In the age of the selfie and self-obsession, it’s easy to forget that people have always been drawn to the human body, wether their own or someone else’s. Taryn Cain looks at how our bodies have been depicted throughout history and why.
Humans have always been fascinated by their own image. Cave drawings of prehistoric man; and the voluptuous figures of fertility, the Venus sculptures, both date from around 35,000 years ago. Around 5,000 years ago people also became more interested in what was inside the body, though they often misunderstood what they saw.
The ancient Egyptians who dissected and mummified their dead, felt the brain was relatively unimportant. In ancient Greece, Herophilos (“the first anatomist”) believed air travelled through your arteries alongside your blood and that your soul could be found in your cranium. By the 16th century Europe was in the midst of a scientific revolution, which brought along with it a renewed interest in the human body. By the end of that century the microscope had been invented, allowing us to see the body in ways not possible previously.
Throughout much of history, men have been the default for study of the human body, with women only prized for their reproductive ability. Social prohibitions made it difficult for doctors to study living female bodies and very few dead female bodies legally ended up on the dissection table. Thus anatomical models became popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Initially made for medical students, the anatomical Venus models also found an eager audience in both the public sphere and for artists. These wax creations were gorgeous and disturbingly lifelike, with long, thick hair, naked breasts and serene expressions, even while their insides were being removed and inspected. It may have been that their good looks and sensuality were a distraction from the unpleasantness of death and dissection; maybe it was just that their mainly-male audience preferred to look upon a beautiful corpse. You can read more about them here.
Someone else who could be argued to have exploit female sexuality under the guise of medical science was Freud’s teacher, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot studied patients at a women’s hospital for 33 years and used his observations to further medical knowledge. His most contested diagnosis, and the one which drew him the biggest audiences, were his ideas on hysteria.
Hysteria was characterised by unusual physical behaviours believed to be brought on by trauma or a disorder of the nervous system. Though he claimed that hysteria was genderless, all of his high profile patients were young women, displayed in diaphanous and revealing hospital gowns. Many of his theories on hysteria died with him in 1893. Read our previous post about the history of hysteria.
Today some may call it reality TV, but “freak shows” used to be all the rage. Medical men and lay people were fascinated by those of gender ambiguity, physical abnormalities, conjoined bodies and racial differences. For 2 shillings you could look upon and even touch your chosen “specimen” and it was often the only hope of any kind of livelihood for the person on display.
Charles Byrne was exhibited during life and then against his wishes after death. Charles was 7 ft 7 inches due to a rare genetic mutation and was known as the Irish Giant around London in the late 18th century. After death his bones were stripped and reassembled; they remain on display to the present day. More recently both his brain and DNA have been examined to determine the cause of his unusual height.
Saartjie Baatman, who was given the stage name of Hottentot Venus, was displayed in London and Paris in the early 1800s due to her voluptuous “tribal” appearance. Despite prurient interest in her genitalia, she managed to keep them private until after her death, when her external genitals were excised and displayed along with her skeleton and a body cast for over 200 years. She was finally returned to South Africa in 2002.
Religious prohibitions prevented dissections from taking place for 4,000 years. Part of the interest in exploring the human body again in 13th century Europe was driven by the desires of artists. Unlike earlier dissections, which were conducted in order to find the soul or curiosity about the body, artists took part in dissections in order to bring more realism into their work.
Michelangelo first became involved in dissections in his early teens and was conducting his own by the time he was 18. Leonardo da Vinci initially worked with an anatomist before conducting his own dissections and is believed to have taken part in over 30 dissections during his lifetime despite being nauseated by the process.
Egyptian mummies were another fascination from the 16th century onwards. Due to differing ideas about the age of the earth, most people believed it to be only a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands, years old (as opposed to the current estimate of 4.54 billion years old). Therefore mummies seemed to be almost as old as the earth itself. Unfortunately, rather than a desire to conserve these ancient people’s bodies, instead a desire developed to turn their destruction into a public spectacle.
Many were dissected, with their remains discarded or ground into medicine. Mummy unwrapping parties would happen in which doctors, such as Thomas Pettigrew (1791 – 1865), would unwrap mummies for an audience of gentlemen, ladies and scholars, cut them open to display their insides and occasionally give strips of their linen wrapping away as souvenirs. Read more about mummies.
Some modern artists have gone for hyper realism, along with social or political statements. Gunther von Hagens, a doctor and entertainer, seeks to liberate anatomy for the masses, both medical students and lay people alike, with the use of his plastinated human bodies. His shows are also used to highlight the damage our lifestyle can take on our bodies, such as smoking, or knee injuries requiring surgical solutions.
The artist Marc Quinn has made realistic life size models depicting transsexualism, extreme cosmetic surgery, disabilities and people living with chronic illness. In our Reading Room we have a piece of his work, a life sized statue of his son who suffered a milk allergy after birth, so his model is infused with an artificially made milk substitute.
Today the way we gaze on the living and the dead is starting to blur. We can bring the dead back through the use of computer generated imagery, photography and film. The dead may not be able to speak but they can still tell us things about their life, their culture, their ancestry and how they died.
We can also gaze at people before they are even born, through the discovery of ultrasound in the 1950s and the addition of video technology in the 1980s. Uniquely for our time, we can also look into the bodies of the living through the use of CT scans, MRI, Endoscopic techniques and DNA analysis. At the same time, the line between art and science has continued to blur. Science can create art and artists can interrogate science, opening up new audiences for both.
Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.