I got a request from a high school student to write a bit more on my ‘The Anatomy Lesson Triptych, panel 3’. As an artist I love the viewer to make their own associations and have them allow their own questions to rise as their eye moves across the canvas. That would be my default artist answer. But I’ve also taught high school students (math and science) and I also wrote student essays and I rarely get to see what viewers of my artwork think or notice, let alone it’d be the subject matter of an essay. Wow! *Basically I’d like to cultivate my image for being a generous, approachable feminist artist-woman. It’s a win-win ;)
So, I don’t mind answering in a #tbt blogpost and share on IG. That maybe might get more comments from other viewers for her to use? Cool idea?
Here’s a non exhaustive list of my own thoughts and themes that came up for me as I did my research and while I did the work on that piece. Important turn of phrases being ‘as I did…,’ and ‘while…’
-The inspiration that sparked the idea of making the work is, as I describe on my site in the anatomy lesson viewing room, the cover of the anatomy book written in 1543 by Andreas Vesalius, an anatomy student and teacher at my Alma Mater, the KULeuven. I always loved etchings illustrations of the figure in such old books, it’s how I first started to draw, and I started to read about his work and how he found the bodies to section etc. I wrote a bit on that also somewhere on here.
-And then there is the feminist in me who was shocked that anatomical knowledge about the human body historically got based on the male body. That made me decide to address this incomplete way women’s bodies were approached in science, due to traditional, religious beliefs, preconceptions or stereotyping, often serving to legitimise women’s ‘inferior’ social status leaving women vulnerable in health issues. Aspects which today continue to have their effects on how women’s health issues are approached in medicine.
-The woman body in the piece is directly taken from an illustration from that anatomy book. In it Vesalius discusses the female reproductive system and uses the same terminology as for the male organs. Back then they believed the female sexual organs to be the same as the male’s ‘turned outside-in, towards the inside of the body’, *putting it somewhat simplistically. That illustration shows the torso of a woman, no head, no arms, no legs. And that has a rich interpretational value when you take it out of the medical handbook’s context. Are women denied agency, are they allowed to have arms and hands? Are women allowed the same passage rights into the public sphere? Do they have legs? And who decides in a patriarchal society? (*consider that a rhetorical question)
-As I start working on the painting, I start getting associations myself, not sure about what comes first though, the act of painting or maybe the thoughts are already present somewhere hidden in the folds of my mind as I design the composition … Not sure that today high school students are old enough to remember Boxing Helena, a 1993 movie in which a surgeon becomes obsessed with a woman (Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn) he once was in an affair with. Refusing to accept that she has moved on, he amputates her limbs and holds her captive. In other words, she is reduced to a torso…
-It felt important to me to have the woman figure painted larger and looking back at the male figures who come to (male gaze) view and study the ‘anatomical model’.
-I placed the whole composition into the universe, as I also did in panel 1 where I left the aula ceiling open revealing a starry sky. What’s that about? It wasn’t preconceived, it happened intuitively, would be an answer… bodies are made of starry dust? Dust specks in an infinite universe, limited and finite surely.… Also to me the cyclical pattern of the disk the scene is placed on, the placement in an infinite universe has spiritual connotations: in the Ancient European Prehistoric context, women were seen as the bearers of life. They were the givers of life and mourners of life gone by, in a cyclical conception of time. The Venus figurines (Willendorf) testify of that.
These are just some of MY personal associations, and they surely are colored by my context and life history as a Western European woman. I hope that's helpful ..