The body laid bare: Art of Anatomy

Anatomical study, art and medicine are bound up with criminality. Not only were the bodies of criminals the few samples available to physicians for dissection in the centuries before 1800, teachers of anatomy relied on the activities of the Resurrection Men. These grave robbers, body thieves and murderers provided bodies for teaching hospitals and universities. Even as late at the mid-Sixteenth Century, anatomical dissection was a criminal activity, undertaken in secret by medical men and artists. Painter Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) even resorted to graverobbing to prepare a Deposition of Christ. Famed anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) attended a hanging and quartering in Padua to observe the body dissected while still alive. Even after the threats of legal sanction and excommunication were lifted, the air of disreputability lingered around the practice of dissecting the dead. There is something shockingly intimate about the exposure of the hidden intricacies of the human body, as J.G. Ballard recalled in his memoirs The Kindness of Women (1991).    

To mark a wide-ranging exhibition of anatomical art and art inspired by anatomical illustration at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, Los Angles (22 February-10 July), the catalogue Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy has been published. The exhibition gathers together notable examples from the beginning of modern anatomy science in the Renaissance up to art of recent years. The new art is not compelling or distinguished, so – aside from noting that anatomy still inspires artists today – we shall pass over that and look at the anatomy art of the pre-Modernist era.

Present-day divisions between science, art and philosophy arose precisely out of the increase in specialised knowledge that came about through the work of anatomists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The explanations of what these scientists discovered required published descriptions with clear illustrations. What we find in these illustrations is a combination of precision and imaginative invention. Of these illustrations, those by Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1515-1546) are most famous. His illustrations for Vesalius’s ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) – including views of a human skeleton seemingly contemplating a skull, a skeleton resting an elbow on a stave and a flayed man gesturing dramatically in a pastoral landscape – are widely celebrated. Today, these can be found on album sleeves, book covers and T-shirts. The book was the first printed anatomy book to fully integrate text and image.  

By placing anatomies in architectural and scenic surroundings in his illustrations, van Calcar gave his subjects liveliness and nobility. He also explicitly linked the physiological information presented with the ability of the artist to use this data in the creation of art that fused fact and imagination. As writers here note, these animated cadavers have the stoicism of martyrs in contemporaneous sacred paintings, with their eyes cast upward to heaven as their mortal forms are scourged. Écorchés (French: flayed cadavers) stand nonchalantly, their skins draped over an outstretched arm. Another practice was anatomia all’antica (Italian, “anatomy after the antique”). This consisted of creating anatomically-exposed versions of famous antique statues, such as the Borghese Gladiator, the Discobolus and others, showing the master of the ancients and endowing dissection with the authority of art. Such poses recreated sometimes exposed shortcomings of the ancient sculptors, as they failed to incorporate bunched muscles or taut tendons.

Illustrations by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) presented flayed figures standing in groves with fragments of antique masonry at their sides. At the other end of the spectrum, some views filled empty space with assorted details, using the printing plate surface as efficiently (if inelegantly) as possible. 

These illustrations became as important for other artists as they did for students of medicine. As figures in paintings became more anatomical sound, so scientific illustrations became elaborate, with mises-en-scènes becoming pictures within which the dissected body acted as still-life or dramatic character. Rembrandt’s two anatomy-lesson paintings are scenes of professional men at work (as seen in similar paintings by him of jewellers, scholars and burghers) but they also differ little from the complex frontispieces found in anatomy textbooks. On occasion, physicians were competent enough as artists to draw the illustrations for their own texts. New illustration techniques had to be conceived of by anatomical artists in order to depict on a page the nature of a complex multi-layered three-dimensional organism. 

Some of the reproduced images are startling. One print by Cornelis Huyberts (1669/70-c. 1712) shows the skeletons of foetuses posed on a stand around an artful pile of pebbles and twigs. One has a feather fixed to its skull. Such macabre dioramas were – in real life – a staple of curiosity cabinets and would become features of travelling shows of oddities in following centuries, dying out only the last decades of the Twentieth Century. This irreverent (even jocular) attitude towards the dead (especially children) will leave some with modern sensibilities uneasy. Other images are so peculiar it is hard to know what to make of them. Only the field of comparative anatomy could give rise to an illustration entitled The penis and testicles of a young boy, the skin from the hand of a young boy, a bundle of pubic hair, and three chicken eggs (1703). (Salvador Dalí would have relished such a title.) In an illustration from William Hunter’s giant anatomy book, a curled late-term foetus is exposed in the womb of his dead mother – a poignantly pitiful image.

Some obscurities were deliberate. In some books, genitals were not reproduced. Descriptions of female genitals were sometimes given in Latin, excluding the uneducated. In one anatomy book, ovine reproductive organs substituted human ones, which were considered too indecent. 

This book includes essays from top-level specialists on topics such as illustration of anatomy, anatomy books, antiquity and others. The catalogue section has individual works – mainly illustrative prints that have detailed discussion facing full-page images. The development of anatomical art is fleshed out – if you’ll pardon the pun – in these commentary texts that explain the purpose and significance of these selected art works. Studying this field, we can see the changing technology of reprographics. In the Sixteenth Century illustrations were made by carving designs from wooden blocks, soon after can engravings and etchings in copper sheets. Readers will be impressed at the level of detail and care in these prints, with the dense curvilinear cross-hatching describing the muscles, tendons and bones of the body. Mezzotint (where shade is indicated through stippling of printing plates) allowed colour printing, something that was later achieved much more easily through lithographic printing. Such skills have almost disappeared in art. Later developments include the inclusion of flaps and fold-outs.

This catalogue is a welcome and engrossing testimony to the nearly lost art of both anatomy illustration. The book contains numerous illustrations of anatomical illustration, casts, scenes of academy studios, three-dimensional coloured models with moveable parts and some early photographs. The bibliography, footnotes and index will assist researchers.

Monique Kornell, with Thisbe Gensler, Naoko Takahatake, Erin Travers, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy, Getty Research Institute, 1 March 2022, 248 pages, 8 x 11 inches, 163 col. illus., hardcover, $50, ISBN 978-1-60606-769-7  

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art