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Image of the Week: An Unconscious Naked Man

5 Feb, 2016


V0017053 An unconscious naked man

An unconscious naked man, symbolising the effects of chloroform on the human body, R. Cooper.

A new exhibition opened at Wellcome Collection this week. ‘States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’ explores our understanding of the conscious experience from different perspectives. Calum Wiggins, a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust, has picked out a painting from the exhibition as our Image of the Week.

Henry Wellcome was an avid collector. Not content with gathering objects already in existence, he would also commission artworks to fill gaps in his collection. Wellcome wanted to have a representation of each of the important moments in this history of medicine and this watercolour was one of many painted by Richard Tennant Cooper at his request.

The disconcerting scene is the artist’s interpretation of the effects of chloroform on the human body. Demons armed with both surgical and musical instruments surround the man, holding him still and stimulating his senses.

Painted in the early 20th century, the largest demon sat on the man’s chest is reminiscent of the incubus sat on the woman in Henry Fuseli’s painting, ‘The Nightmare’, from 1781. In Fuseli’s best-known work the presence of the incubus is believed to represent sleep paralysis; with the demon’s weight preventing the woman from moving. A preparatory drawing for ‘The Nightmare’ is on show in ‘States of Mind’ too.

Another comparison that can be seen with Cooper’s painting in the exhibition is with Aya Ben Ron’s ‘Still Under Treatment’. Filmed in 2005, it captures patients being administered anaesthetic and slipping into unconsciousness. The demons are replaced by the doctors and nurses controlling the patients’ states of consciousness and manipulating their bodies once the drugs have taken hold.

Cooper’s watercolour shows the fears which surrounded anaesthesia at the time it was created. Although ‘Still Under Treatment’ demonstrates the mystery still associated with this aspect of medicine, nowadays our understanding of anaesthetics and their effect of the body are helping us to better understand our wider conscious experience.

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’ at Wellcome Collection will be open until 16 October and is free to visit. It will feature a series of changing installations, beginning with Imogen Stidworthy’s The Whisper Heard. You can join the conversation on Twitter using #StatesOfMind and add to our collective consciousness.

Image: An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons armed with surgical instruments; representing the effects of chloroform on the human body. R Cooper. Wellcome Library, London.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 12 Feb, 2016 1:08 pm

    Reblogged this on Medical Library News and commented:
    I like this strange painting depicting the effects of chloroform

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