Gillray, James: The Gout (1799)

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In her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote: 'It seems that an appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.' There are certainly many shows of pain in Western art. Christian and classical subjects offer plenty of opportunities to artists and viewers: crucifixions, martyrdoms, infernal tortures, atrocities, assassinations, assaults...

But notice a couple of things about these images. First, their subject is not simply pain. They are specifically scenes of violence and violation. Somebody is doing injury, giving pain to somebody else. The pain is externally inflicted. It's a matter of wounds, blows, weapons, instruments, cruelty, victims. There are not many pictures of normal accidental injury, of people who've fallen over, say. Nor of everyday bodily pains, casual or chronic, that have no external agent " internal pains, headaches, bellyaches.

And second, in these images the stress is usually on the whole body, the person who feels the pain. Pain is communicated by mouths in an outcry of distress and limbs writhing in agony. We're shown the expression of pain, not the physical sensation of it. Our attention is on the sufferer, not on the body-part that hurts.

So, pain in art tends to be made an interpersonal, soulful affair. This is art's way of taking pain seriously. Bodily pain, just by itself " even when it's debilitating " doesn't get much respect from Western culture. Psychological torment is dignified, but purely physical, animal suffering is 'meaningless'. It's not about anything. It's a dumb, brute fact. It can even seem funny, a humiliation joke.

And topping the bill in the traditional comedy of pain, above toothache even, comes gout. It's the rich fat man's complaint. It's just desserts for high living and self-indulgence. Gout is grotesque. What better subject for that master of satirical grotesques, James Gillray?

As a low, comic artist, Gillray is liable to fewer artistic proprieties about what he can depict, or how. Mockery is his first business, but he can mix up feelings in an extreme way. His forte is for making things simultaneously gross and grand. The Gout promises a laugh at the distresses of privilege. It ends up as a comic homage to the power of pain.

It presents a hideously swollen foot, resting up, laid before us on a soft pillow. You see how the joint of the big toe " where the complaint generally strikes " is inflamed into a ball the size of the heel. It stresses the uselessness of the foot.

This cartoon, 200 years old, is perhaps the first close-up. Just a foot is its protagonist, and it claims the whole frame. A comically incongruous aggrandisement. At the same time, this framing reflects how, for the sufferer, the gouty foot looms large and separate, the centre of attention.

Notice its dramatic staging. In the top corner, the leg is crosshatched to the same density as the bedclothes behind it. It doesn't stand out. But when it comes to the foot, suddenly there's a high contrast. The shading of the pillow seems to flee away from it, leaving it surrounded by an area of brightness. It's a spotlight effect. It puts a glow around the foot, an aureole. Here, Gillray is depicting pain itself " not just the look of the foot, but its feeling, its hot throbbing torment, its untouchable sensitivity.

But Gillray doesn't leave it there. Maybe he should have. Wouldn't it be a more perfect image if it communicated the pain by purely pictorial means, if it didn't feel the need to externalise and allegorise this pain, with the little gout-demon? There it sits, fastened on to the foot, viciously digging in its fangs and its barbed talons, breathing fire and darts. It embodies gout's piercing and searing pains. Yet it seems to fall into standard ways of depicting pain, showing it as violation, not letting an internal bodily pain speak for itself.

You may say that really severe pain does feel like an attack from the outside, and that the demon carries this psychological truth. But what also seems good about this creature is that it isn't completely separate and external. See how the bulging muscles of the monster pick up on the bulging of the foot " a visual simile that stresses the way pain becomes an active power. See how the knobbly notching of the demon's talons echoes the notching of the smaller toes. The demon doesn't just assault the foot, it arises out of it, fuses into it. Tormentor and tormented are one.

All the same, it's worth imagining the picture without its devil. Doesn't the foot by itself have sting enough? The distended roundness of the big toe's tip feels cut into by its toenail. Even the shading of the inflamed joint contributes. The crosshatching doesn't just signify shadow. It gives the skin there an extra tenderness, a scored abrasion, stretch marks. It adds to the image's intense sensation, its picturing of pure pain.

We may have an appetite for pictures of pain. But then, some of these pictures are laughing at pain, and this needn't just be a cruel mockery. It has its point. Pain, especially when you're in it, can feel like an absurd, gratuitous encumbrance upon the human condition. Affliction is itself a mockery. That's what Gillray shows, and he needs his battening devil. With its deranged expression, the quizzical flourish of its tail, it's there to keep the pain comic; not just painful, but funnily painful.


James Gillray (1757-1815) was the creator of the modern political cartoon. He lived above the London print shop that distributed his work. His subjects were social, party political and ideological: Pitt and Napoleon at table, carving up the world; the Prince of Wales immobile with food; diabolical Jacobins, treacherous Paddies, a doltish John Bull. His satire was generally anti-democratic, with a taste for physical gross-out. His images were vicious, viscous " and visionary. An artist manqué, he filled them with high-art references, and could outsublime the painters of the Royal Academy.