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Under the Skin

Art and Science Converge In This History Of Imagining and Imaging The Body



Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age

Author:Benjamin A. Rifkin and Michael J. Ackerman
Release Date:2006
Publisher:Abrams
Genre:Art

By Scott Carlson | Posted 7/12/2006

The human body connects the artist and the physician. The artist studies its form, the physician its mechanisms. Or, as Benjamin A. Rifkin puts it in Human Anatomy, a new collection of anatomical artwork, "With kindred presumptions of benefice, the doctor studies the body to improve its fate; the artist to improve its spirit. Above all, these students start with the same genre of book: the illustrated anatomy."

Often, the artist and the physician dabble in each otherís work. Thomas Eakins, one of the great painters of human form, studied anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Eakinsí great depiction of surgery, "The Gross Clinic," was painted soon after he enrolled there.

But in their studies of the mysteries of the body, artists and physicians have been united in another, darker way: They have been derided, considered either perverts or ghouls. "The Gross Clinic," so called because it depicts Dr. Samuel David Gross in the operating room, was too gross and repulsive for critics. Eakinsí obsession with the body got him in deeper trouble in other ways: He rendered the nude alluringly (perhaps homoerotically) in "The Swimming Hole," but his use of nude models in the classroom led at least two art academies to sack him, amid public scandal.

Anatomists and early surgeons suffered for their art and science, too. John Hunter, one of the founders of modern surgery (whose life is rendered beautifully in Wendy Mooreís recent book The Knife Man), conducted his studies on cadavers with the help of live grave robbers and dead criminals. The real-life inspiration for Dr. Jekyll, Hunter was considered a monster by some of his contemporaries.

Seeing Hunterís handiwork in Human Anatomy, itís easy to understand why. Among the bookís many stunning, breathtaking, and unnerving illustrations are those of Hunterís dissections of pregnant women. (The book credits the work to William Hunter, but if we are to believe Mooreís history, younger brother John held the knife and made the major medical discoveries.) Here the most sacred relationship, between mother and her child in utero, is sliced open, pulled apart, and labeled. Her legs are parted to expose her vulva--it looks uncomfortably like a gruesome rape, with the corpse a helpless victim.

And yet these detailed drawings, by Hunterís artist Jan van Rymsdyk, helped to unlock some of the mysteries of obstetrics and saved countless mothers-to-be in the process.

This paradox seems to be a central, if understated, theme of Human Anatomy: Artists and physicians must confront and defile the dead, through dissection, to aid the living, and they have to deal with the dissonance that role creates. People canít butcher human bodies all day without going a little crazy. Human Anatomy focuses on the faithfulness of the art to accurately render muscle and bones for science. More interesting, perhaps, is the way the artists brought new life to the dead.

Apparently one coping method, especially early on, was to make the dead active participants in their own dissections. Anatomists and artists of the 16th century depicted their subjects helpfully pulling themselves open. A man holds a flap of skin and muscle tissue in his hands, displaying the organs inside. Another pulls himself open with his teeth. A sleeping infant exposes its liver, intestines, and reproductive organs. In the case of the anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, "this puzzling conceit may illustrate the redemptive potential of dissection accepted by the Renaissance church, based on the Old Testament idea of sacrifice beyond duty as a form of atonement," Rifkin writes.

Many artists in the collection were fond of reanimating the dead, setting them in classical landscapes or everyday settings. Skeletons bow in prayer or plead with the heavens. The surgeon and anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus had his illustrator, Jan Wandelaar, pose skeletons and flayed bodies in natural surroundings, sometimes surrounded by cherubs, " in an anachronistc return to the Vesalian tradition of the anatomical landscape," Rifkin points out. Critics didnít like it, but "the anatomist was fierce in defense of his artist . . . maintaining that the environments improved the tonal balance of the figures themselves."

Wandelaarís illustrations are gorgeous. But in the work of other illustrators, the reanimated dead are more disturbing than a mere corpse on a table. Charles Estienne--who first identified the clitoris, incidentally--set his female figures on canopied beds, with legs spread temptingly. Tempting, that is, until you notice that their torsos are sliced open and their heads hang limply, with slack jaws. These Venuses are obviously dead.

Among the strangely, unexpectedly beautiful reanimations are those of Jacques Gamelin, an artist who may have studied with Goya. His work is less a scientific study of anatomy than an artistic one. Gamelin arranges skeletons and flayed corpses in positions that reflect a preoccupation with the spirit world, occasionally with inscriptions that remind the viewer of his or her own mortality. One, beneath a picture of a skeleton on a slab, says: "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust shall return."

Gamelinís work, Rifkin writes, was "one of the most imaginative anatomy primers for artists in a genre that more often tends toward disciplined but stolid representation." Gamelin has propped up a flayed cadaver in prayer in one plate. The corpse, with the muscles in his back exposed to the viewer, is kneeling against a slab, his legs slightly, lifelessly splayed. His head is not bowed in prayer but hanging to one side. Another plate shows a flayed Christ, hanging from the cross. The musculature is so detailed that you know what Gamelin did to get the illustration: He crucified a cadaver.

In a sense, Human Anatomy charts the decline of art in anatomy, although the authors might not have intended that interpretation. As the book progresses and as science advances, anatomical art serves the purposes of science rather than interpret the human condition. Christian Wilhelm Brauneís cross-sectional anatomies, from the mid 1800s, have their own beauty. To produce them, Braune and colleagues froze the bodies of mainly healthy people (the male subject had hung himself), then sawed the bodies in half from head to crotch and traced the structures found inside.

In the final chapter, Michael J. Ackerman, a biomedical engineer at the National Library of Medicine, discusses anatomy in the digital age--the point at which human-produced art is completely conquered by machines, by CT scans and MRIs. The renderings are perhaps infinitely more accurate but, Ackerman acknowledges, expressiveness is sacrificed. Modern digital anatomical art could be compared to what computer-aided design did to old-fashioned architecture drafting--it flattens a building, making it more real and less lively at the same time. If the body is a temple, its builders and mechanics might better understand its foundation, pillars, and walls--but the temple loses some of its soul.

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