The palette and the pipette

September 15, 2000

How has the relationship between art and science evolved? Below, Elaine Williams previews an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery that focuses on the representation of the human body in medicine and art

For modern minds, all too ready to package things as either "art" or "science", a detailed image of a dissected body belongs to the world of medicine. The strikingly naturalistic model of a sectioned wax torso, modelled by Joseph Towne in the 19th century, for example, would be comfortably categorised as science. Indeed Towne's models and all comparable anatomical two and three-dimensional representations are to be found mostly in medical museums.

But Towne described his profession as "sculptor", and although he supplied anatomical modelling for Guy's Hospital, he also exhibited at the Royal Academy. For Towne and others over the three centuries after the Renaissance, the purpose of anatomical imaging was primarily theological and aesthetic. The source of their wonder, says Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford University, was the "disclosing of the 'divine architecture' (man) that stood at the summit of God's Creation".

The remarkable aesthetic quality of these anatomical figures derives from the Renaissance revolution in sculpting, drawing and painting skills. Artists sought to acquire a mastery of the body as a functional system of motion and emotion. Their paintings of dissected corpses peeled back the layers to reveal muscular and skeletal mechanisms and explore in minute detail aspects of the human constitution that they believed informed the outward signs of character and emotion.

This fascinates Kemp, who studied for a degree in the natural sciences at Cambridge before being "captured" by the visual arts. His interest in the blending of science and art has led him to co-curate with Marina Wallace, a painter and lecturer in graphic and industrial design at Central St Martin's School of Art in London, an exhibition that the Hayward Gallery describes as one of its most ambitious projects ever.

Called "Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now", the show will bring together treasures from some 80 museums and collections worldwide ranging from paintings and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Durer and Stubbs to contemporary work by eight artists, including Bill Viola and Christine Borland alongside models and instruments from the medical world.

But Wallace and Kemp firmly distance it from the work of deliberately "sensational" artists such as Damien Hirst, whom they accuse of using human and animal bodies - generally dissected or revealing their inner functions - "to push voyeurism to the limits".

Their own concern, they say, is to show the body in art in direct relation to its detailed "particularities" as pictured in the medical sciences, to show where the two "collide".

"My approach to art has been about looking at visual culture in a broad sense," says Wallace. "I work with industrial and product designers. You cannot eliminate science because it doesn't fit into art history."

Funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Board provided cash for research time, enabling Kemp and Wallace and a full-time research assistant, as well as contemporary artists, to trawl the obscure, often unexplored, medical and anatomical museums of Europe to discover great works as well as the curious. Repackaging of the British Academy into the AHRB, the curators say, has helped such large-scale collaborative enterprises.

"The exhibition is about taking risks in the best educational sense, putting items beside each other that would normally be segregated and letting them speak to each other in extraordinary ways, creating a frisson of surprises for the spectator, a telling visual dialogue," Kemp says.

Human dissections were often public events in the 17th and 18th centuries and the exhibition greets the visitor with seven group portraits of celebrated Dutch surgeons giving anatomy lessons. These include Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr Deijman 1656, shown alongside historic medical instruments, and John Isaacs's new video work, which merges footage of Padua's anatomy theatre with imagery from modern hospitals. Twenty ecorches - sculptures of flayed bodies revealing muscle structures, housed in floor to ceiling glass cases - are shown alongside 18th-century anatomical wax models in which every artery and vein has been painstakingly recreated. These are, if anything, more revealing than the real thing.

"The lively hues and fresh sheen of the waxen organs somehow seem closer to the colourful vitality we expect to find within ourselves than the dull grey-brown confusion that dominates the actual dissection of a corpse," says Kemp. They are as concerned with a creation of beauty as they are about detailed representation. "These things that people regard as medical museum objects are bloody marvellous visually," he says.

The rich visual histories of obstetrics and the cycle of life are explored through images from ancient medical books, cross-sections of the womb and coloured 18th-century ceramics of pregnant women with peeled back abdominal skin, shown alongside artist Marc Quinn's Eternal Spring 1998, in which red flowers are preserved in frozen silicone.

A monumental blown glass spinal column, lit by fibre optics, by Katherine Dowson, leads up to the second part of the exhibition, which concentrates on the head and the human face. We are all obsessive people watchers, says Kemp, "instinctive physiognomists". The exhibition shows how over the centuries huge efforts were devoted to explaining and codifying exterior manifestations of inner character and emotion.

As the 19th century progressed, this concern developed into the pseudo-science of eugenics, as practised by Sir Francis Galton and represented in the show by his head-measuring device. Galton was obsessed with minute classification of types - from Eton College boys to Jews to boating parties on the River Thames. Although he is not an artist, Wallace talks about his work as "one of the most extraordinary visual enterprises of the 19th century", an enterprise that has excited the interest of contemporary German artist Gerhard Lang, featured in the exhibition, whom Wallace also describes as an "ethnographer and phenomenal classifier". Lang, she says, "scrutinises and photographs human and animal heads and faces, producing compound images of intriguing ambivalence".

Kemp argues that from the 19th century, art became concerned with defining its own professional interests and turned in on itself, disengaging with science, developing into art "about art, about art", culminating in abstraction. But with the rise of feminism in the late 20th century, artists once more re-engaged with the human body, technically, socially and visually.

Kemp argues that because connections between art and science are rare, those artists who have looked at medicine and science have been "the most sensational in the public eye". This is increased by the fact that medical appropriation of and intervention in the human body is such a fraught ethical business, as headlines about the use of children's body parts for medical research and the separation of Siamese twins demonstrates.

Both curators are aware that an art exhibition that relates to the big issues in medicine is not only a fascinating study of the relationship between art and science but also carries with it potential flashpoints and meat for public outrage.

"Spectacular Bodies - The Art and Science of the Human Body From Leonardo to Now" runs at the Hayward Gallery, London, from October 12 until January 14.

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