Prostate Cancer and Masculine Identity in the Work of Richard Meaghan

Updated 07 June 2021. The text below is an abstract of the full essay, which will be available after publication. To view works by Richard Meaghan, visit the artist’s website.

This project reflects on new works by Richard Meaghan, an artist based in Liverpool, England. Describing his work as ‘paint[ing] what it feels like to be human’, his current work reflects upon his personal (somatic and intellectual) response to a diagnosis of prostate cancer, and encompass, among other things, the effects of the illness itself and its impact on contemporary masculine identity. Varying in scale from small, delicate, works on paper to large mixed media pieces, they trace a complex emotional and intellectual journey that began with his reappraisal of one of Picasso’s etchings from the series The Burial of Count Orgaz (1966) in an essay titled Make Love or Live, perhaps a reference to Picasso’s well-known expression, ‘renovarse o morir’ [renew yourself or die]. The fact that the minotaur, symbolic of an untamed, ‘othered’ sexuality, usually portrayed as a powerful, even dangerous sexual force in Picasso’s work, is flaccid, urged Meaghan to investigate the work further, where he discovered that the etching referenced, either directly or indirectly, Picasso’s prostate issues around the time of the work’s creation, that resulted in prostate surgery. Seen in light of Picasso’s illness, the minotaur-Picasso, defined by and now stripped of his sexual rapaciousness, suffers a devastating loss of identity, his loss of confidence suggested by his central though diminished role in the background of the composition.

Pablo Picasso, Plate 10 of 12 etchings for El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz, 3 Vols., Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1969.
Etching, 1966, on Romani wove paper, watermark Conde de Orgaz, signed in pencil, inscribed and dated Bon à tirer el 13.5.69 (rare signed proof, predating the unsigned edition of 263).
Plate 22.1 x 32.2 cm., Sheet 36.3 x 46.3 cm.

Initially numbed by the diagnosis – and to some extent the clinical, unempathetic attitude of the health professionals he encountered – the artist soon began to disentangle the interwoven threads of his journey to date in a remarkably intense period of creativity, registering through a variety of recurrent motifs the impact of the illness on various, interconnected facets of male experience. The interplay between personal (romantic, sexual) relationships, the relationship with one’s body, and the facing head-on of a certain tyranny of ignorance regarding the broader societal as well as physical impact of the disease occupy these works as they trace for the viewer a journey that is both personal and universal.

Registering the impact of Prostate Cancer

Somewhat of an obstacle to registering the seriousness of the disease is the fact that prostate cancer is generally survivable – it is said that men generally die with it, not because of it; this has to some extent led to an undermining of its impact on sufferers. If this gender-specific disease is usually not lethal, this fact also means that recovery feels remote. Young men, such as Meaghan, face decades living with the lasting side effects of surgery, radiotherapy, or hormonal treatments, which can cause incontinence, impotence, loss of libido, breast growth and hot flushes, and even changes to body shape, such as more feminine hips. However, the psychosocial effects can be far more challenging, such as facing the consequences of losing work, social life, and inability to perform sexually. Loss of libido, physical strength, and the feeling of being robbed of something inherently masculine can affect one’s feelings of masculinity more than other factors, in that having the disease evidences some absence or lack of masculinity that cannot be recovered. In one study, a group of participants expressed that something had been ‘”taken away from me”, “cut off” or “guillotined,”’ suggesting that they felt their masculinity had been mutilated and curtailed permanently by the disease and its treatment. For these men, it became much more challenging to seek their essential inner masculine self because the physical manifestations of the disease evidenced some absence or lack which could not be recaptured through social practice.[1]  In coping with the emotional impact of the diagnosis, the thought of impotence, as reflected by the responses of the study group, frightened the artist more than the cancer itself.[2]

The psychological impact of a diagnosis of prostate cancer, as the language of those affected describes, reflect what modern gender ideology has perceived, in the English-speaking world at least, that true masculinity is ‘almost always thought to proceed from men’s bodies – to be inherent in a male body or to express something about a male body’.[3] Masculinity is generally understood to have certain (if not always exclusive) bodily traits: the voice is deeper, the body more muscled, angular and stronger than the feminine, of having certain movements and postures and possessing sexual possibilities needed to fulfil human reproductivity. These characteristics, embedded in the experience of our bodies, is central to memories in our lives, and thus intimately attached to how we understand who and what we are.[4]  Because the body is inescapable, the impact of the disease is inescapable, and with it the fact that parts of one’s masculine identity is lost forever.

The Petri Dish

My initial explorations have focused on the earliest pieces in the series, a group of delicate, exquisitely rendered works on paper, composed in ink, watercolour, graphite and pastel. One of these, The Petri Dish (illustrated below), in taking Picasso’s drawing as a point of departure, gives shape and form to this psychological crisis of identity. In the background hovers a figure that ostensibly occupies the place of the minotaur in the Picasso drawing except that here, what appears to be the flaccid, terrified Picasso, wearing his signature striped t-shirt, is stripped of his crown (as leading artist) and horns –intrinsically linking his artistic and sexual virility as essential expressions of his masculinity – and instead, wears a crown of thorns, symbolic of the martyrdom of his status. The minotaur-like figure in the foreground possibly represents the artist who like Picasso once did, self-identifies through a similarly constructed masculinity: his horns are shaped like phalluses and he pumps a rivulet of semen from his enormous penis into a glass container for preservation, suggesting its preciousness – as primal reproductive fluid fused with artistic force. However, he is monstrous, repulsive. His face has become a vagina, the body softly curvaceous, and he appears to have grown breasts. Thus, his sexuality is ambivalent, threatened, perhaps scrutinized, as suggested by the title of the work. The female figure at his side looks on as a judge of sorts. This work, as do others in the series, probe art’s ability to make pain and suffering graspable, in that it attempts a visual account that recreates for the viewer how a world of illness feels.

Richard Meghan, The Petri Dish, 2020. Pastel and ink on Clairefontaine Pastelmat paper. 40cm x 30cm

The Bone Collector

Other works reflect on subsequent contact with medical professionals. The Bone Collector reflects on a difficult consultation with a respected surgeon to discuss a prostatectomy, who, the artist recalls, was ‘all glittering teeth and stripey socks’ but who seemed to possess little in the way of humanity. The work is at once nightmarish and witty. The Bone Collector represents in part the artist’s consultant (stripy socks, and a medical mask dangling from his neck), who sits in his claustrophobic practice, behind whom are proudly erected an array of vials of harvested phalluses. On the table on his right sits a large vial containing a grotesque (and apparently pointless, if darkly witty) experiment where a rhizome-penis sprouts new phalluses. The latest addition to his collection lies on the table to his left, the owner of which has been separated from it with a cleaver. The modelling of the bone collector-consultant’s body reflects the artist’s anger. The consultant is a malformed monster, literally – offensive though the term may be – a dickhead, whose flabby trunk resembles a scrotum. His small penis contrasts with his erect, monstrous dickhead and the huge phalluses that surround him, suggesting intellectual rather than sexual virility, as well his indifference to the emotional and psychological impact of his diagnosis and treatment on the artist.  The presentation of the castrated patient/victim, ostensibly the artist, indicates the doctor’s indifference:  the victim’s head or even his hands are not visible, robbing him of his identity. He is reduced to offal. The large scale of the figure peering through the doorway suggests that the entire scene resides in the artist’s ‘mind’s eye’, wherein he reflects upon his fate.

Richard Meghan, The Bone Collector (You’ll be back, You’ll be back, You’ll be back), 2020. Pastel and ink on Clairefontaine Pastelmat paper. 40cm x 30cm

Meaghan’s experience of healthcare workers reflects the fact that the latter could only understand the patient experience as a process of restoring health, overlooking the chaotic breaches in normal life and their transformative psychological impact, where the purely medical restitution narrative, as Arthur W. Frank, described it, relegated the sufferer to object and denied their stories as protagonists.[5] Meaghan’s experience mirrors New York Times literary critic and author Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by my Illness (1990), who wrote that ‘it may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self. […] To the typical physician, my illness is a routine accident in his rounds, while for me it’s the crisis of my life. I would feel better if I had a doctor who at least perceived this incongruity’.[6]

The artist’s approach to making the penis a central motif, apart from its relevance to confronting a diagnosis that threatens to make him impotent, has also worked to normalise it (for the viewer) as part of masculine experience. The penis has often been seen as threatening, – as, for instance, symbolic of testosterone-fuelled militant masculinity, whose sexual virility equalled mental virility in facing down the enemy on the battlefield (as traced in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, for example), or in the powerful gay sexuality portrayed in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, or Tom of Finland’s intricately detailed drawings of male nudes with outsize erect penises. As the artist outlines in his reading of Picasso’s El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz, the meaning attached to the penis is determined by context; in the Make Love or Live drawings, it is not there purely to ‘shock’ an audience, some of which remains affronted by it. The works are experiential, in which the motif of the penis becomes that of challenging or coping with a threat to one’s wholeness as a sexual being.

These works oscillate between rage (e.g. Black Widow, Patient Advocate), pleasure (Temptation of a Saint, Spring Bathers, The Luminaries, Misogynistic Prick) and sardonic humour but they are never resigned. Their wit signals triumph, a resolute fingers up woven into the act of making them.

[1] Rosaleen O’Brien, Graham J Hart, and Kate Hunt, ‘”Standing out from the Herd”: Men Renegotiating Masculinity in Relation to Their Experience of Illness’, International Journal of Men’s Health, 6 (2007), 188–90.

[2] Ibid. pp. 52-53.

[3] R. W. Cornell, Masculinities, 2nd edn (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 45.

[4] Richard Meaghan, Make Love or Live, https://www.richardmeaghan.net/make-love-or-live [accessed 1 December 2020]

[5] Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller. Body, Illness and Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2013), Chapter 1, ‘When Bodies need Voices’.

[6] Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by my Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (New York: Fawcett, 1993), pp. 25, 43.

This text will be updated as the project develops. To view works by Richard Meaghan, visit the artist’s website.