At the Crossroads of Art and Medicine

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Our collections have always reflected the strong relationship between medicine and visual culture. Accordingly, since its creation in 2012 our blog has frequently taken up the intersection between medicine and art as subject. Below, we link below to a few posts that explore these crucial connections.

Most recently, Caitlin Dover featured The New York Academy of Medicine’s collections of illustrated medical books on the Guggenheim’s blog in “Doctors Without Borders: Exploring Connections Between Art and Medicine.” Her findings are in part the fruit of a visit with the Academy’s Historical Collections Librarian Arlene Shaner, who showed her a selection of books and ephemera from our Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room, showcasing the connection between physicians and artwork.

Robert Latou Dickinson sketch of the Rare Book Room on its opening in 1933, from the Academy's Annual Report, 1933

Robert Latou Dickinson sketch of the Rare Book Room on its opening in 1933, from the Academy’s Annual Report, 1933.

Our extensive collection of anatomical atlases demonstrates the close relationships of physicians and artists, who frequently collaborated to create works both for students of medicine and of art. These atlases show both the successes and failures of collaborations between anatomists and artists who worked together to communicate new medical knowledge. For Vesalius, the collaboration was a great success. In a guest post from 2015, our 2014–2015 Helfand Research Fellow Laura Robson discusses the way Andreas Vesalius’ great milestone work of 1543, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, relies on the synergy between plates and text, and how a later work that uses the Vesalian plates suffers when the anatomist’s text is eliminated. Another guest post by New York physician Jeffrey Levine explores the visual imagery of Vesalius’ famous frontispiece of this same work. Other writers use illustration to signal authority and knowledge. A 2015 post on Walther Ryff explores the ways that Ryff’s use of the counterfeit style in his illustrations implied eye-witness discovery.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). De humani corporis fabrica libri septum. Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1543. The most famous illustrations are the series of fourteen muscle men, progressively dissected. Some figures, such as this one, are flayed. Hanging the muscles and tendons from the body afforded greater detail, not only showing the parts, but how they fit together.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). De humani corporis fabrica libri septum. Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1543.

Our 2014 festival Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius at 500 offered ample opportunity for critical thinking about the relationship between art and the body. Guest curator and visual artist Riva Lehrer describes her personal experience of the ways the body informs identity, and how that has shaped her own work as an artist in a 2014 post. A selection of images from several of our early anatomical atlases are featured in “Brains, Brawn and Beauty,” an exhibit that accompanied the festival, and are discussed here.

Finally, two posts on skeleton imagery highlight the tradition of danse macabre imagery in anatomical illustrations. Brandy Shillace’s guest post, “Naissance Macabre: Birth, Death, and Female Anatomy” examines depictions of the female body over time. For a look at the evolution of anatomical imagery with special attention to the tradition of portraying the human skeleton in vivo, visit our blog here. You’ll find a slide show hosted by Flavorwire featuring spectacular anatomical images from our collections.

Surgite mortui, et venite ad judicium (Arise, ye dead, and come to the judgment). Table 6. Click to enlarge.

Surgite mortui, et venite ad judicium (Arise, ye dead, and come to the judgment). Table 6. Click to enlarge.

Next month, the New York Academy of Medicine library will be undertaking an artistic project of our own. Capitalizing on the current coloring craze, we are starting a week-long special collections coloring celebration on social media, using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections. We’ll share images from our collections, as will friends at other institutions. We encourage you to color them, and share your colored copies on social media. Read more about how you or your institution can participate.

CamelColored

Coloring a camel from Conrad Gesner’s Historia Animalium, Liber I, 1551.

Table Reading

Our October 2014 “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describer her first experience with cadavers and how that shaped her thinking about bodies, anatomy, and art.

"In the Yellow Woods," by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

“In the Yellow Woods,” by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

The first time I ever saw a cadaver was a day in early September of 2006. The light was perfect—a glowing blue and gold herald of the coming Jewish New Year. I walked into lab behind Dr. Norm Lieska, head of Gross Anatomy at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a group of M1 students, all gangly in their brand-new starched white coats and spotless scrubs. The laboratory was a sort of extended corridor, comprised of a series of interlocking rooms, lit by high, industrial windows like those in an old factory. Burnished shafts of sunlight slanted across the rows of steel tables, skimming across the unzipped body bags. Each contained a cadaver that had been preserved and prepped for student exploration. For the main, though, they were pristine; head and hands demurely wrapped, all original parts on board.

I’d been warned that I might be nauseated or disgusted by the bodies. I braced myself to be sickened by the miasma of chemicals in the air. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer generosity represented in that room. Twenty-five people had decided that we needed to understand the human body in the most direct and unmediated way. They’d signed donation papers that gave us the right to read the history of their own flesh. I felt the impact of that gift even from my first steps into lab.

The dark vinyl of the body bags appeared as if gilded. This was the last moment they would all appear the same. We would pull down the zippers, and reveal the wild variations within. I am not in any way a religious person, but I thought: if I felt this kind of awe in synagogue, I’d be a very different kind of Jew. I was at the lab as part of my position as visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Each cadaver in Gross Lab was assigned to a team of about 10 students; at the start of the semester I’d been assigned to one such team. These students worked on the same person for the entire year. Scalpels peeled away each archeological layer, skin down to the deepest core. It was a bizarre form of intimate knowledge—both closer and more abstract than their inhabitants had had in life. I began to focus on comparing the bodies from table to table, and to show the members of my team that each cadaver had its idiosyncrasies. None of them were ringers for the photographs in their Color Atlas of Human Anatomy.

"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener  accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies.  Click to enlarge.

“Theresia Degener,” by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies. Click to enlarge.

In all the time I was there, though, I never saw a body anything like mine. I was much too intimidated to ask why. Perhaps a body that was too different from those dissection pictures could not function as a primer? (Oddly enough, when I visited a different cadaver lab last year, a bare scoliotic spine was on a table in the back of the room, picked clean of the body in which it had dwelt).

I was the visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago for four years, during which I taught figure drawing and portraiture for med students. I’ve gone on to teach those classes at Northwestern University School of Medicine, and as the professor of anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (I’m on leave now to pursue other projects). Each year of teaching and study has only increased my sense of wonder at what a living body can do. All bodies (human and animal) are so densely woven with function, yet can accommodate such dysfunction.

I’ve asked my students at both medical schools whether I’m the only disabled person they interact with outside of clinical rotations. The answer is yes. I wonder if my professional presence changes what they think when they begin clinicals, though I also wonder if they begin silent diagnoses when I walk into the classroom. My SAIC students do often seem startled on their first day. (Though maybe that’s just an effect of the tables full of bones. Hard to tell with the young and ironic.) They may not have medical knowledge, but they are trained observers, and mine is the body at the center of the room, at least until our model climbs onto the platform in his/her birthday suit.

Riva Lehrer with students at SAIC in 2012.

Riva Lehrer with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

For years, I was the elephant in the room. Eventually, I stopped pretending I wasn’t there and began to use myself as an exemplar. This doesn’t come easy—sometimes, my attempts at coping through humor sound like outtakes from Young Frankenstein—but it does produce a willingness on the part of students to ask uncomfortable questions. As the cadavers prove year after year, normal is a matter of degree. Our bodies let us live so many ways. Healing is creativity made manifest.

I’m writing this just before another New Year. I hope that 2015 brings you joy of your own mysteries, and that you will follow those secret trails through your own glowing, shadowed, and gilded rooms.