Trauma and Struggle


Trauma stems from the ancient Greek word “trōma,” meaning a physical, rather than psychological, wound. The concept of trauma as personal struggle, however, became foundational in Greek mythology, with the trials and tribulations of a hero lying at the heart of Greek tragic drama. Medieval Christian art developed the motif known as the “Man of Sorrows”—a wounded and bloodied Christ figure, bearing a crown of thorns and a sorrowful expression—as an evocative reminder of suffering, meant to invoke devotion on the part of the viewer. In the 20th century, artists have been less concerned with the connection of pain to spiritual redemption, and more with the emotional and psychological toll exacted by violence, injury, suffering, or war. Iconic examples include Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and works by Otto Dix. World War II and the Holocaust had a profound impact on art; Christian Boltanski and Anselm Kiefer, for example, developed different modes of representation to respond to the traumatic nature of those events. Others have examined the collective traumas associated with slavery, apartheid, AIDS, and immigration, while artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse probed the psychological anguish stemming from individual experiences of childhood and personal anxiety.