Hospitals are temples of health : white walls, diseases and death hidden behind curtains, panicked young doctors… that’s pretty much what you can see in hospital around the world. But, as usual, thingts are slightly weirder in France : somewhere in there, there are enormous… porn paintings. And when I say « porn », I really mean gangs bangs and fantastic pagan bukkake. Why is that, you might ask ? Well, let me explain.

All pictures are © Gilles Tondini

In the wake of a violent debate on a reform of the french health system, a picture of a painting was posted on Facebook by protesting interns, and stirred… an even worst debate. How come a painting of a collective gang bang involving Wonder-Woman could have been placed in an hospital in the French city of Clermont Ferrand without anyone protesting ?

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Worst, following this ambiguous Facebook post by intern doctors in Clermont-Ferrand, feminist associations were outraged : according to them, Wonder Woman was the minister herself, and this wasn’t a gang bang, but a collective rape ( « Oups… » ). I’m not going to discuss the term of the debate that ensued on wether Wonder Woman ( A.k.a the Minister ) really was willing to have that cock up her mouth, if you want the feminist point of view, go here. For Clermont-Ferrand interns (including women), Wonder Woman was never the minister but themselves being fucked by the minister. You decide.

Because, the morning after, France woke up realizing that there were porn frescoes in several hospital’s guardrooms. And, following minister’s orders, the painting of Clermont Ferrand was ereased. As politicians were bestranged, most feminists asked a simple question : what the fuck ? Well, guardroom frescoes are a tradition dating back centuries in Paris and other french cities, it has produced huge works of art, notably by french artist Gustave Doré – and, according to women doctors, those women on the walls are enjoying what they are doing – and that includes the minis… Wonder-Woman.

Why do interns do that ? Let me walk you throught Parisians guardrooms to get some explanation from an expert, and see for yourself.

Meet Gilles Tondini, the guy who photograph the frescoes before they go

Gilles Tondini, author and photograph of the book The Obscene Image: Parisian Hospital Break Room Graffiti, has walked through all these guardrooms in order to capture the lecherous aesthetic of the medical corps’ dark side. He told us that, in the beginning, frescoes which adorned guardrooms depicted in a very dignified way the values of medecine. In the XIX th century, Gustave Doré – the fabulous artist who acccomplished the Dante’s Inferno engravings – was the first to indulge in caricature with a work for the Hopital de la Charité, in the middle of the century : « This mutation has led to a certain acceleration of the sexual liberation and amplification up to the present day”.

The history of the frescoes is linked to the history of guardrooms. Can you explain me how ?

It’s absolutely certain that you can’t simply extract the graphic expression in the guardrooms without talking about the whole folkore. We already know the bawdy popular songs of the fernch medical students ( they are called « carabins » )  which uses mainly vulgar words, dwell on pornographic subjects, but also evoke the interns student’s hard conditions, the place’s insalubrity, venerian diseases, death…. That’s quite ancient. And frescoes appeared rather late in this folklore.

For my part, I consider that the graphic expression in these guardrooms is like cave paintings, in the sense that they are adressed to a self centered community. It’s a form a clanic expression which sanctuarise the community through a common place. This kind of painting talk about the clan, its achievements, its history in a definite place. A person outside of this groupe can’t figure what is being shown ont the fresco, who are these characters, what are their status, their roles, their history.

When did the internss start to painting their walls with, dicks, cunts and more or less turgid organs and who started to do so ?

Each era had it style, academism or caricature. In the beginning, frescoes which ornated the guardrooms walls depicted in a very dignified manner the medecine values. A long turn operated in the middle of the 19th centruy with Gustave Doré’s work, Esculape, in the Hopital de la Charité. And with the painter Bellery-Desfontaines, in the years 1890, who discreetly began caricature.

This mutation has accelerated with the sexual liberation and has amplified up to the present day. One can imagine that the content will change accordingly to the recruitment, as women are more and more present in medical jobs. But this is only pure speculation. For those who are interested, I advise you to read the book of Jacques Le Pesteur, who is extremely well documented on guardrooms history.

Could you take us on a tour and show us some of these frescoes, please ?

Fernand Widal has been closed but it’s probably one of my favourite. I experienced a great moment of emotion when I opened the door to this guardroom, which possess a small inner court. Walls were still vibrating with a lost fizzing. Today, this guardroom has been transformed in offices and its walls must be desperatly clean, like a Kafka’s bad novel.

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Bichat Claude Bernard, a pleasure palace…

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In Gustave Roussy, the guardroom paintings takes on more adult themes. The perfect place to create a copy of the famous Courbet’s Naissance du Monde.

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Antoine Beclère is the typical exemple of suburbian guardroom which work perfectly fine. There, I met an exemplary bursarship crew, with a tremendous dynamism and zany initiatives.

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This is a new guardroom in Necker’s hospital, in order to replace the old one, is always a source of joy ! In the background, a fresco in progress admirably done by an intern. This one has been rewarded as best achievement in 2011.

The bestiary of Tonon…

Mignot in Versailles is the Paris area guardroom’s outpost. With its luxury pool, it’s quite like a “Seychelles sur Seine” resort.

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In your expedition, were you able to establish a typology of the differents frescoes and practices ?

There isn’t a proprer typology which can help us to classify these frescoes. However, you have to know that, in their making, all frescoes must meet two requirements. First, the ferscoes have the purpose to be a mark of the special spirit of the doctor’s bursarship crew. So the artist is more or less free concerning the subject, situations, colors and graphics elements which will consitute the work. He has the difficult job to make a frescoe that embodie the crew !

And it’s even more so, be cause, secondly, it has to depict the busarship crew at the moment of the fresco’s creation and whoever has been chosen to be on it. By order of appaerance, you will necessarily have the bursar, the bursar’s assisants, the secretary, the treasurer and the cellarman. Then, optionaly, you can add the managers, directors and, more seldomly, some parasites. Everyone is of course is invested with attributs, staged in necessarly compromising, grotesques, satiristic situations but alaways humourous.

In the beginning of your book, we can read an opinion column by Jacques Le Pesteur, who focuses on the paradox of these frescoes : “On the walls, the painful, dirty and asexual body left on an hospital bed become desire, youth and vigor through the grotesque characters engaging in a daring manner.” How could you explain such a proximity between death and orgy ?

This opinion column has been written by a intern collective and its conclusion made by the late Jacques Le Pesteur, physician by trade,  who left us an amazing book : Fresques de salle de garde”. Most of the time, we talk about Eros and Thanatos, two opposite pulsions, nonetheless complementary. This is for me the most appropriate analysis. Indeed, the intern’s vitality always prevails and more especially when you thought it was bleaking…

In your memorandum, you describe yourself as an “anthropologist following the footprints of a lost civilisation”, and I know that these frescoes arent the sole odd customs of this shady tribe. What about the guardroom’s head, the bursarship, and the ban of medical topics in the room… all the  forfeits interns can get if they disobey to those playful guardroom rules ?

The guardroom is built around a traditional folklore much more complex wich mainly include the guardroom regulation. It’s a package of rules, inherited from the elders but adapted on the bursarhsip’s head good wil, reigning as the one and only master. Amongst theirs habits, we can talk again of the bawdiness, recounting intern’s achievements, internship life, tonus (french parties organised by students in medecine), traditional diners which mark the semestrial interns movements from one service to another. All of these traditions practised within the guardroom constitue a true french cultural exception.

For those who want to know more about the customs subject,  apart from the exceptionnal book by Jacques Le Pesteur, already mentionned, I recommand the very well documented works by Dr Patrice Josset and Bastien Thelliez.

How do hospital’s managers, so serious, so aloof in their attitude, can tolerate to be portrayed as orgy members ?

Is there a better way to question his status in a playfully and incisive mode ? I dare imagine that, for such medecine great big shots, it’s a real fountain of youth. What would science become without a continuously re-assessment ? The fact of accepting that young student play with your image, lampoon you, is also a way to strenghten your place among the others. If you accept to be ridiculed, they you truly deserve to be respected.

In your book, you often worry about the disappearance of the frescoes you immortalized. What might happen to them exactly ?

A pure and simple disappearance ! Examples are as dramatic as numerous : Fernand Widal, la Salpetriere, their destruction are all small blows to the internship history. Mournings that strains a unique cultural exception. Honestly, I live these closures as amputations.

Governement policies implemented during the last five-years terms poorly respect the hospital’s customs and habits. The actual general idea is a hyper rationalisation of the public service’s tasks and functions. And the guardroom does not fit into this way of thinkin. It builts unquestionable and informal bonds. From my point of view, as long as you aren’t able to prove the ineffiency of the role and links created by the guardroom, you have to preserve this institution.

Furthemore, and most sincerly, what is exactly the maintenance cost of these infracstructures in the Health budget ? An insignificant amount for devastating consequences. That’s absolutely ridiculous for a country as wealthy as ours.

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