The Pick - The Twin Within: X-rays of Sculptures

April 14, 2011

The Twin Within: X-rays of Sculptures

Medical History Museum, Berlin

Like hospitals, museums often make use of X-rays for diagnostic purposes. They can reveal what a sculpture is made of, how it was restored, whether hidden cracks might make it difficult to transport, and sometimes whether it is an original, a copy or even a fake.

All this was familiar to art historian Uta Kornmeier, who now works as research assistant to the director of the Centre for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin, when she was researching a PhD about Madame Tussaud for Humboldt University in the same city.

Yet what also struck her was that the X-rays produced by museums for practical purposes are often beautiful and unexpectedly expressive. Her highly unusual exhibition is designed to illustrate this claim.

The Twin Within: X-rays of Sculptures, at the Medical History Museum in Berlin from 15 April until 5 June, brings together 21 X-rays of statues made of bronze, marble, terracotta, wax and wood. Subjects include allegorical figures, an angel from a crucifixion, Buddhist monks, dancers, satyrs and saints. They come from the British Royal Collection and museums in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and across the US.

The Medical History Museum is the successor to Rudolf Virchow's Pathological Museum, opened in 1899, which once contained thousands of samples of diseased organs covering just about every disease then known in the West. Although bomb damage during the Second World War greatly reduced the collection, the X-rays are shown on lightboxes or printed on translucent foil, accompanied by photographs of the statues, amid the rather gruesome surviving wet and dry specimens on permanent display. It is in this strange setting that science meets art, as real and sculptured bodies reveal their hidden secrets.

Just as biopsies and medical X-rays show us a shadow world beneath the smooth surface of our skin, many of those that Dr Kornmeier has selected show us the details - the nails that hold together the head of a saint; or the bubbles, bit of metal and other casting flaws in a bronze sculpture - that we would otherwise never see and which provide vital forensic data for art historians. Others make a strong but quite accidental emotional impact. The polychrome wooden image of the legendary Spanish saint, Ginés de la Jara, might be preaching or even singing. In the X-ray version, his eyes seem to be pulled open and he could well be screaming. The results are weird, unsettling and sometimes surprisingly beautiful.

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