Drawings, sketches and comics have all, at least once, crossed the path of science and medicine. Often used as a way of communicating and educating, the illustrated history of science is fascinating, surprising and mostly gruesome. Muriel Bailly takes a look.
Comic strips trace their history back to the 19th century in Europe and as far back as the 13th century in Japan. Over the last century the diversity of comics and graphic novels has grown hugely and covers almost any genre you can think of. Over the past decade or two, comic books have (arguably) benefitted from the exposure of their film adaptations as well their mention on popular TV series such as The Big Bang Theory. We even published a post about Marvel’s X-Men recently.
Today is World AIDS Day. First held in 1988 to raise awareness of HIV and the AIDS pandemic, December 1 has since been the day on which we remember those who the virus has taken from us and spread awareness of efforts to fight the illness (a fight that continues: see Tackling the spread of HIV in South Africa on the Wellcome Trust blog)
Today, when thousands follow the activities of World Aids Day on Twitter, and the internet is our primary source of information about sexual health, it seems strange to imagine a time when the primary method of communication about AIDS might be printed material. But, as William Schupbach reminds us in his introduction to the selection, “paper posters continued because of their greater presence, durability and immediacy in the real world of the street, the nightclub and the support group”. And so, even today, we might still do well to look to posters, leaflets and other printed material to communicate a potentially life-saving message.
If you’re interested in researching AIDS posters further, the Wellcome Collection and Library are not the only places you can find AIDS posters online. AVERT’s collection of historical AIDS posters goes back to 1984, including posters passing on the vital message of how HIV couldn’t be contracted. UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library has a searchable online database of posters (don’t let the fearsome library interface put you off finding some gems in here, with very generous resolution images).
It’s worth sparing a few moments on World AIDS Day to think not only about the medical battle against the pandemic, but also about the extraordinary creative efforts that have gone into representing the struggle against the virus, and to reflect on the extraordinary power of these images.
Though its shape is intimately familiar, we’ll never see our own, and rarely catch a glimpse of anyone else’s. The skeleton, the form of the human body stripped of all flesh and organs, is the subject of our latest Explore topic. It lasts long after the rest of our remains have gone: you might recall these Roman-era, medieval and 19th-century skeletons from our Skeletons exhibition in 2008; but the skeleton also has a rich life in health and medical imagery.
While understanding the skeleton is a key part of an education in anatomy, even anatomists producing images of the skeleton for educational purposes often can’t resist imbuing the skeleton with personality: this leaning skeleton by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius seems almost wistful; and William Cheselden’s skeleton in the act of prayer imparts a deep religious sensibility to the rendering of the flexed forearms. Even stripped of our flesh, it seems, we are not free of all the hopes and fears of life.
Our latest Explore section on the Wellcome Collection website is devoted to a selection of the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters. These posters, produced during the 1980s and 1990s, show evidence of the enormous and diverse public health campaigns created in response to the AIDS epidemic. In the days before twitter and facebook (and, some would say, even now) the quickest way to alert someone to the dangers of HIV was through an eye-catching, attention-grabbing poster in their place of work or play.
The AIDS epidemic is not alone in having generated a burgeoning visual culture of its own, and opportunities for artists and designers to join a movement of sorts. Posters created around the wars in the former Yugoslavian nation of Bosnia have been collected in the book Evil Doesn’t Live Here, and more recently anti-war protest posters brought together in Peace Signs. Perhaps some of the most famous posters are those produced by the Atelier Populaire during the French political unrest of May 1968.
You can see some similarities in the graphic style of the Atelier Populaire poster La lutte continue, and this AIDS poster, Think condoms please. The transmutation of one object into another and the incorporation of the slogan within the image are common to both. It’s no accident: the poster was designed by Gérard Paris-Clavel, a member of the Grapus left-wing graphic design collective who were heavily influenced by the art and politics of May 1968.
This is just one of thousands of threads that connect the AIDS posters collection to the world into which HIV emerged unforeseen and unasked for: the world of identity politics, niche marketing, drug cultures, high art and graffiti. William Schupbach’s excellent introduction to is a good place to start exploring the connections.