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Post: Blog2_Post
  • Writer's pictureEleanor Crook

Anatomical Expressionism talk with @morbidanatomy: How the Corpse Expresses itself through Artists

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

A recording of this talk is now available on Morbid Anatomy's Patreon page, if you're not a Morbid Anatomy supporter I highly recommend joining their subscription for a wealth of talks, curious content and virtual museum tours - many of my lectures are exclusively available there. Check it out!

Image: Anatomical wax model by CLemente Susini, Museo de la Specola Florence

I have a theory to put to you – or a suspicion! That there is an art movement that began when artists started investigating the insides of the body and continues throughout history, a fraternity of insider knowledge. Those who have clapped eyes on our actual physical components, and she means via dissections, corpses and occasionally live surgery, have learned their anatomy in a vivid unforgettable way, directly from the charming alarming human body.

Once seen never forgotten: the opal flash of iridescent fascia, the exquisite tension of tendon, the percussive shell of cranium, the glistening writhe of intestine, the particularity of an individual fingernail with its unique curvature: the materials of physique have a special and eloquent visual language that can be learned by direct observation – well literally, autopsy, auto-opsy. More than that, we feel it, mirror it in our very neurons.

It's not only anatomical artists – wax modellers and illustrators of anatomical handbooks - who have had special access to this toolbox of the torso. Because of how art has been taught, a surprising range of artists from different moments in art history have handled the dead and learned the craft of tissue depiction – some as part of academic training, but others on a desperate need-to-know basis, artists who defied state and church to gain access to forbidden knowledge and enriched their art at the expense (perhaps) of respectability and eternal rest! How else could they adequately express “the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to”, the sufferings of the martyrs whose devotion is sculpted in bodily endurance, the thrilling muscle of the athlete, the bodily scattering that is war?

In this heavily illustrated talk (cue - some painful images!) I will point out the tell-tale signs that a sculptor or painter has gained their sensitivity to the body from first-hand knowledge, that the eye that identifies sinews follows a trembling finger that has probed between the sheaths of tendons. Calling as witnesses artists as diverse as Matthias Grünewald of the gruesome Isenheim Altarpiece, Donatello of the Renaissance, Niels Hanson Jacobsen sculptor of wraithlike Reapers, Szukalski sculptor of hyperbolic anatomy that expressed his painful political extremism, Adolfo Wildt and Egon Schiele of the Vienna Secession and describing her own dissection room experiences, I make the case for the theory that the dead have their own way of telling the living about the body, and once seen, whenever in history, this explodes into an artist’s vision as Anatomical Expressionism.

Image: The Isenheim Altarpiece c. 1512 - 1516 by Matthias Grünewald

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