Photography of La Salpêtrière at the service of art

Adéla Janíčková
New York, United States


Fig. 1: Max Ernst, Celebes, 1921

The medical journal “Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière” was intended as a visual reference for psychiatric diagnosis. Throughout the first half of the 20thcentury, Salpêtrière’s  record of the new way of “seeing the insane”1 lived up to the potential of its photographic medium and became an iconographic source for artists in their search for new ways of representing the body. The effect and influence of the Salpêtrière photographic journal was widespread, the set of photographic documentation was key in determining imaging and aesthetics of the body. It can be traced in art of the French Surrealists as well as in self-portraiture of the Viennese artist Egon Schiele. Charcot’s investigation into hysteria led to Surrealist artists depicting headless female bodies [Figure 1]. In Schiele’s art, image of the insane and the deformed caused madness and degeneracy to become a desirable artistic trait in Vienna at the turn of the century.

Fig. 2: Salvador Dali, Phenomenon of Ecstasy, 1933

The possibility of the Salpêtrière photographic records being a source of inspiration for artists would not have been a mere coincidence. Artistic value of the photographs was an objective and aestheticization of the patients’ bodies was premeditated.2 The camera in the late 19th century was a much celebrated invention in the field of medicine for its ability to ‘document’ illnesses, yet at the same time, artistic possibilities of the device had always encouraged photographers to consider the aesthetic value of their subject. Illustratively, in the second volume of the journal, Jean-Martin Charcot claimed that the gaze of the doctor had to be fused with the gaze of the artist, with one effectively guiding the other: “Le médecin est inséparable de l’artiste. L’un guide de l’autre; ils s’entraident mutuellement.”3

 Fig. 3: Attitude Passionelle, Iconographie
photographique de la Salpêtrière

In Compulsive Beauty (1993) Hal Foster proposes an interesting account on the relationship between hysteria and Surrealism: “The Surrealists attempted to rescue this figure from psychiatric discipline and to reinscribe her as a heroine of the movement, as a paragon of the artist.”4 In many ways, the hysteric subject was appealing due to the possibility of it being a constitution of the new vision of femininity and a new modernity. The association of hysteria and art was celebrated by Surrealists as the new feminine; yet the female body remains the “silenced ground of this art.”5 Foster explains that this association departs from traditional aesthetics where the female body is not the sublimated image of the beautiful but the desublimated site of the sublime. This is to be understood that the hysterical body is inscribed with signs of sexuality and marks of death.6

 Fig. 4: Max Ernst, La femme 100 têtes, 1929

Hysteria was initially only thinkable as a diagnosis for women, and male doctors pathologised the female body in order to sustain power over the increasingly emancipating gender. This attitude was translated into Surrealist art as Susan Rubin Suleiman argues that Surrealist artistic expression was informed by dominant phallocentrism.7 Hysteria, the theatricalised disease, was appropriated for the purpose of eroticising the female body and thus inventing a new visual iconography. Recent research points out the role of hysteria as a means of fetishising the female body. Convulsed body of the hysteric was a spectacle for delectation of the male viewer, and the male artist. The sexualised hysteric was an appealing image to the surrealist mind; her unrestrained behaviour and bewildered nature were believed to be a sign of liberated mind and free spirit. Such mental state and uncontrolled channelling of libido seduced Surrealists. The  striking effect of an hysterical fit on the Surrealist viewer becomes apparent in the concluding line of André Breton’s novel Nadja: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be.

 Fig. 5: Max Ernst, Etching of Andre Breton, 1923

Salvador Dalí’s Phenomenon of Ecstacy (1933) [Figure 2] depicts the iconic physiognomy of the hysteric, especially the upturned eyes and parted lips. Dali however did not use images of real hysteric patients; instead, his collage consisted of photographs of actresses who were instructed to simulate hysterical symptoms. The imitating in the Surrealist artwork suggests theatricality of the psychiatric practice. In the collage, models copy and act out expressions that were captured by photographs of hysteric patients documenting phases of the fit and especially the typical poses called ‘les attitudes passionelles’ [Figure 3] – poses associated with sexual arousal and desire. In Dalí’s work, they became conflated with femininity in general. Madness and femininity became related elements, for instance, as exemplified by Max Ernst’s collage novel called La Femme 100 têtes (1929) [Figure 4]. The front cover of the publication has an image of a headless woman. The title holds the key to decoding the signification of the image. La Femme 100 têtes is a word play in French as ‘cent’ means one hundred, but it also carries a phonetic similarity to the word ‘sans’ – without. So, the frontispiece denotes mental disorders such as schizophrenia as multiplicity of heads represents multiple personalities, or it also signifies madness as a woman without her head is said to have lost her mind.

 Fig. 6: Egon Schiele, Self-portrait, 1910

In Compulsive Beauty, Hal Foster argues that “the Surrealists not only desired this image, this figure (of the hysteric); they also identified with it.”8 The origin of this identification can be found in the socio-historical context of the First World War when trauma and the vast number of male shellshock victims caused the spread of male hysteria. Male hysteria was a precondition for the appropriation of this mental illness by the male avant-garde. An example of how this fascination with madness was translated into Surrealist practice and imagery is the etching of André Breton by Max Ernst (1923) [Figure 5]. Ernst depicted Breton in tight bandages, which stands for either a hurt person in pain or an insane man in a straightjacket, both insinuating the desirable traits of an artist. Artists sought after a parable with an outcast individual as though stylising themselves into the mad genius. Breton called himself “autist” (French for autistic) instead of artist,9 which implies an obvious self-stylisation into a madman.

 Fig. 7: Egon Schiele, Self-portrait, 1910

Griselda Pollock maintains that artistic genius was judged by the intensity of madness, which thus caused that mental degeneracy became a desirable trait in artists as it ‘supported’ the notion of creativity and originality. In Schiele’s self-portraiture [Figure 6], his self-imaging is informed by ‘anxiety’ and ‘exclusion’. On one hand, there is the tendency to represent Schiele as a traumatised individual who used self-portraiture as a means of articulating angst.10 On the other hand, as Robert Jensen argues: “artists, like Egon Schiele, would have learned by 1910, if not long before, that alienation sells, that to be alienated was as much a role, a way of establishing a professional identity, as occupying a position in the academy.”11

Iconographic parallels between Schiele’s self-portraiture and patients with diseases of the nervous system (for comparison see Figure 7) can be retraced in photographs of the second edition of the medical journal, La Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière. This journal shifted its focus in new directions. Firstly, it studied anomalies and other extremes of the body in pain instead of mental disorders. Secondly, it began to include male patients as opposed to predominantly females in the first edition of Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, which brought the male body into the frame. Bodies of patients were usually photographed naked to reveal their deformations to the highest effect. Schiele’s self-portraits are also nudes which suggest the imitative nature of his practice.

It would not have been difficult for Schiele to come across these images as Paris-based journals on neuropathology containing these photographs were regularly in circulation around Vienna.12 The voyeuristic appeal of the photographs made the human subjects become a spectacle. In addition, the publications of Freud’s numerous revolutionary theories and the opening of Steinhof (1907), the largest psychiatric hospital in Europe then, secured the widespread awareness of mental disorders among Viennese society. Moreover, the institution was open to the public for excursions which turned the patient’s body into a public body;13 a well-known and appealing image. Madness and degeneracy resided in fin-de-siecle Vienna’s consciousness.

In art, aesthetics of the pathologised body in photographs of ‘les malades’ and ‘les diformés’ provided Schiele and the Surrealists with an iconographic source-material that the artists could translate into an innovative representation of the human body. While Schiele applied the pathological aesthetic to represent his own body, Surrealists exploited the female subject matter. Surrealists looked for a figure that would represent the desired unrestrained mental state, and at the same time onto which they could project their fantasy. Thus, the medical photographs of the hysteric female body was a medium that embodied sensuality and the liberation of suppressed desire.



  1. A phrase proposed by Sander Gilman, Seeing the Insane, New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1982, pp. 194-204.
  2. Gemma Blackshaw, “The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture” (Oxford Art Journal, Oct 2007, Vol. 30, Is. 3) p. 386.
  3. Jean Martin Charcot, Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière: Clinique des Maladies du Système Nerveux, vol. 2, p. 492.
  4. Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1993), p. 53.
  5. Ibid, p. 53.
  6. Ibid, p. 53.
  7. David Lomas, “Traces of the Unconscious,”Chapter 1, The Haunted Self:  Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 12.
  8. Foster, Compulsive Beauty, p. 53.
  9. Phonetic word play in French.
  10. Blackshaw, “The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture”p. 379.
  11. Robert Jensen. Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siecle Europe (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1996) p. 10.
  12. Blackshaw, “The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture,” p. 390.
  13. Blackshaw, “The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture,” p. 390.



  1. Gemma Blackshaw, “The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture” (Oxford Art Journal, Oct 2007, Vol. 30, Issue 3) p. 377-402.
  2. Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty,(Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1993), p. 53.
  3. Sander Gilman, Seeing the Insane (Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1982).
  4. Robert Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siecle Europe (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  5. David Lomas, “Traces of the Unconscious,”Chapter 1, The Haunted Self:  Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 12.



ADÉLA JANÍČKOVÁ is a Czech art writer and advisor for multidisciplinary projects currently based in New York City. She studied Art Theory at UNSW Art and Design in Sydney and received a Master‘s degree in Art History from The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She served as a curatorial intern at the Museum of Modern Art, editorial intern at The New Museum in New York and held positions at art galleries and an auction house.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2016 – Volume 8, Issue 1
Winter 2016  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology