While doing research on the history of anatomy illustration, you unavoidably find the 18th century wax anatomy models. These wax women models, some made by women artists (!) like Anna Morandi, were used as a means to instruct. In our times, they also confuse the viewers as the women models are almost a representation of the ideal female beauty, often referred to as 'the Anatomical Venus,' 'Little Venus,' or 'Sleeping Beauty.' They tend to be in fine attire, wearing pearls and positioned in seductive, bordering on the erotic ecstatic, poses. According to Joanna Ebenstein who conducted research into them, the models were a perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment values of the time, in which human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge: to know the human body was to know the mind of God. The 1543 textbook 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica' of Andreas Vesalius, on which my art project is based, was illustrated with woodcuts thought to be by Titian’s studio in Venice. That overlap of art and science disciplines was the background for the anatomical Venus sculptures. The division between art and science, and between religion and medicine we have now, didn’t exist at that time. In her analysis, Ebenstein compares the models' appearance and expressions to sculptor Bernini’s, 'The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652)' to argue that the ecstatic was understood at that time not merely as a profane, sensual experience, but also as an expression of the sacred, as a mystical experience. For me the question remains, why images of religious ecstasy were almost sensual, erotic in nature, for women? It seems like an interesting research topic to see how religious ecstasy is 'portrayed' in men. And how would such a differential study be titled? I found some images on Fine Art America, see what you think?
I also discovered feminist art that alludes to these wax models as I was studying Katy Deepwell's online course on Feminism and Contemporary Art. There's Zoe Leonard's 1990 photo `Wax Anatomical Model (Shot Crooked from Above), of which she said (as quoted in Laura Cottingham) "I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed. Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls, that long blond hair." In these feminist artworks, the models, the figures become a tableau or women artists use them in environments to explore rituals, stereotypes and to question women's cultural objectification. There's also Suzanne Lacy's 1977 photo series 'Anatomy Lessons' (!), using imagery of organs and peeling skin to suggest psychological states such as the humiliation of exposure or the experience of confinement, works that explore what constitutes identity, gender, and the body. I guess my body (!) of work 'The Anatomy Lesson,' ties in well with this category of woman artists' practices.
I'm resuming work on the first panel of The Anatomy Lesson Triptych, the first painting of The Anatomy Lesson body of work I started in December last year. Progressing on the other pieces, paintings, sculpture, prints and book art, I decided to go in again and add more detail to that first work. The painting refers to the cover illustration of the 1543 syllabus 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem,' on which anatomist Andreas Vesalius is portrayed during an anatomical demonstration. The Anatomy Lesson is a feminist body of work addressing the way women's bodies were/are approached in art and science.
The works are sort of a spin-off from an #OBJECT! painting I made in 2017. That series consists of poster-like paintings of women and girls sourced from images and stories on the web and in written media. The works 'portray' real women and girls as they are experiencing everyday sexism, inequality, gender based violence. The series paintings are in one of the galleries on my site here. The particular piece I'm talking about was made as the Trump care bill was being written in the Senate by 13 men, not one woman. If you look closely, you might recognise Bannon, Kushner and Stephen Miller in the painting. The bill would deny women access to the full range of reproductive health care options fundamental to women’s economic security. Protests noted that being woman was viewed in that bill as a pre-existing condition and that the bill inferred a return to a kind of regressive gender politics in which men make the decisions about what happens to women’s bodies.
In the newspaper today an article discusses what the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg might entail for Roe versus Wade, the historic 1973 judgment that legalised abortion in the US, if Trump manages to get a third Supreme Court judge, resulting in a conservative six-to-three majority.
Coincidentally, or not, in my country Belgium, the amended abortion legislation, initiated in 2016 (!), relaxing the legal period given to pregnant women before proceeding to abortion from 12 to 18 weeks, will be sent to the House Justice Committee. This as a condition for the participation of the Flemish Christian Democrats in the next federal government, after the May 2019 (!) elections. The party fervently opposes the revision. The legislation is thereby put on hold, to ensure that parliament cannot vote on and ratify it just yet.
I guess 'the personal is very much political' in terms of women's bodies.
In the body of work titled The Anatomy Lesson, I'm creating a series of paintings inspired by sixteenth-century Andreas Vesalius’ anatomy textbook ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica.’ I'm addressing the incomplete way women’s bodies historically were approached in science, due to traditional beliefs, preconceptions or stereotyping, often serving to legitimise women’s ‘inferior’ social status, leaving women vulnerable in health issues.
I was working with this sixteenth-century textbook during the Belgian lockdown, following daily updates on the corona virus spreading around the world, realising this body of work, paintings of human bodies, is actually timely and relevant, as it points to our corporeal vulnerability. The research that is being set up into why women’s immune system seems to be more effective in fighting the virus than men’s shows the importance of gendered research and thankfully we’ve come a long way since Vesalius. Although, Alyson McGregor, MD (!)' 2020 book, Sex Matters argues that all models of medical research and practice are based on male-centric models that ignore the unique biological and emotional differences between men and women, an omission that can endanger women's lives. Still.
The Anatomy Lesson comprises paintings, sculpture and book art. In the works I'm visually reflecting on the way women’s bodies were depicted and studied in the sixteenth century textbook of Andreas Vesalius, an anatomist who taught at my Alma Mater, the KULeuven. During my research I found that in a sixteenth century anatomy book instead of a vagina, only a missing triangle remained from the illustration of a semi dissected woman’s torso. In Vesalius’ time, sixteenth-century Christian society, female genitalia were considered taboo. Female flesh was associated with sin and naked women depicted as satan’s servants. Before that, women’s genitalia were thought of as lesser versions of the male organs, turned inside out. Based on this, I started to make an artist book, The Missing Triangle. In it, I'm searching to restore this illustration from Vesalius' textbook, by using stamps I carved from clay on each page.
In its entirety, want to create a body of work that visually brings all those aspects together, addressing that some biases in research methods stretch out over time and compromise the research environment even today, as science journalist Angela Saini describes in her book ‘Inferior.’ This is not only bad for gender equality, or the place of women in science, it’s bad for science and for the understanding of human life itself.
Art in an emergency is the subtitle of Olivia Laing's new book 'Funny Weather'. And aren't we in one now? The book was discussed in the book section of our weekend newspaper, where the published fragment, a quote from David Wojnarowicz in the context of AIDS, ‘if silence equals death, then art equals language equals life,’ caught my eye. I see my painting as communication, a visual language. I always struggle with words if I have to write a statement and let that be what’s important for artists these days, being able to talk/write about their practice, as if critics and curators have all forgotten Hopper ('if I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint'). In my statement here I wrote 'I rage against injustices with my brushes. I believe that activist art can foster dialogue, that it can make us aware, that it can empower us as individuals. I suppose that I aim to provide a visual social critique, to render a record of what is going on, believing that art can expose what it means exactly to be a fleshed human being in the world today.'
Laing is adamant about the political, activist role art can play in people’s lives. How? Because `paintings can conjure feeling,’ artworks that take you deeply into the reality of another person’s life are offering itself to the viewer’s emphatic capabilities. Laing thus believes in art as a creative, active and generous cultural force through which thinking happens and through which social justice can happen. Ethics arise from that, justice arises from that. Hence art is essential in civilisation. She talks about ‘reparative reading’ (of a work of art, literature or visual art), where at the core of the reparative lies the desire, the motivation, the drive to make something that ‘gives’ to somebody else that you don’t know and that you’re not going to meet. Here she refers to artist David Wojnarowicz again, who said ‘I want to make something that speaks to someone who feels like I do. I want to makes something that communicates after I’m gone.’ In a world that doesn’t nourish or sustain you, art can function as a collage of nourishment. That’s why art is essential in a culture for everyone to have access to, and it's a stringent point now that culture is suffering badly during the covid crisis everywhere.
The book isn’t available in my country (yet), but I’ll be getting a copy as soon as it does. I feel Laing is giving me the words to speak about my art, which I consider to be socially engaged for exactly the reasons she mentions. Maybe I am less optimistic as to the impact art can have for change, but I certainly agree that it has the potential, the (latent) force to touch people, to open the viewer’s world to other people’s experiences, their suffering, their issues, to other ways of thinking, to other ways of being in the world with each other.
I'm starting a blog! As a documentation of my studio work and of materials that are at the basis of my practice. I'm jumping right in, following John Cage's 'start anywhere'. Since January 2020 I've been working, painting and sculpting on a feminist body of work 'The Anatomy Lesson,' the progress of which I've been documenting on social media. But I wanted a more extensive record, of the inspiration, the sources, the research. I can't go back in time, but I'll start here and now, today, at the point where I'm at with the project. The complete project up until now can be viewed here in a viewing room I made especially for it. In this blog though I want to write more about my thoughts behind it, where I get the inspiration from, the images, how it fits into a story of feminist artists working on the core images, the body. I hope you'll enjoy it.
Returning to my kaleidoscopic monochromatic paintings, 2 mirrored panels of the diptych for 'The Anatomy Lesson,' body of work, addressing the way women's bodies were/are approached in art and science. I want to mirror the first panel, and I'm hesitant to start without much plotting of the figure. Sometimes my artistic enthousiasm gets in the way when working on something that needs careful prepping. So I decided to use a more effective way, than the cutout I used earlier, to position the 'figures' in the mirrored painting more precisely: tracing paper! As it turns out I'm not the only (woman) artist using a kaleidoscopic effect to create a body-related work, swipe left to see Carolee Schneemann's work, Parallel Axis. The work attempts to find new ways of viewing the (female) body by placing it within a landscape as an integral part of the visual field. Schneeman's performance-based work was primarily characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos, and the body of the individual in relation to social bodies. Again, big steps to follow into~