Drawing primarily upon historical graphic works in the BAMPFA collection, Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain, and the Body explores the ways in which physical violence is represented in art through visual cues using an impassioned language of gestures—what German art historian Aby Warburg described as the pathos formula, an enduring artistic motif in which victims are depicted seemingly taking pleasure in their own extreme pain.
The exhibition opens with prints representing bodily violence and torture with a transcendental promise. Examples include religious images featuring martyrs, such as Hans Baldung Grien’s Christ and the Instruments of the Passion (1517), Jean de Gourmont’s Flagellation (1520–40), or Jusepe Ribera’s St. Jerome Receiving the Stigmata (1620).
Allusions to suffering and its purported value recur in imagery throughout Western European art history. Passionate gestures in the School of Rembrandt van Rijn drawing Conversion of Saint Paul (c. 1645) or the early nineteenth-century ink-and-wash drawing Death of Camille, Sister of Horace, attributed to the school of Jacques Louis David, exemplify such depictions of bodily suffering and violence.
Other works in the exhibition offer a critical alternative to positive representations of physical pain. Jacques Callot’s The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633) and Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–20) represent the beginning of a deprecatory stance against the legitimation of bodily violence.
As we view these images of truth, pain, and the body, we should ask ourselves: What are the dangers in aestheticizing pain and torture? Can the appealing form, which seduces us with the iconography and sensuality of the infliction of pain, also become a force for self-subversion?