Exhibition: A painful pleasure
Three bodies writhe in agony. Their limbs are distorted, their features unrecognizable, their entrails burst out. The Crucifixion triptych by Francis Bacon (the central panel of which is shown here) had no religious meaning for the painter, for whom the work was simply about the expression of extreme sensation. In Tiepolo's painting of the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, the young woman's ecstatic gaze is thrown heavenwards as she awaits the blow of her tormenter's sword. These two paintings are the artistic highlights of the exhibition Schmerz (Pain), which runs until 5 August at the Medical History Museum of Humboldt University and the neighbouring Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin.
The exhibition brings together artistic and medical views of pain. Opposite Bacon's Crucifixion is a glass cabinet containing pathological preparations of organs. Under the title 'The pleasure of pain', Tiepolo's Agatha is displayed along with forensic photographs showing fatal accidents that occurred during masochistic sex. The borders between art and documentation begin to blur, which makes the exhibits all the more disturbing. Video interviews with people who self-mutilate, by German film director Valenska Griesebach, could easily be from the files of a psychiatrist. And what differentiates a display in a vitrine from a pathology lab or an art installation?
The exhibition aims to show pain in all its forms, rather than to understand it, and plays with superficial similarities between different depictions. A video by Bruce Naumanns in which a violin string is repeatedly plucked appears next to chattering patch-clamp recordings in the only exhibit that gives a nod to neurophysiological research on pain. That's not enough to justify the exhibition's claim to build a bridge between science and art. Rather, wandering through this labyrinth of abominations, the question that comes most immediately to mind is why Christianity really needed to glorify this most ugly of all human sensations into the pinnacle of mystical experience.