Repetitions, Rehearsals, Stagings

Glorija Lizde, a photographer of the younger generation, is already widely recognised by the broader audience for her artistic work, in which she often employs documentary and staged forms of photography alongside archival materials, exploring various themes such as ancestry, belonging, heritage, trauma, memories, and more. The exhibition titled Repetitions, Rehearsals, Stagings is her first solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition is the result of research in which the artist engages in an examination of the credibility of the medium of photography in science, as well as the positions and power dynamics between the photographer and the subject, using the example of patients treated for hysteria in the French Salpêtrière hospital at the end of the 19th century.

The word hysteria is derived from the Greek word for uterus, hystera (Gr. ὑστἐρα), and was once a description for a medical diagnosis primarily attributed to women, based on the ancient belief that the wandering womb was the cause of the illness. For instance, Plato compared the female uterus to a living creature that wanders around the female body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing illness.” The ancient Greek physician Areteus of Cappadocia described the uterus as “an animal within an animal” (less emotionally, “a living being within a living being”), which causes symptoms by roaming the woman’s body and exerting pressure on other organs. Over time, such beliefs were abandoned, and throughout the 18th century, hysteria began to be associated with mechanisms in the brain rather than the uterus. At the end of the 19th century, the research of hysteria was significantly influenced by the French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, also known as the “founder of modern neurology.” He established the aetiology of the illness and concluded that hysteria is a psychological disorder, a belief that persisted for many years. However, it is questionable whether this truly constituted a scientific contribution, as his treatment methods were considered controversial and ethically dubious. His 33-year tenure at the Salpêtrière Hospital coincided with the development and refinement of the medium of photography, which fascinated Charcot. In the improvised photographic studio at the hospital, numerous photographs of patients were produced and used as studies for further research into the illness. At that time, photography, having replaced illustration in science, was considered an exact medium, and Charcot used it to record the symptoms and manifestations of hysteria in patients. However, these attacks were often induced by various methods such as electroshocks, needles, opiates, hypnosis, and others. Sensitivity to hypnosis was synonymous with illness, for example. Eventually, the treatment process turned into manipulation and staging of the patients’ bodies, who, like actresses under his direction, performed their role as hysterics, ultimately earning him reputation and fame.

By collaging archival photographs and various materials, including Hendrik Bary’s illustrations of uteri and female reproductive organs from the 17th century, along with her own simultaneous photographic self-portraits mimicking the poses and symptoms of afflicted patients, the artist (through rearrangement and combination) attempts to deconstruct and contextualize the process of manipulating photographic images. This approach raises questions about the authenticity and transparency of photography as scientific evidence. If we rely on Krešimir Purgar’s conclusion that the “paradox of the principle of transparency of photography lies in the fact that the realism of the image necessarily leads to the domination of pictorial content over the pictorial phenomenon,”[1] it becomes clear how much photography has influenced the formation of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and the patients of the Salpêtrière Hospital as social outsiders. As Purgar further suggests, “in other words, the more the observer’s attention is directed towards what the picture represents, the awareness of the representation phenomenon itself will be diminished.”[2]

Following on from the above, it also raises the question of performativity in female patients, specifically the conscious manifestation of the symptoms of illness, a ritual act they likely resorted to as it was perhaps the only way to gain attention in a cruel environment that labelled them as outsiders and an everyday life where male domination was inevitable. In this context, I find it essential to mention the research of the scientist Nataša Polgar from the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb. In her work, she emphasises the theory of the French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Lucien Israël, according to which the language of hysterics (or the language of hysteria) is one mode of communication, an attempt to establish a relationship with the Other in order for the subject to convey a message about acknowledging their own lack (“I am not whole”). “More precisely, when it comes to hysteria, the body and physical manifestations become a message or narrative: the narrative of fear is translated into involuntary movements – convulsions or into a frozen image, paralysis, or it is radically obstructed by aphasia, a sudden but complete absence of voice and speech.”[3]

In the collages featuring Glorija Lizde’s self-portraits, we can observe how the camera shutter in her hand is left intentionally visible and actually becomes a key detail of the composition. Through this act, the artist seizes control and blurs the boundary between the roles of the hysteric and the physician, the artist and the subject, oneself and the Other, signifier and signified. With artistic influence, she reinterprets the past, aiming to highlight the manipulative nature of the medium of photography.

The exhibition showcases 12 collage photographs created on cutting mats measuring 90 x 62.5 cm and a photographic composite measuring 130 x 90 cm composed of 119 archival photographs of patients. The latter visual imagery serves as a kind of common denominator for the entire exhibition (and research), and its abstracted depiction encourages us to reconsider established understandings of mental illnesses as well as the question of truthfulness or the reproduction of reality. By erasing all layers of assigned identities, it simultaneously pays homage to the archetype of hysterical women, witches, madwomen, and all other social outcasts.

Ivana Vukušić

[1] Purgar, K. (2016). 'Modalities of Pictorial Appearing: Basic Concepts', Filozofska istraživanja, 36(4), pp. 799-816.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Polgar, N. (2018) Strah, žudnja, histerija: bilješke uz jedan zapisnik sa suđenja vješticama. Narodna umjetnost, 55 (1), 181-197 doi:10.15176/vol55no110.

Glorija Lizde (b.1991., Split, Croatia) graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Video from the Academy of Arts in Croatia and a Master's degree in Photography from the Academy of Dramatic Art in Croatia. Her work has been shown in both solo and group exhibitions in Croatia and abroad including O21 OSTRALE Biennale, Residency Unlimited New York, Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, QUAD Gallery, Benaki Museum, 57th Zagreb Salon. Lizde participated in the 1st and 4th cycle of PARALLEL - European Photo Based Platform in 2018 and 2021, and was nominated for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass 2020. She is the recepient of Dr. Éva Kahán Foundation artist in residency programme 2022. Lizde received the Radoslav Putar Award 2022 for the best young contemporary artist in Croatia.