Short takes on visual culture
Weekly colloquia sponsored this spring by the new Center for Visual Culture explored topics ranging from the depiction of Cleopatra to that of epilepsy, and from the frescoed Roman wall paintings of the Second Pompeian Style to the play between collections of traditional African art and British art educational projects in colonial South Africa.

The Center will expand the College's history of study in the visual arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture by providing a forum to look at "new mechanical and electronic media from the age of the invention of photography ... to the proliferation of interactive digital media," according to center director Steven Levine, Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities, chair of the History of Art department.

Studying the portrayal of epilepsy in film is an ongoing research and publication project for the family team of Kerson, Kerson and Kerson: Toba Schwaber Kerson, Professor of Social Work and Social Research; neurologist Lawrence Kerson, M.D.; and their daughter, Jennie Kerson, a media studies graduate of Brown University. "When Jennie was still in college, she spotted seizures in two of a group of films she had been assigned to watch, Mean Streets and 1900, called her father and said 'wouldn't it be neat if we wrote an article about this'," Toba Kerson said. "They had a little bonding moment, but didn't really mean it." She, however, who is known in her household by the epithet of "Relentless," was excited by the idea. The project has grown to such an extent that the team was asked to give a three-hour course on the subject at the Academy of Neurology meetings this spring and a paper at the 3rd International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health in Tampere, Finland this summer.

In her January 24 presentation for a Visual Culture colloquium, "Reel Seizures," Kerson showed clips from some of the 36 English language films the team has identified that show an epileptic seizure or refer to the condition.

Larry Kerson is particularly interested in accuracy of depiction. Jennie is interested in how the portrayal drives the narrative or advances character development, and Toba, as a social worker, in "what the audience takes away from the film about what epilepsy is, and what those with epilepsy and family members see and incorporate as societal images of the illness.

"While advances in technology enable film to create representations that are larger than life, many of the messages it conveys lag, carrying harmful and dated information. One example is the portrayal of epilepsy," she said. "Epilepsy is an ubiquitous international disorder that knows no racial, age, class or geographical boundaries, perhaps more so than any other medical condition. It is also one of oldest disorders known to mankind for at least 3,000 years. One in 100 people has epilepsy, and you probably know someone who does, whether or not you are aware of it."

Kerson said that a former student who had epilepsy urged her to see The Exorcist, in which the possessed child is first thought to have temporal lobe epilepsy, "because everybody who sees this believes on some level that this is how people with epilepsy behave.

"To depict people with epilepsy as violent, crazed and frightening is inaccurate and destructive," Kerson said, "or as a physician says in The Andromeda Strain, 'prejudice and all that crap from the Middle Ages'. "

She thinks the most interesting portrayal they have found is in Gods and Monsters, which is about James Whale, the director of the Franken-stein movies "because the seizures are accurately portrayed, the seizures enhance character and drive and define the narrative."

Kerson wants audiences to protest inaccurate depictions. She described viewing a woman shown having a seizure on the first episode of the television series, Night Court: "Two policemen ran right over. One rammed his hand into her mouth, she bit him ... she was unconscious, and the other policeman's response was to take his club out and smash her in the head. So I called the local Epilepsy Foundation of America."

On February 21, Lecturer in Eng-lish, Sarah Willburn, discussed mediumship in the Victorian era, focusing on the idea that ghosts becoming visible disrupted stable concepts such as history and political power. Willburn quoted the writings of literary biographer Camilla Crosland and Anglican clergyman Newton Crosland, a London couple known for their theological interpretations of spiritualism. Newton understood spiritualism in terms of the past; for him, seances allowed celestial beings to become terrestrial. Camilla understood spiritualism in terms of the present; for her, seances revealed a unique fate for women, who are nearer than men to the spiritual realm.

On March 21, Julia Gaisser, Eugenia Chase Guild Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Latin, and Prudence Jones, Lecturer of Greek, Latin and Ancient History, presented an overview of their spring-semester course, "Cleopatra: Images of Female Power from Antiquity to the Present." Students examine the historical Cleopatra as well as how her image has changed over time in literature, art, music and film. The course takes full advantage of the new technology in Bryn Mawr's classrooms, using slides, videoclips and a website showing the art discussed during class. The contrasting representations of Cleopatra provoke discussions of female power in a male world, Cleopatra as a femme fatale, her political savvy and how her suicide has been romanticized or criticized. "We want the students to look closely at interpretations of her," said Jones. "What have people been doing to her and more importantly, what do they, the students, think about it?

Other Visual Culture lectures included Professor of History of Art Dale Kinney, "The Horse and the Cuckoo: Narrating Marcus Aurel-ius;" Leslie Clark Professor Emerita in the Humanities, Phyllis Bober, "Appropriation in the Renaissance: Bacchic Imagery in Christian Con-text;" Jordanna Bailkin of Columbia University, "Race and Aesthetics;" and Vincent J. Bruno of the University of Texas, "Mark Rothko and the Second Pompeian Style" (organized by the Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History and co-sponsored by the Class of 1902 Lecture Fund and the Center for Visual Culture).

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