Life is Pain: An Exploration of Suffering in Art

by Spencer Schillinger                                                       This gallery aims to depict the true depth of human suffering, and to connect it to our everyday lives.  Art, while great for expressing a variety of positive emotions, truly serves its purpose when depicting the lowest depths of our lives.  Art is a way for the artist and consumer to process all of their emotions, be they positive or negative.  Life is a series of positive events strung together by pain, or maybe it's the other way around?  Regardless, I think that when we focus on our suffering we can learn things that we would never otherwise.  Our ability to communicate our feelings is what differentiates us from the other animals that inhabit this planet.  Art is there so that we can relate to one another, and no experience is more universal than that of pain.  Sure, happiness is great and all, but we are at our most human while dealing with pain and suffering.  Suffering is the one true equalizer; when we are at our lowest, we are all alike, while when we are all at our highest points, our differences become glaring.  We feel sympathy and empathy when others are happy, sure, but that way of relating to others is orders of magnitude away from how most normal, well-adjusted humans can relate to pain and suffering.  They transcend language, culture, age, race, and gender.  That is the goal of this gallery: to show true suffering, so that we may all understand.

Without Hope, Frida Kahlo, 1945, From the collection of: Museo Dolores Olmedo
In this piece, Kahlo is pinned down by the ladder, which appears to be holding up the mass of flesh and organs being poured into(or coming out of) her mouth. From what I've read, this piece was made in response to her ongoing medical struggles. She endured many surgeries and various other treatments, leaving her with very little appetite. Because of this, her doctor force fed her fattening, blended food. This picture depicts that, as she saw the situation as being, as the title says, completely without hope. I just really appreciate the helplessness depicted in the piece, as well as the background with ambiguous weather conditions. The fact that it is unclear whether it is sunny or about to be cloudy almost adds more to the suffering, as it illustrates how it doesn't matter what is happening in the outside world once your pain reaches a certain point. (source: )
Youth Mourning, Clausen, George (Sir) (RA), 1916, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
This piece is so beautifully bleak and desolate. There is next to nothing to look at in the dark background, naturally bringing your focus to the pale, vulnerable woman in the foreground. She is shown in a position that makes it very clear that she is in distress, which, when coupled with the naturalistic depiction of her body, absent of clothes or any sort of outside protection, helps to solidify the feeling in this piece. The complete lack of pretty much anything in the background really helps to reinforce the feeling of emptiness that one feels when mourning a loss, as this poor girl is doing here. I didn't even notice the makeshift grave on the leftmost border of the painting until just now, as I was writing this. That really helps tie the picture together, as it adds a sense of purpose to her complete physical and emotional breakdown.
Pain, Clemente Islas Allende, 1910, From the collection of: Museo Nacional de Arte
I picked this piece not just because of the title (although I do concede that it factored into my decision), but also because I find it very interesting. This sculpture was done in 1910, yet is done in the style of classical sculptures, most of which depicted people in various idealistic forms, often while they appeared to be happy, or at the very least appeared not to be sad. That is not the case here, as the subject lies back and screams to the heavens, questioning why she must endure such horrible pain. This is a large focus of my gallery: to show how people think of pain and suffering, and what they think of its role in our everyday lives.
Portrait of pain - Self portrait, Adolfo Widt, 1868/1931, From the collection of: Galleria d'Arte Moderna
This piece is very interesting indeed. It is titled both 'Portrait of pain' and 'Self portrait,' implying that it is a depiction of the artist's own internal struggle. The expression on the man's face truly says it all, in this case. He is horribly distressed, and sees no end in sight. The only thing he can really do is express his pain with his face. He could be crying out, but I doubt it. It seems to me to be much more likely that his pain has finally reached the point where all he can manage to do is let it permeate throughout every fiber of his body, and so he cannot help but show it on his face. Look at the vacant holes where his eyes should be: to me, that is where the real power of this piece is. It adds an even larger sense of hopelessness to his plight.
The Small Crucifixion, Matthias Grünewald, c. 1511/1520, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
I tried to avoid religious imagery for this project, as there are hundreds of paintings out there of Mary mourning the loss of her son at the hands of the Romans, but this one called out to me for whatever reason, and so I included it. Look at how broken Christ's body has become, after being abused constantly by his captors, and then sent to the cross. It is apparent that he spent the entire last day of his initial mortal life (the wording gets tricky when talking about someone who was resurrected) in nothing but total agony, which has now been transferred to his mother and disciples. Look, see how they beg and plead his Father to bring him back to them, to no avail. See the woman to the far left, who has already given up, accepting that he will never come back. When combined with the dark, empty background, this piece becomes much more powerful than your traditional piece of religious iconography.
Gassed, Sargent, John Singer (RA), 1919, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
This is the first piece in the gallery that really demands that you take time to really analyze it in order to really grasp the depth of pain and suffering contained within. At first glance, it appears to just be a group of the remaining soldiers after a mustard gas attack in World War I, but after inspecting the piece more, you start to realize that the bodies littering the ground may not all be completely dead. In fact, many of them are most likely suffering the horrific after-effects of being gassed this way, as are the ones standing up. People tend to focus on World War II due largely to the Third Reich's unrelenting brutality in the concentration camps, but we forget how we once gassed each other like cockroaches, not even acknowledging that the enemy was even human.
I Miss You, George Struikelblok, 2000, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
This piece is a little different from the rest of the gallery, but it still retains the power and emotion of the other pieces contained here. While at first it may appear to just be a seemingly random mish-mash of colors and textures, on the second or third viewing it becomes apparent that the light mass of paint to the left is the subject of our painting, a poor soul mourning the loss of someone very important to them. Our subject can do nothing but hold themselves in a futile attempt to invoke the nervous system's response to comfort. The random splashes of color and light really help to illustrate the depth of emotion here.
Girl, Kim, Seong Ryong, 2003, From the collection of: Korean Art Museum Association
This piece it interesting, to say the least. The girl here at first may not appear to be suffering, but I, as always, implore you to take a closer look. Yes, she may appear to be perfectly content with her current state of being, but notice her right arm. With the hand out of view, we can only see her arm itself, which is withered and wrinkled, as if it were slowly dying, with its prominent veins almost about to burst out of her arm. Her strange, ethereal left arm appears to symbolize a loss of humanity, which in and of itself is a form of intense suffering.
Hand of the Victorious, Jung, Boc Su, 2004/2005, From the collection of: Korean Art Museum Association
This piece is another example of art where the title plays an integral role in your understanding of the piece itself. While the piece is surely powerful on its own (I can't imagine anyone saying otherwise), the title is truly what ties it all together. You see, when showing a hand, stripped of its skin, showing only the muscles, tendons, and bones underneath, it begs the question, "How? How did this happen?" and in most cases, the answer would be more concrete, perhaps an accident, or an attempt at revenge from a foe. But in this one, although the situation is far from specified, we get the general idea of it: this person has sacrificed everything, even their own body in order to succeed, losing their skin and even one of their fingers in the process. That kind of dedication is truly inspiring, although it certainly makes you wonder if it was worth it.
Anger, Jung, Boc Su, 1986, From the collection of: Korean Art Museum Association
This piece shows anger in its most raw and primal form, and helps illustrate the duality contained within it. You see, anger is an attempt to control things around us in order to maintain our happiness, but getting angry about something never really seems to solve much of anything, does it? That is what is shown here: one head is trying to get its way, while the other simply marvels in the suffering that we put ourselves through for this small chance at happiness, which we often consider the most important thing in our lives. The suffering here is more abstract than in other pieces, which show outright distress, while this one shows it not as sadness, but as anger, which is a very masculine way to process pain.
Sadness, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
This piece, while rather plain, contains so much more emotion that I typically think of as being captured in such a static photograph. Our beautiful subject here appears to be longing for someone who has disappeared, perhaps a lover, her parents, or maybe even a child. She cannot manage to do anything but think about her sadness, which inevitably makes it worse, although we always continue to do it anyway, on the off chance that the situation will improve, through some sort of magic insight into life that we're going to somehow find by moping around. Another thing that strikes me about this piece is that it is from 1864, a time when photography's only real practical purpose was for portraits, yet here is a shot done not to be a straight ahead portrait of this woman, but rather to show a feeling, something that I find simply remarkable for a piece from this medium that is this old.
Face of Pain - I'll make you be repented by my blood, Ahn, Chang Hong, 안창홍, 1986, From the collection of: Korean Art Museum Association
The texture in this painting is simply remarkable. As you look closer, the mass of red becomes individual blood vessels, possibly even blood clots, which have begun to take over the subject of the work, who has come to accept the suffering that controls their life. They appear to be returning back to the mass of blood vessels and skin that they were in the womb, in a sort of reverse birth, almost. It's fascinating, really, as we are born through pain, and it appears that this person too shall die through it. The color palette used here helps to enhance the natural feel to the piece.
El amour y la muerte (Love and Death), Francisco de Goya, published 1799, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Here stands a couple, one party decidedly more present than the other, in one of their final moments of being together. It is unclear whether or not the man has already left this realm, although judging by the title, I'd guess that he has. That makes it all the more sad, as this woman, presumably his lover, has watched the love of her life die in her arms, knowing that there was nothing she could do to help. And now she must take care of the body, this husk that was once the man she loved, her reason for living, gone, in an instant, leaving only flesh and bones behind. The monochromatic motif here helps to set the scene, as it makes it seem even more bleak that it already would be.
Credits: All media
This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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