Students who participated in a course called “Art and Medicine,” taught by Art Professor Lisa Safford, examined and contextualized salient medical data from works of art through all of Western history. Students explored a wealth of imagery — devoted to anatomy, illness, disability, addiction, hospitals, physicians, nursing, healing, birth and death — as it evolved over the span of Western history from the age of the Egyptians some five millennia ago to the era of modern germ pathology and antisepsis in the late 19th century, and Freudian psychoanalysis of the early 20th.
This particular paper prompt was to write about a medical-related feature found in a work of art from the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Mural Study for Cancer
By Patrick Garrod ‘18
At first glance, “Mural Study for Cancer” by Clarence Van Duzer depicts a particularly memorable scene of massive suffering as result of the physical representation of cancer. This piece is a particularly unique depiction from a Cleveland artist that was deeply inspired by a societal push to fight the fatal disease we call cancer, and it shows both our massive efforts, and our lingering fear. The message is clear – cancer is a strange, seemingly unstoppable force of pain and death, and medicine is a cold white soldier fighting for the health of society.
The artist, Clarence Van Duzer (1920-2009), was extremely versatile, creating a huge variation in his art styles. He lived in Cleveland and taught at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Art, passing on his talents and interests to young college students. Unfortunately, Van Duzer was unable to stay up to date with what was happening in the art world at the time, and often lagged behind in joining the newest trends, which made him a lesser known artist. For the “Mural Study for Cancer,” it seems that despite whatever style was big at the time, he created a timeless illustration that captures the fear and ambiguity that surrounded cancer in the 20th century, which still lingers today. Even though Van Duzer is not a household name, this painting would make the perfect piece for any physician, and truly depicts the emotions related to cancer both then and now.
The History of Cancer
In order to understand the emotional significance of cancer in 20th century America, you must understand a very brief history of cancer, which is provided in bits and pieces by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Atlas. It is evident to us today that cancer has existed in humans as long as humans were in existence because it is the result of our own mutations. However, the 20th century was a major turning point for our understanding of cancer. It was not until the late 19th century that anesthetics became popular allowing surgical removal of cancer to be a plausible option. With complex surgeries being performed there was a lot more attention given to cancer as a treatable ailment, but it was still unlikely that the patient would be completely cured.
With surgery under our belt we sought to find the cause of cancer, and a rapidly growing list of carcinogens arose in the early 1900’s. The early-mid 20th century was a time when people began to have a small understanding of the illusive mechanisms behind cancer as we learned to relate tobacco, meat, viruses and things like asbestos to different types of cancer, so we had a lot to fear. In 1945 chemo was born out of mustard gas, allowing further fights with cancer. And in 1950, just two years after the completion of “Mural Study for Cancer,” radiation was being used to treat cancer. We understood that cancer was dependent on hormones for its growth, and the link between smoking and lung cancer was confirmed.
The painting itself has a lot going on, but the eye is immediately drawn to a blood-red creature with hundreds of outstretching tentacle-like appendages flowing into all different directions. The bright red color is reminiscent of fire, which is a powerful force that seems to be the non-organic alternative to cancer, because it causes suffering and destroys everything in its path.
There are a large number of people surrounding the cancerous beast, and it seems to be causing massive amounts of suffering amongst the crowd of shirtless men, women and even a child that represent the entirety of the human race. There seems to be a hero in the painting that comes in the form of modern medicine. In the front center of the painting there are four surgeons operating on an unseen patient, and two nurses are attending to the crowd at either side of the doctors, all of them are adorned in bright white robes with white caps. But there are a large number of people wearing the same white as those who are obviously doctors, and I would say that they represent other scientific and medical contributors to the fight against cancer. In the mid upper left of the painting a large number of these men clad in white, and one shirtless man are pushing a wall in an attempt to block off the red cancer which is stretching into the crowd.
It is apparent from a woman wearing white and touching her neck, where she is most likely pointing out her own suffering, that even the physicians fighting cancer are not free from its reach. I found it clever that Van Duzer included a chunk of metal on the side of the building that captures the cancer-creature which could be a ventilation system or boiler or something else, but it makes it apparent that this is the modern age, and it is science that helps contain the suffering caused by cancer.
Making Sense of it All
Through my own experiences I understand that despite our battalions of medications and treatments and our knowledge of biochemistry, we are still helpless victims to many types of cancers. The public is still enthralled by miracle cures for cancer, and herbal medicines that are sure to eliminate any kind of cancer because cancer is still a major cause of suffering, and our treatments can cause more harm than good to the patients. The fear behind this painting is still alive and so it is, at least for now, untouched by time. My own emotional connection with the painting’s implied metaphors was a large reason why I was drawn towards this particular piece.
It is apparent that Clarence Van Duzer was successful in his attempt to recreate his and others’ feelings towards cancer in the 20th century. It conveys our attempts to stop suffering at the hand of the mysterious disease that is cancer. The painting depicts our pain, our scientific advancement and the fact that we are all vulnerable to cancer’s reach.