Art, Medicine, and Feeding Funnels

Without Hope
Frida Kahlo, 1945
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino, Mexico City

I ran across an extremely interesting article by Richard and Maureen Park in the December BMJ. It focuses on the decidedly unfestive procedure of force-feeding via funnel, and how that medical procedure has been represented in art. I don't think I've ever really thought about this topic before in a medical context.

The term "gavage," from the French "to gorge," is used to describe the force feeding of ducks and geese for the production of pâté de foie gras using funnels. For many centuries funnels have also been utilised for the force feeding of prisoners and psychiatric patients. Similar devices have been used to provide artificial feeding for patients who, severely troubled by anorexia and nausea, may well have considered their treatment as a form of force-feeding. Although the act of eating is a common theme in art, few images of artificial nutrition exist, and in particular the use of feeding funnels.

Frida Kahlo was subjected to funnel feeding during her ongoing medical treatments. She translated her personal experience into a small, bleak painting, Without Hope. In the painting, the feeding funnel is overflowing with bloody carcasses that dwarf the tiny, bedridden Kahlo. The Parks interpret its symbology thus:

As in so many of Kahlo's paintings, the imagery of Without Hope is complex. Hererra, her biographer, has identified the patterning on Kahlo's bed cover as cells with nuclei or unfertilised eggs and linked them to the sun and the moon in the background as "opposite worlds of the microscope and the solar system." The sugar skull is a direct reference to the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead, in which an ancient Aztec tradition has been blended with the Christian observance of All Saints' Day.

In addition to evoking a twisted inversion of the Day of the Dead cornucopia, Kahlo's painting has similarities to funnels used by the Inqusition for for water torture. Illustrations of Jews being tortured in this way, in similar recumbent positions under a funnel and ladder-like support structure, were included in a book La Familia Carvajal belonging to Kahlo. (You can read more about this here). I suppose Kahlo's complex, conflicted emotions about her physical condition and ongoing medical interventions make this explicit reference to torture fairly unsurprising.

Tormento del agua
Alfonso Toro, La Familia Carvajal. 1944

The Parks also describe other instances of feeding funnels in art, including the funnel-hatted physician in Bosch's Stone of Madness, which I blogged about a few months back. They suggest that Bosch intended the funnel to imply the sin of greed. In addition, they suggest that the Bosch painting may have inspired a grotesque sketch by Goya, Gran Disparate, in which liquid is poured into a decapitated body. Both are more explicitly violent than the Kahlo painting, but not quite as emotionally wrenching.

Not all depictions of feeding funnels are fantastic or imaginative. This ink drawing by surgeon Rene-Primavere Lesson shows an ornate feeding funnel by the Maori tribe. These feeding funnels were employed for ritual reasons, not medical ones: "Puréed food was passed through the feeding funnel, called a korere, to the men, who were prevented from eating solid food due not only to extensive facial scarring but also to taboos associated with the touching of food during the tattooing ceremony."

Maori korere
Rene-Primavere Lesson

Some real wood koreres can be seen here and here at the website of the Museum of New Zealand, and here at the MFA Boston. Fascinating!


Fantastic Feeding Funnels, MP Park and RHR Park. 16 December 2008, BMJ

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