Interview with the artist from Madrid who, in his latest work, takes as his starting point the Iconography of La Salpêtrière, one of the first photographic archives in the field of clinical psychiatry.
Based on clinical analyses of psychological illnesses in a Paris hospital, directed by Jean-Martin Charcot, it involved an effort to catalogue the unclassifiable by means of new photographic-documentary techniques. The marginal, that which did not fit into the rational logic of the modern project, was subjected to research at La Salpêtrière. It was measured, documented and classified in a systematic way.
But in this operation, the use of photography led to the incorporation of the spectacle and with it a whole web of complicities between the patients and their photographers. La Salpêtrière’s show became a theatre of variety in the Tuesday sessions, before a crowded representation of the cultural and scientific elites, through the persuasion by hypnosis of contortions, epileptic seizures and hysteria attacks, the registration and exhibition of cabinets of biological curiosities and rarities, phenomena and monsters.
The result was an unprecedented photographic archive, witness to the colonial era, made with the “panoptic” intention of the disciplinary regime and a systematized document of the limits of the human soul.
Based on field work with more than 4,000 photographs and 32 volumes published between 1875 and 1918, Javier Viver made a new compilation and edition of the iconography of the famous Parisian hospital. Thus, beyond its original clinical interpretation, the archive is shown in a contemporary critical context, open to new readings, associations and planes of interpretation. This project has been made possible thanks to the collaboration of the Botin Foundation within its programme of creative grants for former scholarship holders. We talked to the artist about this and other of his works.
What is the story behind these photos?
The archive corresponds to some clinical documents from a hospital in Paris between 1875 and 1918. These photographs were taken for 32 years to make clinical analyses of cases of psychological illness. They subjected the patients to a state of hypnosis that caused them different reactions, such as hysterical or epileptic attacks, for the study of these diseases. There are 32 volumes, one for each year, containing more than 4,000 photographs. Each one of them tells a story.
What is their artistic value?
Photography is considered an art. Beyond the clinical archive, there is an archive of incredible artistic quality. The photographer’s eye comes into play, the archive tells a very open story. We must see in these images the story behind each person photographed, see the value of the description of the human soul in a state of crisis.
What do they have to do with Spanish art?
They have to do with the history of Western painting, a painting very much linked to religion. This photography presents parallels with the Spanish baroque art, we can notice it in the gestures of the hands, the signs, the poses, the realism etc. In addition, the classic poses of the Spanish painting are taken again, such as dormitions, assumptions and crucifixions.
What is the point of publishing them?
Apart from reviewing all that La Salpêtrière represents as a scientific experiment, it is also a review of our history, the roots of our culture and our past. It presents the human being as an object of scientific experimentation, tries to make us understand the latest history of snapshots and, once understood, we see the expression of a claim for justice. In addition to this background idea, the recovery of an archive with an impressive photographic quality, which can also be read with a mystical approach, is also valued, because as Maria Zambrano said: ¨Después of the tragedy, only the mysticism remains”.
Ana Robledano Soldevilla