How Artists Have Explored and Understood the Human Body Through Time

LOS ANGELES — Leonardo da Vinci once explained how important it was for artists to understand anatomy. Some poorly drawn bodies, he wrote, “seem a sack full of nuts rather than the surface of a human being.” happy, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy at the Getty Research Institute has selected the more accurate and exquisite anatomical illustrations from the 16th century onwards. The exhibition revivifies past views of bodies and provokes continued exploration of how we understand our human mechanics.

Fittingly, the corporeal show opens with death. “The Living Dead,” the first of six sections, explains how the visual tradition of the skeletal ‘dance of death’ reminded viewers of their mortality. This motif lingered in posed and animated anatomies of the early modern era, like a hunched, prayerful skeleton by Domenico Bonaveri. Other mesmerizing images include a woodcut illustrating nerves snaking away from a skeleton’s bones as if electrified, and a depiction of the uncanny fetal assemblages of Cornelis Huyberts, who arranged infant skeletons around a stony landscape and originally included morbid captions about mortality.

Antonio Cattani, “Écorché Figure, Seen from the Back” (1781), after Ercole Lelli, etching and engraving, printed from five plates on five sheets of paper (Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

The era’s new possibilities in printing and humanism spurred stronger interest in mapping the body, Monique Kornell, curator and author of the accompanying catalogue, explained to Hyperallergic in an interview. This change was embodied in Andreas Vesalius’s seminal 1543 anatomical treatise De Corpus Fabrica Humani Libri Septumcolloquially known as De Fabricawhich included over 200 intricate anatomical woodcuts that differed from classical views of the body.

The fascination with depicting the body and how it worked allowed physicians to better understand and heal it. A section on “Anatomy for Artists” explains how anatomy classes and dissections were incorporated into Renaissance artistic education. Partnerships between anatomists and artists, like the perfectionist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus and the imaginative Jan Wandelaar, generated prints of meticulous bodies set against vivid landscapes.

“Anatomy and the Antique” shows how ancient statues were dissected in drawings; artists turned to classical works like the Apollo Belvedere as anatomical and artistic models. The show neatly reinforces these connections by placing a Roman torso from the Getty collection next to a woodcut from De Fabrica that illustrates abdominal organs spilling from a similar statue.

Anatomical models depicted idealized bodies, with flaws smoothed out. The value placed on certain body types was reinforced in their images: the ideal figures of Apollo and Venus in Greco-Roman tradition, and Adam and Eve in Christianity, proliferated images of muscular men and fleshy, fertile women down the centuries. Although the drawings were meant to represent ideal humans, anatomists often sought or stole bodies for dissection that were deemed of less value, including those of people convicted of crimes. While the show touches on this complexity, it does not delve into pathological anatomy, drawings of bodies that deviated from the ideal based on shape or because of disease. It would be fascinating to see the topic addressed in a subsequent exhibition that builds from this foundation.

Robert Strange, engraving of “The Child in the Womb, in its Natural Situation,” in William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures (1774) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The show’s wealth of material leads visitors to consider the body on a number of levels, from a section on “Surface Anatomy” explaining how artists like Leonardo surmounted drawing the body to anatomical models with deeper dimensionality in “Seeing in 3D.” The thematic organization also intermixes a few contemporary works. OG Abel’s 2012 “Love and Hate” evokes Dia de los Muertos makeup in counterpoint to the first section’s representations of death, while Tavares Strachan’s pulsating neon skeleton “Robert” (2018) memorializes the first Black American astronaut, Robert Lawrence, in the final section of the show. They are stirring works, though more context may have helped them feel as cohesive as the rigorous research in the rest of the show.

Tavares Strachan, “Robert,” neon, Pyrex, transformers, and MDF box, installation view at the Getty (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Everybody’s interested in their body,” Kornell said. Getting “inside the body tells who we are, how we work, [and] how we’ve figured that out over the centuries.” Even today, when imaging technology can provide all kinds of anatomical illumination, illustrations still provide useful ways of slicing and dicing (so to speak) to clarify the body’s relevant details. As the show reveals, art translates the complexity of the body to make legible whichever aspects of it we most need to understand.

Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy continues at the Getty Research Institute (200 Getty Center Dr #1100, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through July 10.

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