The Portrait of a Disabled Man

Themenbereiche: Rezension
Schlagwörter: Menschenbild, Kultur, Geschichte
Textsorte: Rezension
Copyright: © Volker Schönwiese, Bernd Thomas 2010


Directors: Bernd Thomas & Volker Schönwiese, München, Germany, 2008

Titel: The Portrait of a Disabled Man

Infos: DVD (45 minutes); Order from: ABM - Arbeitsgemeinschaft Behinderung und Medien at

Themenbereich: Disability Studies


Scientific review of the film by Rebecca Mallett

The Portrait of a Disabled Man: Gazes at the History of People with Disabilities

The Portrait of a Disabled Man: Gazes at the History of People with Disabilities opens with a scenic view of snowy mountain tops and a dense Alpine forest. The camera then slowly pans across to Ambras Castle, which, we are informed by the voice-over, was built high above the town of Innsbruck, Austria, by Archduke Ferdinand II from Tyrol. The castle hosts 'a collection of world famous pictures of inestimable value'; among them is one about which 'nothing was known'. That painting, previously called 'Portrait of a Cripple', originates from the 16th century and is the basis for both a participatory action research project and this DVD.

The DVD offers two language options - German or English - I selected English. It then offers two options to view - with subtitles or with audio description - I viewed with subtitles. With these selections, the audio remains in German, and although the English translation is not grammatically perfect, it conveys its meaning well. Choosing audio description gives an English audio translation as well as an audio description of the visual content; although comprehensive, this creates a crowded and fragmented audio experience, but it is, perhaps, unavoidable given the density of the information offered. However, this density should not be considered a weakness for the documentary sets itself an ambitious task: to explore the signi?cance of a particular painting, to examine how it ?ts into the wider cultural representation of disability and to outline the research project, which not only investigated the topic but also staged an exhibition at the castle. It delivers on all fronts.

When we are shown the painting, it is of a naked man, lying on his stomach, on a dark green cloth, which rests on a table or pedestal. The 'limp' and 'deformed' body is painted in a realistic style and was originally covered by a sheet of red paper, which could be lifted in order to reveal the naked body. Exhibited in the 'Kunst und Wunderkammer' (Cabinet of Wonders) at Ambras Castle, the painting is positioned as an historical document with the potential to help explore historical and contemporary gazes upon disabled people.

The issues explored through the painting include the difference gender makes to the representation of disability, the politics of staring, the role of art in legitimising institutions and the insights that can be gleaned by researching documents and portraits contemporary to the painting. I was heartened to note that the diagnosis of the disabled man was not foregrounded. Often, discussions of cultural representations of disability take diagnostic labels as fact and do not allow for the historical and social speci?cities of the act of diagnosis. The documentary not only avoided this trap but also actively problematised the urge to want to know the impairment of the painted man.

The transdisciplinary research project (2005-2006), which took the painting as its focus, is outlined and involved three partner institutions: the Institute of Educational Sciences at the University of Innsbruck with Volker Schönwiese as project manager, the Museum of Art History in Vienna with its collection at Ambras Castle and the Centre for Independent Living in Innsbruck. The project also involved a reference group of disabled women and men, some of whom were disabled artists. As an account of a research project, the documentary is logical and informative, and explores the topic and its associated issues with sophistication. It also manages to re?ect subtly the participatory and political ethos of the project. For example, as the remit for the project is introduced by a series of talking heads, researchers and reference group members with mobility impairments are shown navigating physical access barriers (steps/ stairs) in order to see the painting in situ, a reality of research often glossed over and left unspoken.

As a lecturer who teaches disability studies, I would highly recommend this DVD for use in the classroom. For students not undertaking a dedicated cultural studies course, it may require some preparatory input, and its exploration of voyeurism, exoticism and fetishism make it unsuitable for students below A-level age. However, with care and some thought given to follow-up tasks, this documentary offers all students an insight into disability research as well as an excellent examination of the cultural representation of disability. Too many cultural considerations begin from the premise that it is possible to deem images of disability to be either positive or negative. The great strength of this documentary is its ability to convey the complexity and nuances involved in this area, especially when analysing historical sources, while retaining a strong political commitment to inclusion and empowerment. This documentary is, certainly, one worthy of being gazed at.

Address for correspondence

Rebecca Mallett,

Shef?eld Hallam University, 122 Charles Street,

Shef?eld, S1 2NE, UK.



Rezensiert von Rebecca Mallett

Erschienen in: Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, Volume, Number 3, 2010, 255-256


Stand: 19.04.2011

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