Painting Portraits: A Review

William Viney writes: There’s an old West Country joke of which I’ve grown fond: a Booker Prize winning novelist and a professor of clinical neurophysiology walk into a museum. There, they speak about faces, trauma, compassion, art, writing, experiment, and the First World War and, at the end, they agree they’re onto a good thing.1As Freud suggested, sometimes a joke is just that, but what we were treated to at the Durham Light Infantry museum and gallery, on Thursday 3rd July, was a chance to observe a meeting between different though sympathetic worlds: the world of letters and the theatrical world of the clinic. A meeting that, in a quite profound sense, would not have been possible without this thing we’ve come to call the medical humanities. But also a world that’s impossible without worlds of war, pain, and suffering, worlds of surgical technique, error, and brilliance, and those challenging worlds of conversation and exchange.
Pat Barker’s novels – the Regeneration trilogy and, more recently, Toby’s Room are deeply invested in the physical and psychological scaring wrought through love and war. They probe what we might think of as the limits of human plasticity. Jonathan Cole’s work also probes those limits. Both are committed to bringing some of those limits and the extraordinary stories they conjure onto the page. And how various those stories are. Stories of women and men who, in the eyes of others, touch a void, but, in their eyes, experience ‘a voiding’ that testify to goal posts moved, a voiding of what the impossible once meant. ‘Dis-abled’ and ‘in-valid’ – these words no longer have quite the same significance or resonance – now that you’ve lost your face, now that you cannot lose or save face, now that even something so simple as looking in at your local pub may mean seeing sheer horror in the eyes of others – friends, family, strangers –  since the only thing they seem capable of seeing in you are the whites of your eyes since all else has changed, nothing besides remains. Talk about ‘helping heroes’! If you’ve had a bomb explode near your face, your ‘heroic’ can feel beyond repair, no longer assisted with a little spare change and a smile (though they may help), your smile might be the thing you and others may never see again. Such are the tragedies of conflict, ancient and modern.
Between 2011–2012, Jane Macnaughton and Corinne Saunders convened a series of talks and seminars supported by Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study under the title, ‘Recovery of Beauty’; a lecture series that had the immodest ambition of understanding what ‘beauty’ meant in the 20th century and continues to mean in the 21st century. One outcome of this quest has been to still be talking about and convening events for beauty now, years from then, and with the most fascinating speakers.
Guided and provoked by the work of Julia Midgley, Pat and Jonathan spoke through their artistic and clinical experience. It wasn’t an ordinary evening. Thanks to the continued support of the Wellcome Trust and the Durham Light Infantry museum, this evening was possible and further collaborations and conversations are promised. Thanks to all that came, to Jane and Corinne, but most especially to Pat and Jonathan for throwing all their energies into recovering the strange beauty of surgical procedure, artistic endeavour, and human survival.


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