Feature: “Waiting for a cure: Oskar Kokoschka’s Portraits of Tubercular Patients”


The modern period has been historicised as one of heroic advancement in the visual arts, a time marked by artists’ experimentation with new materials and methods, and representation of new ways of seeing. What is less acknowledged in this history is the role played by medicine, a field which was also marching forwards as the 19th century rolled into the 20th. In 1850, most people living in Europe had little to no experience of medical institutions.

But by 1950, many doctors insisted that life begin and end in the hospital. Modernism in the visual arts coincided precisely with this rapid medicalisation of life – a process that was augmented by new technologies such as the x-ray, new specialisms such as psychiatry, and new forms of rehabilitation such as mechano-therapy.[1]

To medicalise is to turn a subject – the human subject, let’s say – into an object for medical study, for diagnosis, treatment, cure, ‘control’. As Michel Foucault and other social theorists of the 1960s and ’70s proposed, such medicalisation had profound implications for how the body and how identity, including ethnicity, race, criminality, gender, and sexuality, were conceived.[2]

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that as doctors scrutinised and pathologised the body, identifying the evermore elusive signs of disease, artists turned their attention to the representation of the human subject, to portraiture. In the resultant images, they formulated new identities for themselves, their friends and patrons that referenced, questioned and – at their most interesting – transformed modern medicine’s epistemological models for understanding the human condition.

Art historians have argued that the reinvigoration of portraiture that characterises the modern period was a response to the challenge posed by the camera, which rendered the painted likeness of the individual ‘obsolete’. In my research, I argue that it was medicine as opposed to photography – which doctors were certainly quick to employ – which impelled what has been described as portraiture’s ‘identity crisis’, a predicament that led to the creation of some of the most radical representations of the individual in the history of art.[3]

At present, I am engaged in a study of the portraits produced by the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka during his time at the Mont-Blanc Sanatorium for Lung Disease in Leysin, Switzerland. Kokoschka stayed at the sanatorium for six weeks in 1910 at the request of his patron, the modernist architect Adolf Loos.

Loos’s common-law wife, the English dancer Bessie Bruce, was receiving treatment at the sanatorium for tuberculosis, and he had asked the artist to keep her company; if commissions to paint the portraits of patients were forthcoming, he should accept them. In his biography, Kokoschka described the patients he painted as ‘shriveled plants for whom even Alpine sunshine could not do much.’ (As a health resort, Leysin was one of the leading proponents of the ‘sun bath’, as well as the ‘air cure’.) He continued, ‘They set little store by my painting; to them it was a minor distraction in a succession of identical days spent awaiting a cure – or the end.’[4]

I’m particularly interested in the relationship between the ‘waiting for death’ that characterised life in the sanatorium for tuberculosis and sitting for a portrait. In his book On Waiting, philosopher Harold Schweizer asks: ‘How do we wait? What happens when we wait? What kind of an experience is waiting? Is it an experience of time? If so, what kind of time is it? What are the mental and bodily dimensions of waiting, the gendered implications of waiting?’[5]

These questions seem to me to be as applicable to sitting for a portrait as they are to lying on a sickbed. And indeed, in his engagement with the work of another modernist, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler and his paintings of his mistress who was dying from ovarian cancer, Schweizer draws our attention to this very entanglement of time, death, subjectivity and representation.[6]

Reading Schweizer, I wonder how Kokoschka’s portraits punctuated a time spent, endured? If we believe the artist, they diverted the sitter’s attention from the grim realities of life as a critically-ill patient. But what happened when the portrait was finished, and they turned to face ‘themselves’? What’s fascinating is that none of the sitters purchased the portraits painted of them, despite their spending of such time in ‘waiting’ for the image.

There was something troubling about these works of art. This was, in part, a question of their modernism, of Kokoschka’s mark-making: the scraping back of the paint; the revealing of the canvas, which we might read as a metaphor for the exposure of a body which was already the object of intense medical scrutiny. With this in mind, could the ‘failure’ of his portraits as commissioned works of art also have been a matter of how they ran counter to the sanatorium’s image of rehabilitation, of recovery, of health regained, an image these patients were no doubt profoundly invested in?

In his portraits, I suggest, Kokoschka made painterly references to doctors’ analyses of the patient’s skeleton, tissues and blood-flecked fluids, but this was to depict the immanence of a death medics were convinced they could outwit. Transforming modern medicine’s epistemological models for understanding the human condition by questioning their very efficacy, Kokoschka represented his own ‘truth’. It was a sight few sitters could bear to see.


[1] This was the subject of the ‘Modernism and Medicine’ panel I co-chaired with Dr Allison Morehead (Queen’s University, Canada) at the College Art Association annual conference, Washington D.C., February 2016.

[2] Michel Foucault, Naissance de la Clinique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963). First published in translation by Alan Sheridan Smith as The Birth of the Clinic (New York: Pantheon, 1973); N.D. Jewson, ‘The disappearance of the sick-man from medical cosmology, 1770-1870’ (1976), re-printed in International Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 38, 2009, pp. 622-633; Ivan Illich, Limits to Medicine, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974).

[3] Heather McPherson, The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[4] Oskar Kokoschka, My Life (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), p. 50.

[5] Harold Schweizer, On Waiting (Thinking in Action Series), (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), p. vi.

[6] This methodology also informs the work of Mary Hunter (McGill University), who presented her paper ‘The Surface as Symptom: Medicine, Time, and Toulouse-Lautrec’ at the CAA panel I co-chaired with Morehead in February 2016.


About the Author:

Dr Gemma Blackshaw is Professor of Art History at Plymouth University. She co-curated with Dr Leslie Topp (Birkbeck, University of London) the Wellcome Collection’s first international loan exhibition for its new gallery space, Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900 (2009). The exhibition emerged from an AHRC Major Research Project on the relationship between psychiatry and modernism in Austria-Hungary (2004-08). She has published widely on the intersections of modernist portraiture in Vienna with medicine’s contemporaneous visual, institutional, and therapeutic regimes. Current studies include Oskar Kokoschka’s portraits of tubercular patients of 1910, and Egon Schiele’s drawings of pregnant women and newborns in the Frauenklinik of Vienna’s University Hospital of the same year. She is a contributor to the international research project, Edvard Munch: Modernism, and Medicine, led by Dr Allison Morehead (Queen’s University, Canada), which explores the sustained engagement of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch with the changing institutions, technologies, and therapeutics of modern medicine. This research in this blog was first presented at Royal Academy Schools, London on 16 January, 2017.

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