When you’re alone in an empty gallery you become very aware of yourself in it. When I rounded a corner of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery one such day I lost my footing, staggered back into a bench, and sat down without taking my eyes off what might be the best portrait I’ve ever seen. It made me feel suddenly cold, looming as it did at nearly six feet tall and mostly black, save for the three feather-edged figures in lab coats in the centre, unremarkable but that they were glowing.
I gathered myself and got up to read the wall text. Three Oncologists was the title and Ken Currie was the artist, and I thought then that this painting had a cousin in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a text that I had read enough times to have the opening lines come back to me in the gallery. Sontag’s text starts:
Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
The coincidence of subject and powerful first impression is a happy one, even if the subject is not. In Illness as Metaphor Sontag calls cancer “a demonic pregnancy” and explains how the disease suffers from a the same metaphorising as TB. “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning - that meaning being invariably a moralistic one”. Illness and wellness, goodness and badness, the fear of moving from one to the other while everything else is going well.
The liminality Sontag describes in her opening gambit is borne out by Currie in his portrait of Sir Alfred Cuschieri (pioneer of keyhole surgery), Professor RJ Steele (famous for his research into colorectal cancer), and Sir David Lane (part of the team that identified p53, the anti-cancer gene). I felt relieved that Currie’s portrait turned the glaring spotlight away from cancer victims for a moment, shunning the endless analysis and psychoanalytical victim-blaming of cancer language that Sontag challenges, and instead concentrated it on these three men. They are at once Macbeth’s Weird Sisters and mythology’s Graces, the two surgeons still be-scrubbed and bloodied and the researcher clutching his notes. What would be iconic attributes in a painting of a saint are here not symbolic but very literal - not a wheel or a harp, but blood, a probing pen light, and a double helix.
As Sontag asserts, cancer is too serious a business to be fudged by the unhelpful romance of metaphor, and Currie seems to understand this too. He uses visual metaphors sparingly: the barely perceptible curtains that Sir David lightly draws back, the furry aura of the men, a small flashlight.
Behind the curtains is pure black, which reads as all the things blackness normally stands for: the unknown, the other, fear (cancer, Sontag notes, conjures “thoroughly old-fashioned kinds of dread”). Currie said that Sir David Lane (on the right) explained to him that “people saw cancer as a kind of darkness and their job is to go in there and retrieve people from it, from the darkness as it were. Every picture has this key, you’re just looking for that thing that will unlock the image, and that phrase was enough to unlock the thing for me.”
Currie well knows what would actually be behind the curtain - not darkness but an operating theatre with all its beeps and hums - because he spent hours there researching this portrait. He shadowed the two surgeons (Sherry and Steele) in theatre to get to know the men individually, to learn how they moved and worked and carried themselves. “They don’t call it an operating theatre for nothing,” Currie adds, “it is a very theatrical thing.” He also cast their faces, like death masks, to be able to have all three men together at once.
The result of such close observation is a startlingly honest set of faces, all wearing expressions far from the confidence and arrogance of the stereotypical surgeon. Professor Steele remarked on the likeness:
It looks like me when I was that age. But also I do think it captures [...] something about the unknown quantity of what we do. Because at the end of the day, we’re dealing with a disease that we don’t fully understand, and I think the painting captures that very well.
Looking over their shoulders as they move into the darkness, the three look like they’re going into battle, or into space. Their skin is transparent, like creatures that dwell at the deepest parts of the ocean. But they look weak, too, and unsure. The warfare metaphor is one of the most common, Sontag notes: cancer is an “invasion” that requires brutal “counter-attack” to treat. Cancer cells “colonise” healthy ones, there is a “new assault” as it is “bombarded” by radio waves; “chemotherapy is chemical warfare,” she says. In contrast, our heroes’ faces are questioning and concerned. Apologetic. Worried.
The fear on their faces is testament to the modern nature of this particular war, though - there is no neoclassical stoicism here, the likes of Ingres’ heroic visages are rendered pat and trite. Like modern plague doctors these men’s work isolates and others them, removes them from polite party conversation (no-one wants to talk about cancer at a party - or ever). Their isolation and concern is likewise a testament to the selflessness with which they pursue the eradication of a disease so hateful and insidious and terrifying that it has its own literary genre.
So what of metaphor, then? Is it ultimately not helpful, especially to the sick, as Sontag argues? “The people who have the real disease are [...] hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil”. In the visceral black sea of this desolate canvas Currie and his three wise men kindly offer one tidy and poignant little metaphorical ray of hope - see if you can spot it.
Like an anglerfish with a kind face, Sir Alfred holds a little pen light like a flower or a candle. To call the cancer researcher or the surgeon a “light in the darkness” is so pat as to be nearly unbearable (and the field of cancer research is fraught with conspiracy theory that I would prefer to avoid). But there is, I think, some truth in that power of metaphor, which I read as the power of art. Like faith, the masking of horror with some conjured balm when the sufferer requires it is no bad thing, and not the same as the intimating that someone has cancer because they are glum. The bulb is hope and he goes with it into the dark theatre, shining light on the grim unknown. And, with that light, suddenly Currie’s processional scene doesn’t seem so much like a funeral march or a vigil, but a quietly determined and ever-hopeful research voyage in search of an answer.
SEE HERE is a monthly musing on a single artwork from anywhere, written by Amy Stewart: @A_L_STEWED // ASTEWARTWRITING.COM.