Staring for Science

WEEKEND's ready.
WEEKEND's ready. // Kathryn Crandall

Hanging in the short hallway entrance to the Cushing and Whitney Medical Library are three pairs of staring matches you might walk through as blithely as a local would a tourist’s family photo. Only a few steps into the tiny exhibition, titled “The Sexual Revolution and Movie Thrillers with Medical Themes,” and you have already interrupted the first pair: On a photographic poster to your right, a wry woman with arms around her pregnant stomach looks petulantly at the stolid doctor rendered in brushstroke on your left. If one of these competitors blinks in the moment you block the other from view, the other, luckily, is none the wiser.

You could choose to extend these characters’ respite from the heat of competition and stay a while in between them. At the very least, the doctor’s disembodied hands, clawed and smoldering red like overdone lobsters, might snap up your wandering eyes. Designed for the movie Stopien Ryzyka [Degree of Risk] (1970), directed by Leningrad-based Ilya Averbakh and based on a novel by cardiologist Nikolai Amosor, the poster is a haunting depiction of a doctor no more empowered to control the fate of his patient than the crustacean he resembles.

Continuing on your right are the remaining three posters in the “Movie Thrillers” portion of the exhibit, each conveying a dark view of medical practitioners and problems. Especially apparent are those of the mentally ill. A poster for Shock Treatment (1981), a follow-up to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, features a bald, spectacled man drawn slightly out of focus against a red backdrop. In the poster for Les Yeux sans Visage [Eyes without a Face] (1960), a woman painted like a pulp heroine in shades of red and black looks on mournfully, contemplating her fate as the recipient of a new face to replace her own disfigured one. These movies sought to humanize the medical subjects they portrayed. As their posters indicate, however, to make something more human is hardly to tame the chilling nature of its subject matter.

The more lighthearted left side of the exhibit displays three 1960s posters that advocated birth control and sexual empowerment by mocking classic American tropes. Captioning a photo of Uncle Sam in bold print is “Have You Had Your Pill Today,” a radical missive from America’s most recognizable national personification. And across from the distressed damsel of Les Yeux sans Visage stares a cheeky blonde with a scrunched nose and yellow-ribboned pigtails in a Girl Scout uniform, smiling perkily and cradling her very pregnant stomach. The caption reads “Be Prepared,” a tongue-in-cheek take on the Scouts’ motto. Unamused leadership personnel at the Girl Scouts of America filed a lawsuit against the designer, George Adams, fearing the public would believe their organization responsible for its distribution. Fortunately for Adams, the judge believed in an increasingly accepting public’s ability to recognize artistic subversion.

There is nothing explicitly uniting the two walls save their shared theme of medicine, and the gazes, seemingly intentional, shared between posters on opposite sides. Displayed here is only a sampling of the library’s vast historical collection, but there is only room in this hallway for a few examples of posters from the period, and thus only a surface study is to be expected. It is clearly less an exhibition than a passing interest for the library visitor, a mere taste of the troves that await her inside. But it intrigues interest nevertheless, one that colors the walk to the Cushing and Whitney rotunda, and grounds the doctors-to-be within studying in the storied history of their craft.

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