My grandfather had been a doctor and when he died had left me a collection of his old turn of the century medical texts. I looked through them for hours, fascinated with the illustrations of human anatomy and with the descriptions of various diseases and the effects they had on the human body. I gazed at flayed bodies, at the muscles of the neck, at the veins and tendons that looked somewhat like knotted ropes or twisty snakes of pasta noodles. Amazing what lies hidden beneath the skin. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the skinless human body was displayed: how was the body positioned? What did the arrangement of the limbs signify? I found these illustrations very poignant and initially somewhat disturbing. I made a small series of etchings using parts of these anatomical illustrations juxtaposed with portraits of myself.
This example is called Self-Portait with Anatomy Lesson.
I also spent much time poring over early medical engravings of the human body, finding the textures and contrast of light and dark mysterious and beautiful. One of the most appealing things about the medium of printmaking is its use of texture and contrast and the exquisiteness of the lines one can make.
Here skin is a veil that can be pulled back to reveal the inner workings of the human body. The slant of the woman’s face, the slight curve of her lips and the kind of deranged glow in her eyes is exceedingly peculiar; she looks as though she sees absolutely nothing remarkable in the fact that half of her outer envelope has been ripped open.
Usually the female models are offered in somewhat provocative, sensual poses while the males still attempt to appear to have it all together. I find the sausage like entrails to be especially interesting here.
Another in the series of anatomical etchings I made, in this one I have placed my own face in more or less the same position as the flayed head above it. Surrounding each head are portions of early maps of the cosmos showing various elements of the universe as it was believed to have looked in the 1500s. And surrounding these are embroidery patterns. Here I was thinking about human finitude, and the ways in which we seek to organise our lived experience as embodied beings, the ways in which we seek order and structure, or try to give order and structure to a world which might be essentially chaotic and meaningless. Patterning serves this purpose, as do the various stories we devise to account for ourselves and our being here.
Narratives fascinate me, all kinds of narratives. Myths of origin, both cultural and personal, have shaped me, as have narratives of gender and ethnicity. The map backgrounds inserted here make allusions to one of the narratives which I have found most interesting, that of the nature of the universe and the place of humans therein. Old stories are sometimes replaced by new ones and sometimes reconfigured or incorporated into new ones.
Coeli Celesti Spherium
Upon seeing the reclining wax anatomical models of Clemente Susini located in Florence’s La Specola museum, I was very taken by the pathos and fragility of the human body as there represented. In these life size wax figures, with their ivory or flayed skin, carefully arranged hair or veined baldness, and seductive recumbent poses, every detail of the human body has been painstakingly recreated. So compellingly realistic are these human surrogates that they almost seem to breathe and live.
La Specola Natural History Museum, Florence
These models belong to a time in which artist and scientist were collaborators in the task of performing an archeology of the body.
Beginning in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press and the flood of print technologies that followed, the new science of anatomy was developed, along with spectacular images of the human body. While historical anatomical images certainly reveal the interior of the body, they also reveal the fantasies, dreams and fears of the images’ makers.
Bidloo and Lairesse, Ontleding 3 1690
In the early modern era (1450-1750), the boundary between art and science was ill-defined. Anatomists and their artist collaborators made use of familiar modes of representation, the iconography of landscape, nudity, mythology and Christianity. Artists tried to create illustrations that were accurate, but also amazing, beautiful, and entertaining.
Genga and Errard, Anatomia 1691
This frontispiece features five notable anatomists posed around a cadaver. In the center of the picture, the image of the Earth, with the continent of “America” visible, signifies that the anatomized body is a “New World,” and dissection a voyage of discovery (US National Library of Medicine). Notice also the rather obvious point that the scientists are all male and the anonymous veiled cadaver female; like the continent of America, she, too, is open for exploration.
Casserio, Anatomische Tafeln 1656
While the anatomised female figure tends to retain the attributes of seductiveness and/or passivity, the male most often stands resolutely. Even beneath the skin, ideal masculinity is apparent.
D’Agoty, Male Skeleton 1773
In this title page to a monumental atlas of the human body by the Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius the anatomist is depicted in an almost theatrical setting, surrounded by an audience alternately fascinated and bored by the proceedings.
Vesalius De Humani Corporis Fabrica 1543
Subterrain Dead Things Issue article with my photographs.