons. Several of the images feature X rays, including a 1926 etching and aquatint by John Sloan, titled “X-Rays” and a 1935 color screenprint titled “M.D.” by Harry Sternberg. For the most part, there are few medical tools in the images, and not all of them are as grim as Tiberino’s. Nellie Mae Rowe, an artist who used mixed media offers a happier view of healing in her 1980 “Visit to the Podiatrist.”

While the exhibit’s ostensible focus is care, not medical science or public health, both appear in the collection on display. Disease and its conquest also appears in two of my favorite images, both featuring swords. Ichieisai Yoshitsuya’s 1862 color woodcut titled “Hashika Yakubyo Yoke (Protection from the Measles Epidemic)” has a helpful text explaining the epidemic in Japan that year, how measles pictures (hashika-e) explained both the disease and how to care for afflicted patients, and how the Hashika-e were believed to ward off the disease from homes in which they appeared. We see “a protective deity who grips his double swords, prepared to drive the contagion away.”

Multiple swords appear in the circa 1920 color lithograph from Italian artist Tito Corbella, “Con Questa Armi Vinicamo Tuberculosi (With These Weapons We Shall Conquer Tuberculosis)” The swords are aimed at an ominous, hooded devil-like figure wielding a broken sword labeled tuberculosi, about to be stabbed by swords with other words written on them (in Italian) among hygiene, air, temperance, and health food (my translations).

Like the images alluding to patients being touched and reminding us of our current situation, the public health images seem current because they convey a sense that disease can be defeated. Viewed as a whole, this small exhibit reminds us that artists have the power to convey the ordinary, the terrifying, the hope, and the sadness, that is caregiving past and present. Co-curators Amanda Bock and Laurel Garber have created a terrific exhibit and it is a sad irony that a pandemic has likely prevented it from having the audience it deserves.