Ways of Seeing

"I am indebted to Lam Qua, who has taken an admirable likeness of the little girl and a good representation of the tumor."

- quote from Dr. Parker's Case Report

Lam Qua's paintings of Parker's patients achieve their complexity and power, in part, because of the duality to which Parker alludes. These images are indeed at once "likenesses" and "representations." In the best examples, the sensitivity with which the admirable likenesses of individuals is delineated is placed in tension with the details of the good representation of the tumors. Parker's distinction between likeness and representation is an interesting one. In all probability, he uses likeness in the old conventional sense of a term of resemblance appropriate to portraiture (of persons); and representation as a term of resemblance appropriate to objects, a usage connoting graphic realism. Likeness for people; representation for things. But it is also a distinction that is useful to help understand the power of these images and how medical imaging functions.

The difference between likeness and representation signifies not so much different modes of painting per se as it does different ways of seeing. The likeness is the visual category in which one seeks to recognize the particularity of an individual, features, symmetry, marks of identification . For Parker himself, since these images were of former patients (memento morbi), whom he could recognize by sight, these paintings must have retained a personal value and served as a memory aid. Also, he had personal knowledge of the fidelity of the likenesses that Lam Qua produced. But because these individuals are unknown to us, their likenesses function on a different level of identification--a way of seeing the broader categories of the normative human, the male or female, the old or young, beautiful or plain, or perhaps the ethnic, racial category of the Chinese. (On this last point, for example, in some of the annotations in the collection there are notes on whether or not a particular faces look Chinese or not). We also attend to the aspect of the face and eyes for any expressive or affective signs.

The representation is the visual category in which one observes the object by type, classification be it medical or some other system. It stands for some part of the body or some kind of growth, the pathological or non-normative. Lam Qua's images frequently invite in the viewer a kind of gestalt where the eye and the mind travel between the likeness and the representation, the normal and the pathological, the subject and the object. For this reason, I suggest, the tumors often appears as the patient's prop, as a musician might pose with his cello (see Woo Kinshing), as the eye shuttles between these two ways of seeing.

To illustrate these ways of seeing, we have created a flash gallery that allows the viewer to see these paintings in a slightly different way. Click on the following and observe.

Gallery Images


Woo Kinshing

Patient unknown

Lew Akin

Po Ashing (before surgery)

Kwan Nanking

Patient Unknown (possibly Chang Achum)

Woo Pun

Po Ashing (after surgery)

Leang Yen (?) see commentary

Kwan Meiurh

The Mysteries of Lam Qua: Medical Portraiture in China 1836 - 1855
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