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An Artist Among Doctors

August 23, 2007 By:
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You've definitely seen his drawings, even if you don't recognize the name right off the bat. You've seen them adorning the opinion pages of The New York Times again and again -- the delicate, fragmented nature of the lines that make up his art, always belying the strength of the political concept or metaphor at its heart. Or you may have been lucky enough to read one of the books he's illustrated, often on a Jewish subject, to your child or grandchild. His art has embodied such elemental Jewish ideas and entities as the Golem, a Dybbuk, Moses, King Solomon and any number of angels, as they've been interpreted by such famed writers as Elie Wiesel, Francine Prose, Francine Klagsbrun and Harold Bloom.

I have long been a fan of Mark Podwal's work, but when the new book Doctored Drawings arrived in my office (it's been published by the Bellevue Literary Press of New York), I felt as if I had never known a thing about him before. And in a biographical sense, I imagine that's true.

It turns out that Podwal is not just your everyday artist and illustrator, but a physician as well, who graduated from medical school in 1970, when his first drawing also happened to appear in the Times. According to the small bio included on the jacket flap of Doctored Drawings, Podwal's work is now included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Library of Congress, to mention only three. In addition, in 1996, the French government named him an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.

As the title of this new volume makes clear, Podwal has not confined himself to drawings dealing with politics alone, Jewish or otherwise. He's been just as involved with depicting the medical world, especially via drawings of the human body, which has been depicted in his work as both a temple and an unfortunate contemporary battleground.

The introduction to Doctored Drawings has been written by a friend, Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who also happens to be a doctor (another fact that had escaped me somehow). In fact, the two were in the same class at New York University School of Medicine during the late 1960s.

Reich states that "it takes a doctor who's partly somewhere else to be able to look at his own profession from the outside." Reich believes that even back at NYU, Podwal "was already partly somewhere else."

"Even as he studied medicine he was an artist. Even as he learned to treat patients he grew in his mastery of drawing and illustration. He had a great talent in the first field, and no less a talent in the second."

Reich notes at one point in his remarks that Podwal's art and his, Reich's, writing intersected several times in The New York Times.

"In 1994 I discovered that an essay of mine on the dangers of physician-assisted suicide, titled 'First Do No Harm,' was illustrated by a stark drawing of a skeletal hand whose fingers had been transformed into surgical instruments: the hand that could heal but also harm. It conveyed my argument better than my words did. And in 2002 an essay of mine in the Times, titled 'Appropriating the Holocaust,' was illustrated by a striking Podwal image of multiple train tracks, in the shape of a swastika, leading to the anus mundi that was Auschwitz."

Reich notes that Podwal's work does not, in the main, focus on death and destruction.

"In the realm of medical themes, in fact, it has been ... very different -- imaginative, clarifying, iconoclastic, incisive, whimsical, absurd, funny. It took a doctor to be able to turn doctors, including himself, into caricatured specialists, each identified by an instrument -- surgical, say, or dermatological, or gynecological -- typically used by that specialty. It took a doctor to be able to summarize cancer as a cell that had turned into a crab -- the astrological cancer. It took a doctor to be able to understand the complexity of an intensive care unit, but also to understand its inescapably embedded costs.

"Only a doctor, moreover, living in the age of managed care ... could have the insight, provoked by bureaucratically-induced pain, to draw an image of a 'provider' -- as insurance companies and Medicare have come to call doctors -- as a voodoo doll: white-coated, impaled by syringes, in managed-care agony."


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