Rethinking Bodies: PAFA’s Anatomy/Academy

April 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philade...

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, Image via Wikipedia, by César Sánchez

Last September in my post “Contemplating Bodies & Display” I considered the body as material and memorial.  Now after my recent visit to the exhibition Anatomy/Academy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, I’m once again thinking about bodies as objects and sites of memory.  This unusual exhibition highlights the relationship between art and science. Organized in three parts, the exhibition includes various anatomical models used by 19th century medical students, Thomas Eakin’s 1875 painting Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of figures in motion, several noteworthy early 20th century modernist paintings including Marcel Duchamps’ Nude Descending a Staircase, dissection tools, and even preserved human remains.  While it is common to consider the figure in fine art, it is rare to find an exhibition that juxtaposes  artistic depictions of corporeal form with clinical representations of the body.  This complex show provokes visitors to explore the connections between art and science and meanings of the body as an object of knowledge, power, and memory.

In the past I haven’t been interested in shows such as Bodyworld or Bodies, which feature “plastinated” human corpses.  However, I was very intrigued by Anatomy/Academy.  Although this exhibition presents some graphic objects, it cannot be accused of sensationalism.  Depictions of the human body and the dissection of cadavars have been central to the history of medical and fine art studies.  This issue is emphasized by the history of PAFA.  In the early years of the academy students studied anatomy and even dissected corpses.

As I mentioned, the exhibition includes some art favorites. However, the context of the presentation will encourage visitors to see them anew.  In this show, the artworks are more than aesthetic objects.  They are also forms of scientific knowledge.  Likewise, some of the clinical learning tools, such as the oversize casts of bones in the head and anatomy pop-up books, can be appreciated in an aesthetic manner. Moreover, Eakins’ celebrated painting The Gross Clinic is rightly located in the center of the exhibition.  It operates as a conceptual bridge between art and medical science.

Of all the works and objects on display, I was most interested in the model of a preserved central nervous system. Labeled “Harriet,” the 1888 model, on loan from the College of Medicine at Drexel University, is believed to be the remains of Harriet Cole, a cleaning woman who worked at the Hahnemann Medical College and willed her body to the school for research purposes. Although the label stated this biographical information, it was initially difficult for me to interpret the display as human remains.  Despite my early studies of biology, when I first observed this model I associated it with abstract art, not an actual human body.  The nerves are coated with a white substance and arranged in a shape that vaguely resembles a human  form. However, the resulting “figure” mounted on a black board is almost entirely flat since there’s no muscle tissue or bone.  At the top, the nerves encircle the brain, a small dark brown mass, and connect with the eyes.  Although the label didn’t mention anything about the eyes, they are most likely artificial since they resemble a painted plaster-like material.

Because of the synthetic eyes, the art museum setting, and my overall training as an art historian, at first I didn’t see a body, I saw an artistic rendering.  However, medical students or physicians may immediately identify “Harriet” as not just a model of the nervous system but as actual remains.  “Harriet” exemplifies the idea of the body as an object of knowledge, power, and memory.  The presentation of the nervous system encourages analytical study, makes visitors contemplate the practice of willing one’s body to science, and in an abstract way commemorates the body of the deceased.  My experience  of connection and disconnection with “Harriet” was a reminder of the complex interplay of context and identity when constructing meaning.

The diverse objects and atypical juxtapositions showcased in this exhibition incites viewers to think about the body in a new way and recognize the often overlooked interrelationship of art and science. If you are in the Philadelphia area and haven’t yet visited Anatomy/Academy, you still have time.  The exhibition is open through April 17, 2011 .


Harriet, Anatomical Sculpture, WHYY PBS
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Presents Anatomy/Academy, CBS Philly
Art: Academy Showcases Body Works by Edward Sozanski, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Anatomy/Academy by Ed Higgins,  ICON (pdf)
‘Anatomy/Academy’ Examines Where Art and Science Intersect, Fred B. Adelson, Courier-Post
The Meeting of Art and Medicine, Poonam Sharma, Drexel University Cultural Passport

Entry filed under: Art, Material Culture, Museums. Tags: , , , , , , .

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