The Anatomy Lesson Documents
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.
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