Chest 126; Meditation on The Cough by Counihan

7 Nov
Chest 126 C

Chest 126; A meditation on The Cough by Counihan

Noel Counihan (1913 – 1986) was one of Australia’s important artists, a social realist, political commentator, and a man with a deep understanding of social hardship in his time. His life is well documented, and the story of his address to the crowds from within a locked cage whilst the police had to cut him out is well known. I only want to talk about his artistic achievement with regard to The Cough… Stone Dust, (1947 © Estate of Noel Counihan). He illustrated the ordinary people, the workers, the downtrodden and unemployed in Australian society in the 1940s and 1950s, and no image is more heart searing than this lino-cut which depicts a miner with silicosis (pneumoconiosis) exhausted from coughing. This picture is used as the logo of The Silicosis Project, a major inter-disciplinary European research project in its struggle against silicosis . It is a new research project combining history, medicine, and social sciences. This project deals with one of the deadliest occupational diseases in history; silicosis, caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust particles. The occupational disease is mainly due to mining in silica bearing rock, but also associated with other dusty occupations such as pottery.

I was brought up through the 1950s and 1960s on a copper mine in Zambia where silicosis was an important part of the average underground worker’s life. Regular X-rays and medical examinations by the Pneumoconiosis Board theoretically meant that a worker could lose his job if the disease was discovered. Looking back, with hindsight, it is obvious that the board was used to keep workers working as long as possible despite development of the disease. Compensation at the time was a pittance, and this was particularly true for black workers.

I have been moved by Counihan’s linocut which shows a miner wracked with cough, exactly as I saw men in our small town suffering, trying to catch their breath with the inflammatory, fibrotic lung disease.

The Counihan Estate has kindly granted permission to use the outline of this image in my work. I have subtracted all but the outlines from the original image and superimposed a formalised bourgeoise pattern typically seen in carpets of the middle classes in the 1940s and 1950s in order to draw a distinct contrast with the jagged outline of the working class miner depicted in cyanotic blue. I have further drawn roughly into the image to emphasise this. The Chest X-ray of a miner with pneumoconiosis is superimposed on the chest focussing on the lungs to provide the only bright colour in the image.

This picture will be published on my blog. I shall keep a copy for myself, but the picture is not for sale.

8 Responses to “Chest 126; Meditation on The Cough by Counihan”

  1. leecleland November 8, 2015 at 5:54 am #

    Before I even read the post I was stopped by the strength of this image Tony. With only the outline of the original you have added another dimension with your art. This is a very, very strong piece, it speaks to me of distress and suffering and manages to be nearly 3D. So well done.

    • Xraypics November 8, 2015 at 7:13 am #

      Thankyou Lee, I appreciate your comment. When something is close to the heart, sometimes it shines through. But I have to acknowledge Counihan here. even with most of the detail removed the power of his picture shines through. That’s genius.

      • leecleland November 8, 2015 at 11:00 am #

        I agree that the power comes from his picture but your rendition and art only accentuates that power.

      • Xraypics November 8, 2015 at 11:58 am #


  2. Carolyn November 9, 2015 at 2:33 am #

    I think this is by far your most powerful image Tony. Even without the background story to it, it touches the soul of the viewer. It is tragically beautiful and mere words cannot do it justice.

    • Xraypics November 9, 2015 at 10:04 am #

      Thankyou Carolyn, I thought it had something, just so glad to have it confirmed by such an eminent artist.

  3. elmediat November 14, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Excellent work. it is unfortunate that even today, corporate bottom line still treads on human living conditions and the environment as a whole. it seems that as one part of the globe inches forward and another takes three steps back.

  4. burgessart December 6, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    Powerful image and story Tony……well done!

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