Anatomy, Art, and Other Things

It’s been over 20 years since I was an office temp the second time around, in San Francisco, trying to stay employed between graduate degrees. I worked in an academic department at UCSF, a fledgling art historian adrift at a medical school. Whenever possible I would take long lunches and flee to the library, eating on the plaza that was dramatically perched on the edge of a hill above the city. There was also refuge to be found in the rare books room where I squeaked out time to look at 19th century artist’s anatomies in the collection.

A few years ago I found myself again looking at historical anatomies, this time in Wisconsin. My job had stagnated and I was yet again casting about, trying to imagine what other work I could pursue. Artist’s anatomies are apparently my touchstone, a place I return to, like a prodigal daughter, when I find myself at a dead end in other pursuits. They are where I go looking for reassurance, back to square one, in search of intellectual re-ignition. Why anatomies? Maybe because they are the traditional building blocks, along with drawing, in 19th-century American and European academic art. Maybe, having studied the work of Thomas Eakins, I was never able to adequately resolve for myself the exaggerated importance of (or intensity of focus on) anatomy within his artistic process and teaching. Maybe it’s just because the works are visually engaging, intellectually challenging, gorgeous, difficult, and just really complicated.

Artistic anatomy surfaced for me again last week, unexpected but welcome, during the unveiling of the parade of Buckys around town. This fundraiser involved the work of lots of artists, and has met with mixed reviews–some cheerleading and others attempting to put it all into perspective. In the midst of perhaps more impactful happenings in the city, I took advantage of a particularly gorgeous spring morning and attended the presentation of a rather unusual incarnation, Visible Bucky, by Phil Salamone.

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Phil Salamone, Visible Bucky (back view)

Phil is an academically trained artist. With the help of Sarah Gerg, he spent about 450 hours painting this sculpture. It’s completely thrilling to see an artist have so much fun using traditional methods. Placing the work in front of Science Hall is an especially important nod to history, as the building was the former home of the UW-Madison Department of Anatomy.

Visible Bucky makes me think of Jason Freeny’s work, as both of these artists are referencing European artistic anatomy traditions in their pop-culture creations.

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Jason Freeny, Spongebob Anatomy (on display at the Safety-Kleen Gallery One, Elgin Community College, 2015).

There are many artists who have been delving into the rich visual culture of anatomy studies. For some contemporary examples, see Street Anatomy. Founded by Vanessa Ruiz, this website is an amazing resource for contemporary anatomical expressions.

The anatomized Bucky reminded me of my explorations of the incredible anatomy materials that are available in the Kohler Art, Special Collections, and Ebling Historical libraries right here on the UW-Madison campus. Occupying an intriguing intersection of art and science, the following works are occasionally on display, but all are accessible with an appointment in the gems that are the campus library collections (19th century onward, there are much more from earlier periods too) :

These large format plates display an écorché figure, not in an anatomist’s theater or on a dissection table like in earlier texts, but posed in a landscape. Produced posthumously, a memento mori to the author appears at the figure’s feet, along with a cityscape (Florence?) on the horizon. The skeleton, pictured in the same pose but without the landscape setting, has surprising details in a fleshy ear and nose.

Melding classical sculpture into idealized, composite, anatomized models, like with the head of the Belvedere Apollo, these large, intricately illustrated pages make an explicit connection between anatomical studies and the history of art. The frontispiece includes a funny little scene below a bust of Minerva/Athena: in a group of naked men (putti?) performing a dissection, one of the figures holds his nose. Some things never change.

  • Piedad Bonnett (1951-current), Libro de anatomía (Bogotá, Colombia : Alonso Garcés Ediciones, Marcela Caldas Editora y Ediciones Arte Dos Gráfico, 2006).

In a small book of poems enhanced with anatomically-inspired images, blood and bone, muscle fiber and tissue convey a fragile intimacy in contrast to the musky, corporeal references of the written word.

An invocation of scientific visual culture, Baskin’s portfolio references the fascination and underlying horror of anatomical dissection. With angels of death, cadavers with dark open recesses, and bony appendages wrapped and unraveling, these drawings present a powerful, beautiful, and disturbing homage to the traditions of imaging anatomy.

After thinking again about these works, I wonder if maybe Visible Bucky is actually a hybrid. As a badger he might be related to the horses that were studied by artists and scientists in early photography:

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Or comparative anatomy, like the mare Josephine, represented in a bronze cast of a écorché, originally modeled in plaster, from the studio of Thomas Eakins:

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  • Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 – 1916), Écorché: Relief of a Horse (Josephine)modeled ca. 1882; cast 1979. Bronze with brown patina mounted on wooden plaque, 23 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gift of Sue Kessler Feld, Class of 1969, and Stuart P. Feld, 2010.53.

Visible Bucky, standing in front of Science Hall, brings me back again to the beginning, to Eakins’ Philadelphia studio and his lifelong obsession with dissection and anatomy. The imagery is persistent, it runs through academic art and contemporary painting, Sponge-Bob and poetry, grad school and work life. It reflects a desire to understand how things function–the mechanisms and the operations below the surface–and it underlies considerations of the ideal and the real, in the visual world and in lived experience.

Anatomy is a metaphor for me, for where it all begins (the intellectual journey at least), but it’s actually where it all ends, too. In our physicality, in our bodies, where is our humanity located? What is the connection between the system and the intellect? If we can fully comprehend the functions, can we actually create wonder?

Bucky is a powerful presence. On that bright sunny morning a few days ago, I did not expect a painted badger to ignite a spark. And now he is feeding a flame. Go Bucky.

 

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