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Charcot, the Salpêtrière and Photography :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Charcot, the Salpêtrière and Photography

Jean-Martin Charcot http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhchar.html

Jean-Martin Charcot

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93) was one of France’s greatest teachers of medicine. He took the post as head physician of the Salpêtrière hospital in 1862 and began to observe patients of hysteria. The hospital was a place for “madwomen”, women who suffered from hysterical symptoms. In addition to observing the patients, Charcot made the patients spectacles for his audiences. In addition to his “Tuesday Lectures”, where he brought patients to be observed by a general audience, Charcot oversaw the production of series of photographs that portrayed hysterical women.

The Salpetriere Hospital https://www.geotraceur.fr/blog/?p=72

The Salpetriere Hospital

The patients in the hospital were methodically photographed–this gave the public, newly accustomed to the idea of spectacle, visual proof of hysteria’s form in women. In my photo re-creations, I focused on one character in particular, named Augustine. Merely 16 when she was admitted, Augustine was a “good” patient. She understood her new status as a specimen of experimentation provided her with more power than she was granted in the “real world”, where she was merely an hysteric. She performed brilliantly at the “Tuesday Lectures”, thereby displaying her hysterical “case” not only in person, but also through photographs.

The emergence of the camera was the dawn of a new age– the camera documented, solicited and theatricized hysteria. The practice of photography “attained the full dignity of a hospital service… it had its domain a glass-walled studio, dark and light laboratories. It had its official equipment: platforms, beds, screens, and backdrops in black, dark gray, and light gray, headrests, gallows. Its photographic technology grew more and more sophisticated” including new lenses and cameras, and evolving forms of lighting (Didi-Huberman 45). This “hospital service” found its success as it “took the form of an art of the portrait”, which was the age-old method of revealing mental processes (Didi-Huberman 49). Many of the conventions of portraits were in place in the staging of these photographs (the modern portrait), including the lighting, the chosen camera angles, the clothing used as costume, and often, the oval framing (Didi-Huberman 49). All of the elements of photography were present in the hospital–staging, backdrops, costumes, lighting, and framing. The only thing needed to further create the spectacle was the patient. Photography was “in the ideal position to crystallize the link between the fantasy of hysteria and the fantasy of knowledge”, but it needed an actress to portray the symptoms to the audience (Did-Huberman xi). To make the images even more convincing, Charcot and his contemporaries manipulated technology. Though lighting and staging were evolved forms during this time, Charcot’s photographs do not show this. Instead, he uses what Didi-Huberman calls the “procrastination of photographic revelation”, which made the hysterics looks scarier, darker, and more mad (91). This purposeful lack of technological advancement only added to the spectacle of the hysteric, ultimately allowing the Iconographie, the compilation of the photographs of these women, to serve as “the script for the spectacle” that hysteria became (Didi-Huberman 85). With the use of all of the staged elements of the photographs, it then became the burden of the image to prove itself a spectacle. The spectacular elements of the photograph were in place, purposefully made darker, spookier and less sane by darker lighting, manipulation of technology and blatantly staged positions. With all of the spectacular work put into the image then, “the image’s battle to make itself a hysterical body, to make itself out of the hysterical body” was its success in society. The viewing of the image itself, made possible by a culmination of spectacular events, had to become spectacular (Didi-Huberman 253).

Finally, to link the emerging women’s rights movements to hysteria, it is important to understand that Charcot, to the hysterical women, was evil. He tortured the women, probing them to generate reactions for his Tuesday Lectures and his images. He breached the barrier of the unknown in terms of physical contact–he sexually touched and manipulated the women to see the reaction he wanted (Didi-Huberman 91). He produced a devilish image of the hysterical woman: “the vulgarized image was the one produced and proposed by Charcot” (Didi-Huberman 235). Though this was perhaps not his intention, his experiments on the women can be seen as sexism masked by a cloak of quasi-medical experimentation. He did have a desire to understand the women’s disease, but his torturous methods of fixing them led many women to wish him ill.

“We who look at the photographs of the Salpêtrière, fixed images of gesticulated images– this fear assaults us deeply, it alters us. It ruins but renews our desire to see; it infects our gaze, meaning that our gaze id devastated, but holds on, resists, returns. A kind of haunting takes hold of us… The hysteric loved with the image, waited with the image, hated, died, and assassinated with the image. The story goes that on the day Charcot died, several hysterics of the Salpêtrière had dreamed of his death” (Didi-Huberman 278).

From a modern perspective, the images are still haunting, though we know much more about hysteria today. The 19th century viewing of these images then, aided in creating the mass hysteria as a spectacle. Ultimately, however, these women were active participants in this spectacle. The images were, however, merely a separation of the “split between the inside and the outside” of the female body; the “theatrical symptoms of the external body had no internal reference, no location. They were themselves only baffling, alarming, but revelatory of nothing” (Hustvedt 5-6). Therefore, the women’s physche, according to Hustvedt, was not altered by hysteria or by the forced staging of the photographs. They may therefore be seen as women who deviated from their gender role, sought asylum in the hospital, portrayed their hysteric “types” as representations of ill women, which thus ultimately brought attention and understanding to women as a spectacle. Now that women were in the forefront of society, being discussed by nearly everyone, they could more easily assert their desire for rights.


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