Or, what do a piece of migraine artwork, the first test-tube baby, E.T. and the Sistine Chapel all have in common?
When I get the chance, I have recently been spending some time in the offices of Migraine Action, a wonderful UK advice and support charity for people affected by migraine (you can listen and donate to their recent BBC Radio 4 Appeal here).
The reason for my visits is that the charity also has a collection of art, submitted to four competitions held between 1981 and 1987. The competitions invited migraine sufferers to draw either their impressions of visual disturbance or to illustrate the effect migraine had on their lives. The resulting archive consists of over 500 pieces. These range from children’s sketches on notepaper to detailed and intricate works in oil, collage and airbrush. As a collection, the archive is a powerful and at times deeply uncomfortable witness to the intense pain and disruption that people with migraine experience. Some of the most beautiful pictures depict migraine aura, and the collection has provided clinical researchers with important evidence about this otherwise entirely subjective neurological phenomenon. A selection of the artworks can be viewed online here, and the collection as a whole is discussed in this book by Klaus Podoll and Derek Robinson.
I will post more about my own research on these images over the coming months, but to begin with I want to share one image that grabs my attention every time. In the painting, which was submitted to the third competition in 1985, a woman’s hand reaches out, passing on a bauble labelled ‘migraine’ to a baby, presumably her son or daughter. The painting is a simple but heart-wrenching testament to the genetic factors determining migraine experience, though it is not clear whether the artist is the recipient, or the giver: perhaps she is both.Apart from the power of the message, however, the image’s design is also fascinating for its visual inspiration. The two hands reaching towards each other clearly echo Michelangelo’s famous painting, the ‘Creation of Adam’ from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1508-1512). Yet, there were also other examples of that imagery in widespread circulation at the time this painting was created. On 31 July 1978, TIME magazine marked the arrival of the world’s first test tube baby. In Roger Huyssen’s cover design, against a dark background, the spherical object between the two reaching hands is not a bauble, but a fertilized egg in a test-tube.
The TIME cover marked a pivotal moment in the history of reproductive medicine, but our image of migraine may also have been inspired by the more phenomenon of the extra-terrestrial who simply wanted to go home. Millions of cinema-goers worldwide would have seen this poster for E.T. Here, in addition to the touching fingers, and the light between them, we also have the depiction of a child’s hand.
In the picture I began this post with, the woman is doing more than passing on the bauble of migraine. She is tapping into a tradition where a very simple motif – two hands reaching towards each other – can represent so many ideas about life, heredity, descent and belonging.