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Suzannah Biernoff

  • Overview



    Suzannah Biernoff joined the History of Art Department at Birkbeck in 2007, having previously taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University, at Chelsea College of Art and Design, and at Sydney University. Her books, focusing on histories of the body, face and visuality, include Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2002) and Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement (University of Michigan Press, 2017).

    Suzannah’s research on the history of the face and disfigurement was funded by the Wellcome Trust through a Research Leave Award (2007-10) and a Birkbeck/Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career award (2015). A Wellcome Trust Small Grant supported Visualising Illness: a programme of events that brought together stakeholders with an interest in visual first-person responses to illness, including clinicians, art therapists, artists, and art historians. Publications related to this project include ‘Picturing Pain’ in Encountering Pain: Hearing, Seeing, Speaking, edited by Deborah Padfield and Joanna Zakrzewska, and a chapter on ‘Beauty, ugliness and ideas of difference’ for the forthcoming Bloomsbury Cultural History of Beauty edited by Paul Deslandes.

    Her current project, on cinema and the unbeautiful, investigates the ways in which film has created, perpetuated and challenged stereotypes of facial difference over the past century. ‘Theatres of surgery: The cultural pre-history of the face transplant’ (Wellcome Open Research, 2018) is the first piece of writing in this series, on Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage, followed by essays on David Lynch's The Elephant Man (in The Disfigured Face in American Literature, Film, and Television, edited by Klecker and Grabher, 2021) and Sacha Polak's Dirty God (Cinéma & Cie, 2023).

    She is co-director of Birkbeck's Centre for Medical and Health Humanities and teaches on the cross-disciplinary MA Medical Humanities: Bodies, Cultures and Ideas.


    Office hours

    By appointment


    • PhD, University of Technology Sydney, 1999
    • BA (Hons), University of Sydney, 1994

    Web profiles

    Professional activities

    Series co-editor of Palgrave Studies in Fashion and the Body

    Series co-editor of Facialities: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Human Face (Bloomsbury Academic)


  • Research


    Research interests

    • Medieval and modern histories of the body, face and senses
    • Disability history (with a focus on the politics and aesthetics of representation since 1900)
    • Visual cultures of health and illness

    Research overview

    Spanning the medieval and modern periods, Suzannah’s publications have focused on sensory experience and histories of the body and face. Her first book, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages, was published in Palgrave’s New Middle Ages series in 2002. With the support of a Wellcome Trust Research Leave Award from 2007-10 she extended these interests into the modern period, looking at visual anxiety and vulnerable embodiment in relation to facial injury and disfigurement. Her second monograph, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement was published in 2017 by The University of Michigan Press in their Corporealities: Discourses of Disability series. This project is distinctive in its attention to the face – which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body – and in its use of visual sources as historical documents, from clinical photographs and life drawings to portrait masks and photo albums; sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record of war injury and repair.

    Suzannah’s current research, on cinema and the unbeautiful, investigates the ways in which film has created, perpetuated and challenged stereotypes of facial difference over the past century. 

    Research Centres and Institutes

  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    I welcome enquiries from prospective PhD students who are interested in undertaking research on the history of the body/face in the modern period, or visual cultures of disability, disfigurement and illness.

    Current PhD students: 

    • Katie Sambrook, '(De)composition: artistic encounters with death at the Paris Morgue'. Co-supervised with Dr Allison Deutsch.
    • Elizabeth Fullerton, 'The polyphonic turn in collaborative art: voice, dialogue, critique'. Co-supervised with Dr Richard Hamblyn.
    • Laura Cowley, 'Humour and polemic in the UK Disability Arts Movement'. Wellcome Trust funded.
    • Annette Waywell, ‘Lustre: the history and cultural aesthetics of sheen in the fashion image’.
    • Rebecca McKay, ’Dissecting a visual language of surgery in the work of Osman Berberović’.

    Past PhD students include:

    • Christine Slobogin, ‘Tracing Trauma in Dickie Orpen’s World War II Plastic Surgery Drawings’ (completed 2021).
    • Anna Jamieson, ‘The Spaces and Spectacles of Female Madness in England, 1770-1830’, co-supervised with Professor Kate Retford (completed 2020).
    • Jane Quinn, ‘Shared spaces? Contemporary war art since 1991’ (completed 2019).
    • Jessica Borge, ‘The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill: 1932-1965’, co-supervised with Dr Janet McCabe (completed 2017). Protective Practices: A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.
    • Nicola McCartney, ‘The Artistic Multitude’ (completed 2016). Death of the Artist: Artworld Dissident and their Alternative Identities published by I.B. Tauris, 2018.
    • Fiona Johnstone, ‘Absent bodies: anti-portraiture and the time of AIDS’ (completed 2015). AIDS and Representation: Portraits and Self Portraits During the AIDS Crisis in America published by Bloomsbury, 2023.
    • Jane Norris, ‘Viatopias’ (Central Saint Martins, completed 2010).
    • Luke White, ‘Damien Hirst and the Legacy of the Sublime in Contemporary Art and Culture’ (Middlesex University, completed 2009).
    • Andrea Büttner, ‘The Aesthetics of Shame in Contemporary Art’ (Royal College of Art, completed 2009).
    • Cameron Cartiere, ‘Re/placing Public Art,’ (Chelsea College of Art & Design, completed 2004).

    Current doctoral researchers


    Doctoral alumni since 2013-14



    Focusing on modern and contemporary visual culture and histories of the body, medicine, and disability, I teach across all levels of the BA Art History and the History of Art/Photography/Museum Cultures Masters programmes.

    I also contribute to medical humanities teaching at BA and MA level and offer a cross-disciplinary MA option, Exhibiting the Body. Please contact me if you would like to know when this course will be running.

    Teaching modules

    • Museum Cultures Work Placement (ARVC054S7)
    • Exhibiting the Body (ARVC076S7)
    • Research Exercise (ARVC282S7)
  • Publications




    Book Review

    Book Section

    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2021) Loving the monster: The Elephant Man as modern fable. In: Klecker, C. and Grabher, G.H. (eds.) The Disfigured Face in American Literature, Film, and Television. Routledge Advances in Sociology. New York: Routledge. pp. 133-50. ISBN 9780367743130.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2021) Picturing pain. In: Padfield, D. and Zakrzewska, J. (eds.) Encountering Pain: Hearing, Seeing, Speaking. London, UK: UCL Press. ISBN 9781787352636.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2016) Picturing pain. In: Whitehead, A. and Woods, A. and Atkinson, S. and Macnaughton, J. and Richards, J. (eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh Companions to Literature. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9781474400046.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2014) The ruptured portrait. In: Carden-Coyne, A. and Morris, D. and Wilcox, T. (eds.) The Sensory War 1914-2014. Manchester, UK: Manchester Art Gallery. ISBN 9780901673886.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2014) A necessary humanity. In: Alberti, S.J.M.M. (ed.) War, Art and Surgery - The work of Henry Tonks and Julia Midgley. London, UK: Royal College of Surgeons. ISBN 9781904096238.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2013) The face of war. In: Pop, A. and Widrich, M. (eds.) Ugliness: The Non-beautiful in Art and Theory. London, UK: I.B. Tauris. pp. 34-48. ISBN 9781780766454.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2008) Sight and embodiment in the middle ages. In: Bhaumik, K. and Edwards, E. (eds.) Visual Sense: A Cultural Reader. Sensory Formations. Basingstoke, UK: Berg, Oxford. pp. 51-58. ISBN 9781845207410.
    • Biernoff, Suzannah (2008) Shame, disgust and the historiography of war. In: Pajaczkowska, C. and Ward, I. (eds.) Shame and Sexuality: Psychoanalysis and Visual Culture. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. pp. 217-236. ISBN 9780415420129.
  • Business and community

    Business and community


    2021: Public keynote, Technologies of Disability - Disfigurement: A Cultural Anatomy, Wellcome / Warburg Institute.

    2018: Interview with Chunichi Shimbun’s London correspondent, published 11 Nov 2018

    2021: Public keynote, Visualising the Medical Humanities, Australian National University, Canberra.

    2019: War and Disfigurement online image gallery for Wellcome Collection’s Stories series

    2018: Public talk in the ‘About Face’ season at Barts Pathology Museum, London.

    2017: BBC Radio 4, World War One: The Cultural Front, series 4, ‘Reality and Reconstruction’: Available on BBC iPlayer

    2018: Public keynote, Envisioning Trauma and Repair, University of Manchester Medical Humanities Laboratory.

    2016: Public talk in the ‘Remains to be Seen’ season at Barts Pathology Museum, London.

    2016: Workshop leader, Encountering Pain, UCL.

    2017: Public talk on portraiture and facial injury at Bethlem Museum, Kent.

    2014: Public talk in the ‘War, Art and Surgery’ exhibition programme at Durham Art Gallery/DLI Museum.

    2014: Radio documentary on Francis Derwent Wood’s ‘tin noses shop’ for BBC London. Podcast available on the BBC’s World War One at Home website

    2014: ‘Understanding and Communicating Pain: An Interdisciplinary Approach’ – public event organized by Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study and Wolfson Research Institute in collaboration with the Durham Forum for Health.

    2013: ‘Art in Conflict’ podcast with novelist Pat Barker at LSE Literary Festival, 2 March 2013.

    2011: Chair and discussant, Artists Talk Anatomy, Whitechapel Gallery London.