Hannah Wilke

Another artist to use the narrative technique of photographic autopathography is Hannah Wilke. Whereas Spence’s work was concerned with reclaiming her body from the medical profession, Wilke’s photographs question conventional representations of female beauty in art and mass media. Since the 1970s, Wilke had used her body as a statement in her performances and photographs, always questioning ideas of feminine beauty and representations of the female as sexual object. In a sense, her autopathography stems back to the work she did photographing her mother’s mastectomy as the consequence of breast cancer.

Subsequently the use of her own body in her artwork changed, seeming to express feelings of aggression and frustration (Tierney 1996, 49). In the series Intra Venus, which was to become her final work, she shows her naked body with scars, medical devices, hair loss and other visual clues to her lymphoma and curative measures in a direct and at times excruciating critique of the oppressive iconography of women. Thus she appears as Venus, as a smiling fashion model, or as a serene Virgin Mary – albeit with bandages, visible tumour, intravenous catheter and hospital bedsheets, in spite of Sontag’s exhortation not to treat illness as metaphor (1978).


The work is about the notion of female beauty being contained in physicality, and how a woman whose body is seen as diseased is denied beauty and considered “damaged goods” (Sander 1998). While the idea of displaying herself with the symbols of her oppression (in this case medical paraphernalia from the cancer she could not control) attached to her body harks back to her early feminist work, Starification Object Series SOS, where she stuck vulva-like forms to her face and naked torso – the location of objectified female beauty.


She adorned other symbols of glamour (sunglasses and cowboy hat) or beautification (curlers) and struck cover girl poses, with her body studded or ‘scarred’ with that ultimate symbol of US consumerism: chewing gum, which had been chewed by audience members – effectively being ‘chewed up’ by consumerist society (Cheney 1994). This early scarring of her body was almost a preemption of her future condition and how she would deal with it, though the overtly sexual titillation of her earlier images has been replaced by a sort of tongue-in-cheek mockery of the female body as desirable object. Wilke shows in gruesome detail how she was de-sexualised by her illness, and the viewer is caught between feelings of amusement, horror, pity, morbid curiosity, and guilt at seeing someone apparently deprived of the last shreds of their dignity.

In a sense, Wilke was not surrendering to her illness, and although the process was not healing, in her idiosyncratic way she was gaining control of the experience and of how her body was represented (interpreted?) in a bid to counter what Tembeck terms her “premature social death” (2008, p 93) as well as to challenge perceived notions of cancer itself:

“Wilke revisited countless representational archetypes of women in these self-portraits, adding various light-heartedly blasphemous alterations to them in order to disturb their reception. By conspicuously including her own commentary in these aesthetic formulas, she reveals them to be prescriptive stereotypes that generally leave no room for the representation of “deviant” bodies” (Tembeck 2008, p 92).

By recording the physical changes she underwent and forcing the viewer to become a witness to her body’s gradual destruction, she set about pushing the limits of self-portraiture (Sander 1998). According to one review, the images are not supposed to evoke pity in the viewer:

“The photographs do not demand a reaction from the viewer; the cards are on the table. The absence of loaded symbols and of wordy explanations turns this documentation into powerful art.” (Tierney 1996, 44)

While another review states that the series is not a simple document of the artist’s disintegrating body, but rather “imparts an inner spirit and tremendous peace” (Wacks 1999, 106).

Tierney lauds the artist’s “courage to confront her body in its adversity as well as in its glory” (1996, p 49), Sander (1998, 57) contends that Wilke remained beautiful even in her last photographs, while Wacks infers that the beauty she possessed in her younger days had not been the driving force behind Wilke’s performances. Indeed, for someone who had been so used to exposing her body before the camera as an expression of female oppression, it would seem like the most logical step to document that body’s ultimate demise – in fact a failure to do so would seem to undermine much of the power of her earlier work.

In conclusion, Wacks writes of Wilke’s intimate chronicle of her experience: “her art, as a whole, consistently emphasized life – its sensuality as well as its ironies tragedies and struggles” (1999, p 106).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s