Researcher Daria Martynova on the Connection Between Art and Medicine

Daria Martynova is not only a PhD student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts but also a manager at ITMO University’s Center of Social and Humanities Knowledge, as well as an assistant at the .

Daria Martynova

Her research field lies at the intersection of historical, technological, art, and even biological and medical sciences. While this term may be still a novelty in Russia, Western scientists actively study medical humanities – the general name for research of medical phenomena using the methods of the humanities.

Daria is also one of the authors of the course conducted as part of ITMO’s core educational module in history and an organizer of the event series. She also actively participates in research at the Higher School of Economics and the State Institute for Art Studies.

ITMO.NEWS met with Daria Martynova to learn more about her projects, how she manages to work at a tech university and study art, as well as why a museum in Copenhagen exhibits blood samples of every Danish citizen.

My research focuses on the representation of hysterical bodies in art, media, and culture. I am particularly interested in how the cultural trope of a hysterical woman, which dates back to ancient times, influences our modern artistic images, vocabulary, and perception.

Generally speaking, I study the collective consciousness and its effect on imagery. Today’s mass media bombard us with images of depression, melancholy, and hysterical states. However, our perception of pathological conditions comes from the 19th century. For instance, in Russian, we have the word isterichka (истеричка, “hysterical woman”), but no male equivalent of the word exists. This has to do with a cultural myth that appeared at the dawn of psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals. Back then, people thought that only women could suffer from such conditions. But even now, women are still believed to have a “weaker” nervous system as scientists mistakenly thought that nerves are muscles and that as a rule, men are physically stronger, meaning their nervous system is better.

The Russian Academy of Arts and the State Institute for Art Studies supported the upcoming publication of a new collective monograph on the Symbolist art movement. This monograph will feature my writings on the influence of the concept of hysteria on the artistic image of Ophelia in art and literature.

Images of hysteria in art are my major interest and also the topic of my thesis. But my work at ITMO, which is known for its tech and medical projects, stimulates me to delve into the field of medical imaging: MRI, X-ray, ultrasound, and so on.

I am trying to determine whether the images possess an artistic component, why medical technologies and illustrations are presented in an aesthetic manner, how that is related to cultural perception, and how it affects a person’s psychological well-being, as well as their desire to learn more about their anatomy. And more broadly: how cultural myths about disease and health affect their technical and medical study, and whether medical practices should exist separately from humans and such fields as art, literature, history, philosophy, and others.

Research methodology

As a theorist, I work more with new media. I analyze the representation of medical concepts and technologies in both popular and highly specialized fields. I also refer to popular culture: for example, how the series The Knick depicts the evolution of medical practices, as well as attitudes towards pharmaceuticals and treatment methods.

Most often, I deal with visual content: medical illustrations and research on medical culture. I am also interested in philosophers who wrote about ocularcentrism and simulacra in medicine and education. I study how medical specialists – from the Middle Ages to this day – apply art in their work.

Now, I am also taking part in an international interdisciplinary study of performative practices organized by the Higher School of Economics. We explore phenomena such as the fear of touching in modern culture, the image of a mask, etc.

My current research is carried out within the framework of the Dora Plus grant program of the EU and the European Regional Research Fund. This program aims to study the mutual influence of medical discourse and contemporary and modern art, the effect of medical and technological discoveries on art and vice versa, as well as the importance of aesthetic design in medical technologies.

Since the grant is international, I had the chance to collaborate with the Institute of Health Sciences and Sports Sciences at Tallinn University and the Estonian Academy of Arts and to meet art historians and cultural anthropologists who study, among other things, religious, shamanic, and esoteric medical practices and their influence on art, artistic practices, and collective consciousness.

Moreover, I went to the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, which is currently preparing an exhibition on the influence of medicine on contemporary art. It is a large three-story museum that helps people understand how certain processes in the human body affect our daily life. For example, the museum is home to a database of blood samples of Danish citizens. Every visitor has the opportunity to learn more about the scanning programs and blood tests, and so on. It is both a research project and a popular science initiative that increases people’s medical literacy.

As part of this grant, I was also able to contact Corinne Doria, a professor at Pantheon-Sorbonne University and one of the world’s top specialists in the field of medical humanities.

I started working on this topic while still doing my Bachelor’s degree. That is, I have been working on it for about six years. I chose the field of medical humanities because I knew that medicine plays an essential role in our lives. At the same time, medical humanities for some reason is not as popular in Russia as in the West, and it is practically not developed at all here.

As a person who has no background in medicine, I understand that my awareness of health issues is extremely low, and such neglect is very common in Russia. Everyone is still afraid of diseases that exist as cultural concepts. But they are actually no worse than cardiovascular diseases, which are, in turn, more common and dangerous to everyone.

I decided to study mental disorders because neurology and psychiatry seemed the most mysterious and puzzling fields to me. These processes are not visualized in any way, despite all the attempts of neuroscience researchers. Even though medical progress seems to have no end, scientists still cannot fully explain the origin of mental illness. For example, it was only recently discovered that the microbiome influences the development of schizophrenia and depression.

It is very difficult to correlate mental illness with medical geography and terminology because we can only observe external symptoms but we do not see the disease from the inside. I realized that this visual discourse is evident in both the problems of corporeality and in the problems of representation.

Medical humanities provide a fresh perspective on works of art. For example, Auguste Rodin actually depicted women in hysterics in many of his works, drawing on medical illustrations. In doing so, he helped to visualize the symptomatology and popularize it so that people could use it. In many ways, those images of “depressive” states that appear in popular culture are then perceived by society as a kind of standard, although everyone understands that the real clinical picture is very different.