A cross-disciplinary collection at it’s finest, Medicine Illuminated is a visual narrative of social, moral, and spiritual movements as they pertain to the medical field. Rich with content, this exhibition has a wealth of works that trail the history of medicinal care, theories, and misconceptions. At the heart of each work is the notion that “health” has far more to do with the human condition than it does our physical condition. Our “wellness” isn’t determined by a fitness test so much as it is by our ideas about ourselves and other people. Showcasing the progression of ancient practices to advanced technology, and widely-believed suppositions to debunked theorems, Medicine Illuminated shows us how the science of medicine and all its implications are engrained deeply into the tapestry of individuals, households, and cultures.
Sex Ed. 101
While the artwork that graces the walls of most hospital waiting rooms is quite muted, somewhat abstract, or perfectly irrelevant, the art of medical illustrations is a different story. Medical illustrations help to bridge the gap between doctor and patient, creating visuals that aid in homecare and practical application. They transform medical terms into common terms, making one’s diagnosis much more manageable and far less perplexing. Even so, there are some things you just can’t learn about people through textbooks and anatomy. While a health class can teach all the ins and outs of sex, what it can’t teach you about is intimacy. The former is science, the latter is personal. To mix the two as one is to muddy the waters, creating cryptic messages about health and humanity (see below).
Ralph H. Segal, Bodyscope, Bodyscope Publications, 1935, courtesy of the Lloyd Library and Museum
Ralph H. Segal’s Bodyscope is comprised of anatomical illustrations of the male and female form. It is a didactic piece, incorporating color and volvelles for a heightened learning experience. The text is scholastic, the imagery scientific. Then, just when you thought this was nothing more than an archived medical record, the spread takes a dramatic shift from pedagogy to a social ordinance of sorts. Juxtaposing fact with fiction, the figures are christened with an elegy of grave impudence.
“Man’s great Accomplishments and noble Aspirations are achieved through the possession of a Sound Mind and a Healthy Body . . . In these Attributes lie the Bulwark of Man’s Social, Moral, and Domestic Structure: the Foundation which perpetuates Humanity’s Existence.”
“Woman, her creative body as wisely patterned by God, is the Abode wherein the Seed is endowed with Life and imbued with a Soul. . . Her Maternal nurturing and inspirational influence are reflected in Mankind’s aspirations; the fruits of which become her Reward.”
While this piece has some serious under(over)tones about sexuality, gender, and social roles, it is not necessarily gender art as much as it is ethical art. There is a strange inequity we see when an anatomist becomes an anthropologist or just presumptuous, at that. Segal synonymizes his knowledge of women with his ideas about women, yielding something that is conceptually repulsing but visually intriguing all at the same time.
Humans > criminals > animals
Human dissection has not always been a widely accepted practice. It’s history ranges across cultures, religions, and class systems. While some Eastern countries have long embraced human dissection, it was not until the 13th and 16th centuries that it spread West. Up until it’s implementation, physicians, practitioners, and medical students were restricted to animal dissection, making the application to human sciences somewhat gray. While animal dissection made way for medical advancements, it was not perfectly true for human transcription. But the moral certitude of the time, whether by law or conscience, condemned the act, until they found a loophole.
Executed criminals were sort of the segue from animal dissection to human dissection. While people stood opposed to dissecting other people, what could be so bad about dissecting an almost-animal-but-less-than-human-criminal? The resolve for one moral dilemma unveiling the next, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip is a depiction of a public dissection being performed on a recently executed criminal.
Through witting formal components, Rembrandt’s work speaks to the moral context of the time. Surrounding the deceased are well-to-do men (or at least well enough to not be the ones with their loin cloths on display). While they are positioned above the accused, implying their hierarchy and power, their very posture and congregation of heaping eagerness is carnal, as if a swarm of flies besieging open flesh. The way they stand in the shadows, amassed as a cloud of darkness, and how their faces are flushed with light emanating from the ethereal body below. Notions of good and bad, sanctity and evil lie within Rembrandt’s brush strokes, making this anatomy lesson a religious experience, if not a moral one at that.
Science as Art in Contemporary Culture
From the practice of expository medical drawings emerges a sort of sub-genre that has found its way into American pop culture. From Normal Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations to modern day birthing photographs, this sort of underground movement of medical artwork is fascinating. Bending away from the technical aspects of medical formalities, people (i.e. patients, pregnant females, etc.) have taken their medical experience into their own hands. This sort of outsider art is informal, introspective and far more intimate. While not exclusively featured in the exhibition itself, this genre of medical documentation is running rampant in mainstream culture, and is something worth mentioning as it says something about us.
To see your cultural diagnosis, visit the Lloyd Library and Museum through July 31.