Thinking About the Body Through Visual Art

March 16, 2015 at 1:58 pm

Readers of the Literature, Art & Medicine Blog may remember me as the first Artist in Residence at NYUSOM, or as the creator and teacher of Art & Anatomy in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine [previously] [interview]. You may have seen my own or my students' work on exhibit in the MSB (Medical Science Building) Gallery at NYU Langone Medical Center, or read Founding Editor Felice Aull's insightful annotation of my work in the Database. Coming to the world of medicine as an artist, patient, and inhabiter of an unusual anatomy, I've been honored to have a voice in the humanistic medicine dialogue. Today I'm writing to introduce myself in a new role that I'm excited to take on, as the new Art Editor of the revamped, redesigned LitMed Database and Blog.

My first task as art editor was to find an image to represent Visual Art on the website's new landing page. It was a challenge, but a fascinating one … and in the end I was happy to find the solution not in one perfect image but in bringing together this set of four. They represent an intriguing spectrum of cultures, time periods, media, and ways of thinking about the body, each gaining a deeper resonance by being juxtaposed with the others.

Litmed-lpage-VisualArt
left to right: Laura Ferguson, Pavel Tchelitchew, Sopheap Pich, Leonardo da Vinci
more information and links to each image can be found at [http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/about]

In each of these artworks, an image of the head or the brain is imbued with a sense of consciousness, an awareness of its own embodiment. Each of the artists is attuned to correspondences between the forms of nature and those of the body. With varying degrees of transparency, they each allow us to see or sense the underlying anatomy - and more broadly, to look beneath the surface of life, which is what art is able to do so well.

There is an inherent humanism in art, and a great power to communicate - to express things that can't be as easily communicated in other ways. The connection between artist and viewer allows us to share experiences that go deep into the human spirit and psyche - the same places where illness or pain or differentness or isolation often take us.

Leonardo_blogpost

Art looks beneath the surface of life - but strangely enough, it rarely looks beneath the surface of the skin. For Leonardo da Vinci, drawing anatomy was an essential part of his artistic investigations into the nature of human experience. The anatomical studies in his notebooks were drawn (c.1509-10) from personal observation of human dissections - but also from life models. His drawings take us beneath the skin of real people who still come alive to us 500 years later, and make us think about the beauty and complexity that lies within our living bodies.

Surprisingly, since Leonardo's time very few artists have looked inward to show us the beauty of our intriguing, spatially complex inner landscapes, or to explore their meaning. Anatomy became part of a genre, medical illustration - which has given us many great images but, as it grew more scientifically accurate over the centuries, became increasingly generic and impersonal. Now when we try to visualize our unique inner spaces, we tend to imagine something that looks like a medical textbook. It's hard to find images we can relate to - especially for those of us (like me) with unusual anatomies.

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One of the few artists to use the imagery of anatomy was Pavel Tchelitchew, who painted Interior Landscape (above left) and The Golden Leaf (right) in the 1940's. He used the imagery of anatomy, glowing from within, to represent the spiritual aspect of human life and its connection to nature and the cosmic order of the universe. His networks of nerves and blood vessels evoke invisible structures at the far reaches of scale, from atoms to constellations.

SopheapPich_blogpost

Sopheap Pich is a contemporary Cambodian-born artist who created Buddha 2 (above left) out of rattan and wire in 2009. The openness of its woven reeds allows light to shine through, suggesting the inner body. Pich was a pre-med student before turning to art, and many of his woven sculptures, like Cycle 3 (center) and Caged Heart (right) suggest anatomical forms. But for him, the spirituality of the body is connected to culture and history. His Buddha radiates a peace and calm that contrast with the tips of its rattan strands, dyed red to evoke the blood spilled during the Cambodian genocide.

Ferguson_blogpost

Finally, my own work: Cerebrum, coronal view, with floating colors (left and also above, the header image for the Blog). Curving vertebrae with spinal nerves (center), and Lung, opened (right). I draw from skeletons and cadaver dissections and from radiology images of my own body, made for my use as an artist: a 3D spiral CT scan of my body and a 7-Tesla MRI of my brain. The open access to anatomical source materials that I've gained through my role at the medical school allows me to evoke the subtle textures of physical reality as I draw my own body from the inside out, attuned to sensory and kinesthetic experience.
You can see more of my work at www.lauraferguson.net.

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The idea for Art & Anatomy, my seminar in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine, came out of my own work as an artist. I knew that drawing would a great way to learn anatomy, and a humanistic mode of engaging with the dissection experience and its intimate involvement with the visceral reality of the body. Art & Anatomy is about learning to draw but even more about learning to see: to visualize the inner body and connect it to the the more familiar outside view. The artists are students, faculty, and staff from the medical school and NYU Langone Medical Center, who bring a special perspective to their work: a knowledge and understanding gained through their hands-on engagement with the body and its ills.
Shown above, Pelvis by Susanna Nguy (left) and Under the Skin II by Karen Ong (right). A gallery of student art is on view at http://school.med.nyu.edu/humanisticmed/artandanatomy

As your art editor, I'll continue to present you with images like these, including the work of artists with disabilities and unusual anatomies whose work comes from their own inner body experience and others whose work captures the uniqueness of our inner bodies and helps us connect with them more closely. I hope they will make you think of anatomy and the body in new ways, and show you the power of art to communicate and connect us. I'd love to hear from readers, especially if you have artists to recommend - you can contact me at laura@lauraferguson.net.