Thursday, 12 January 2012

Great Masters of Anatomy

Great Masters of Anatomy

Oldrich Kulhanek

Behind this exquisite drawing in pencil of a crouching male nude lies a wealth of technical skill and a profound knowledge of anatomy

Once anatomy was taught in art schools and students spent hours copying classical statues (or largely Roman copies) to understand the human form

Today, sadly, this is not the case - except in former eastern Europe art institutions (Prague, Warsaw, for example) where I have see for myself these skills still being taught

Oldrich Kulhanek
Of course anatomical drawings go back to ancient times - Egypt,  ancient Greece, for example - but the connection between medical science and art was bridged in the work of the 'Grand-Daddy' of them all, Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci first studied anatomy during his apprenticeship to Andrea del Verrocchio, subsequently dissecting human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later in Milan

From 1510 to 1511 he worked with an eminent doctor called Marcantonio della Torre and together produced over 200 pages of drawings and notes with a view to publishing a treatise on anatomy

The publication of these notes was left to da Vinci's heir, Francesco Melzi, but they were never published in their entirety, not least because of the difficulty in deciphering da Vinci's 'mirror' handwriting

What they do show, however, is Leonardo da Vinci's extraordinary attention to detail, the range of his scientific enquiries and the holistic approach he adopted in exploring the relationship between art and science

Bernard Siefried Albinus

Bernard Albinus (originally Weiss) was born in Frankfurt in 1697

As a young man he studied medicine at Leiden and Paris, later retuning to Leiden where he succeeded his father as Professor of Anatomy and Surgery

 Albinus published his monumental Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani in 1747
His engraver was Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759).

Together they designed a new technique involving a net (or grid) stretched before the anatomical subject to ensure scale and accuracy

I have myself used this figure in a painting called Caliban's Garden (see below) - a mixture of collage and hand-drawn foliage in pencil and charcoal

This figure (representing Caliban himself) also appears in some of my three-dimensional dioramas

Caliban's Garden by Mike Healey

For me, the anatomical engravings attributed to Albinus/Wandelaar are pure art, over and above their primary scientific functions

The attention to detail in the foliage (see below) is extraordinary even though it was criticised by contemporaries of Albinus as 'whimsical' and intrusive

For me the figure, thus posed, acquires a dignity and elegance that is actually quite moving

Wandelaar is also capable of very accurate depiction of bone structure and articulation, as in this simple yet exquisitely drawn study of a rib cage shown below

Note the use of light and shade to give rotundity and emphasis to the curved rib-cage itself; this shows Wandelaar's exceptional skill as a draughtsman

The juxtaposition of this skeletal figure and a rhinoceros (see below)
 is a reminder, perhaps, of the public curiosity these engravings excited when first published

For many, a rhinoceros would be as alien and unfamiliar as the anatomical illustration itself

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius (Andries van Wesel) was a Flemish anatomist, born in 1514

His De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543, is considered by many historians of this subject to have made Vesalius the founder of modern human anatomy

After studying in Leuven and Paris, Vesalius settled in Padua, and later Bologna, eventually becoming Imperial physician to the court of Emperor Charles V

In 1539 a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius' work and made available to him the bodies of executed criminals

There followed a series of anatomical drawings - commissioned from local artists - of flayed figures, as in the gruesome image of a hanged man shown above

The illustration in Versalius' great book De fabrica are largely the work of Jan Stephen van Calcar, a pupil of Titian

The value to science of this seven-volume book is inestimable for Vesalius was able, through careful dissection and examination, to redress many of the medical and anatomical errors that date from the time of Galen

It also produced a series of memorable (if gruesome) images of the human form

Pietro Da Cortona

Pietro da Cortona was born in Tuscany in 1596 and became the leading Italian Baroque painter of his time, mostly working in Rome
His patrons included Pope Urban VIII and the Pope's nephew, the powerful Cardinal Francesco Barberini

During his life time Cortona was not known as an anatomical engraver although his Tabulae anatomicae was thought to have been started around 1618

The dramatic poses he adopts for his subjects are curiously out of step with the scientific function of these engravings, suggesting perhaps that he was more comfortable painting dramatic frescoes than this 'bread-and-butter' work done before he achieved international fame as a decorator of churches

Cortona's The Golden Age

The human form in anatomical studies by Cortona appears somewhat crude yet the study of anatomy during the Renaissance gave artists a structural foundation for their human, albeit allegorical, figures

Even when working directly from a model, the artist's knowledge and understanding of underlying structures, is still essentiall

While the depiction of the female form, for example, is culturally determined - in other words, it will change from one artistic period to another - the basic human anatomy of this woman by Cranach (below) is no different from that of a figure by Botticelli

There is also something hugely sobering about a genuinely sympathetic appreciation of human form when it pertains to iconic figures in the history of art, particularly if they are female and subject - as is often the case in art - to exclusively male scrutiny

Is the anatomical illustration shown above, itself a revolutionary image, not a precursor to a recent  controversial statue by Damien Hirst?

Is this not the way art from one period constantly informs the work of later generations?
 Bartolommeo Eustachi

Bartolomeo Eustachi was born in about 1514 near Macerata, Italy and was a contemporary of Versalius

His Anatomical Engravings, for which he is now famous, was written in 1552 but not published until 1714, long after his death

One reason his work was not published in his lifetime was his fear of ex-communication by the then dominant Roman Catholic church

Ex-communication (or worse) was an occupational hazard for any scientist whose discoveries ran counter to religious orthodoxy and even Galileo was punished for his revolutionary astronomical discoveries

Eustachi's contributions to medicine include detailed descriptions of the inner ear; the anatomy of teeth and the discovery of the adrenal glands

From an artistic point-of-view, his engravings are clear and simple with none of the graphic 'flourishes' of, for example, Albinus

For me these functional engravings are an effective reminder that the human body is essentially an armature clothed in skin

To achieve the voluptuous shape and form of these women by Ingres, for example, the artist needs not only close observation but a real knowledge of human anatomy

Ingres studied classical sculpture and developed a style of drawing that created its own aesthetic. It also inspired many artists of a later generation, not least Pablo Picasso

In short, the contribution to our understanding of human anatomy and form, provided by the scientific work of these early, largely Renaissance anatomists is, therefore, both extensive and profound


The illustrations for this article are taken from Great Anatomical Drawings published by Dover Publications, 2008

If you would like to see more examples of anatomical drawings, then click on the link below:

No comments: