From traditional to modern: Artists offer their takes on health

An art exhibit provides an often-humorous take on the world of medicine.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Sept. 24, 2007

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Physicians, their patients and the quest for good health have inspired artists throughout the ages. An exhibit now on view at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., sets up an intriguing contrast between the simpler world of yesterday's medicine and the high-tech complexities of today's.

"Picturing Health: Norman Rockwell and the Art of Illustration" pairs paintings by Rockwell with the works of several modern illustrators.

The exhibit's 12 Rockwell paintings, circa 1929 to 1969, were commissioned by two pharmaceutical companies and an optical firm as centerpieces for advertising campaigns. These paintings, which focus on the interaction between physicians and their often very young patients, are similar to many of the artist's familiar Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations in that they tell a story, in this case about a kind and gentle health care system that existed when the paintings were done.

Fast-forwarding several decades, the exhibit moves to contemporary illustrators whose stark styles contrast sharply with the nuanced Rockwell works. The modern illustrators provide a wry and often humorous take on today's health care system.

The challenge of using technology is rendered in a work by Guy Billout that shows a physician with his "modernized" stethoscope. Cora Lynn Deibler's 2001 illustrations for "The Right Doctor is a Powerful Prescription," a fictional tale about a multiple sclerosis patient's search for a new physician, were inspired by baseball cards. Juliette Borda's 2004 work weighs the benefits of herbal and prescription medications. In another illustration, Borda tackles "good fat" and "bad fat" using apple- and pear-shaped torsos.

"Although health care today is certainly more complex than in Rockwell's era, both he and the contemporary illustrators encourage viewers to admire doctors as empathetic caregivers and to embrace modern technology's contributions to health," said Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator of the Florence Griswold Museum.

The exhibit is on display until Oct. 21. It next travels to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where it will stay from March 10, 2008, through June 2, 2008. It will be displayed at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Fredericksburg, Va., from Oct. 31, 2009, through Jan. 31, 2010. The exhibit was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and supported by a grant from Pfizer Inc.

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