The poignant colours of pain

Real life, unfortunately, isn’t so kind. Every year, millions of people die from innumerable ignored and overlooked diseases.
Artist and curator Jitha Karthikeyan
Artist and curator Jitha Karthikeyan

ALL those movie buffs who never missed a film in the glorious ’70s and ’80s must surely remember those unpronounceable diseases that struck the various characters. A hospital scene where the doctor with the obvious stethoscope stepped out of the operation theatre to announce to the waiting kin that the patient suffered from an ailment whose name sounded like a cat meowing in Chinese was mandatory. Nothing could be declared about the chances of survival for the next 24 hours. Miraculously, no cinema patient ever died of these bewildering diseases, thanks to maternal prayers that moved mountains or the hero/heroine’s firm resolve to conquer the laws of medical science.

Real life, unfortunately, isn’t so kind. Every year, millions of people die from innumerable ignored and overlooked diseases. While bigger names like cancer and AIDS are discussed and pampered with awareness campaigns, there remains a total lack of information about the existence of several rare diseases. It is precisely to fill this void of unawareness that February 29, a rare day by itself, has been observed as Rare Diseases Day ever since 2008.

Artists are generally perceived as highly creative people, insusceptible to the maladies of the common man. Contrary to such beliefs, art history is replete with famous artists who battled such rare ailments and yet, produced masterpieces until the diseasefatally consumed them.

Francisco Goya, one of the most important Spanish artists of the 18th century, was struck by an undiagnosed disease in 1793, which severely impacted his hearing, and naturally, his art too. His paintings slowly started turning darker conceptually. Despite critics writing him off, Goya claimed that his illness allowed him a hitherto unexplored perspective on life. His prolonged suffering from what is now believed to be Meniere’s disease, made him eventually withdraw from public life and paint his famous ‘Black paintings’. Painted on the walls of the artist’s home in the final stages of his life, in a state of physical and mental despair, the paintings were terrifying and haunting and are considered his greatest works today.

Vincent van Gogh whose works have been coming alive in travelling immersive exhibitions, had temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder, which were all unknown diseases back then. Yellow spots appeared as a side effect of his medication and perhaps, explain his constant use of the colour. He swayed between periods where he worked furiously and then, settled into phases of depression until he ended his own life in 1890.

German artist Paul Klee started suffering from a mysterious ailment in 1935, which damaged his internal organs and his skin. Portraying angels, skulls, and death in his last years, the artist continued painting in spite of his rare disease, which remained undiagnosed when he died in 1940. The disease was identified ten years later as scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that hardened the connective tissue.

The list of those who suffered may go on but what is fundamental is that they unfalteringly continued to produce their best while accepting their new realities — a lesson that pain may be inevitable, but suffering is optional.

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