The light box is white, slightly crooked, and has two tiny cracks on its face, which you only notice if you make yourself stop looking at her hands. Wanda Landowska’s fingers are splayed. She wears no rings, although there’s an odd fragment of line at her wrist that suggests the edge of a bracelet or wristwatch. The bones are neither stark white nor smoky gray nor steely blue, but all three, and then none of those colors, and then another color that doesn’t even have a name.
Somehow their position looks both modest and bold, although both seem like strange words to apply to a skeleton. In the upper right corner, the date is burned into the X-ray, with a short, straight vertical line posing as a comma between the day and year: MAY 31 | 1946.
There’s a smudgy plaque beneath the light box, which has a caption in all caps:
X-RAYS OF WANDA LANDOWSKA’S HANDS
PRESENTED IN MEMORY OF A. DAVID GUREWITSCH
PROFESSOR OF REHABILITATION MEDICINE
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK
I am studying this when an announcement comes over the speakers, and the voice of a live woman is bouncing off the tiles.
“May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? Cancel fox code for the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers. Cancel fox code for the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers.”
I have no idea what a “fox code” is but I feel relieved that it’s canceled, considering that I’m standing on the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers. The building is better known to Birminghamians as the Spain Rehabilitation Center, and to the physicians, patients and staffers who populate it simply as Spain. I’m not here for rehabilitation, however, at least not as a patient. I am here to look at art, particularly an X-ray hung as art, of the hands of a great pianist and the harpsichord’s first great 20th century champion. The patient, the subject, was dead before this hospital ever opened its doors; she may have never even set foot in the state of Alabama. But here are her hands, hung up as art, the light box humming alongside humdrum watercolors. The X-ray was taken 50 years ago by a doctor remembered as a pioneer of rehabilitation and brought to Birmingham by another physician who had his own ideas about what her bones showed.