The Artist Studio


The Slow Death of Rose

Commentary by Joyce Cutler-Shaw, artist; Artist in Residence, School of Medicine of the University of California San Diego

History is story telling with images embedded in memory. The history of anatomy is a history of human representation: how we are seen and how we see ourselves. Visual images are continually shaped and re-shaped by the enthusiasms and preconceptions of the present. The visual representations of the history of anatomy are an extraordinary record of our evolving self-images, public and private, cultural and social. As historian Martin Kemp has written, in observing the connections of medical science and art, “No field is richer in metaphor than the body.” (1)

Body representation has been a significant feature of human visual culture from stick figures and handprints of pre-historic cave paintings to medieval illustrations; from Renaissance drawings of human dissection by artist/anatomists from Leonardo da Vinci to George Stubbs; from Rembrandt to Thomas Eakins; from the early 20th century European disease study waxes to the newest, digitally developed, life-like models with touchable, veristic, simulated wounds for training battlefield first responders – and from the virtual body of the Visible Man to the artist Virgil Wong‘s eponymous “Pregnant Man.” Arthur Danto has written in The Body/Body Problem, that representation “brings something to the world it would otherwise lack – a point of view, with reference to which objects are transformed into instruments and obstacles and hence, systems of meanings.” (2) Exploring across the disciplines of art and medicine I have discovered the medical field to be an arena for the newest forms of body representation. It is at the intersection of art and medical science that new insights in interpreting the physical self can emerge. Moreover, no field confronts issues more contentious than the medical such as when life begins and when it ends, and the limits of normalcy and the aberrant.

The Anatomy Lesson

My project titled, The Anatomy Lesson, is inspired and informed by my role as Artist-In-Residence at the School of Medicine of the University of California San Diego.  UCSD has been a leader in medical humanities and the first medical school nationally to appoint a visual artist for an independent fine art residency. I am honored to have been selected. The Anatomy Lesson is an exploration of the physical self and the human life cycle from birth through the process of aging and death- an odyssey of individual transformation common to all living things. It is also an investigation since 1994, of aspects of the history of anatomy by visiting great medical collections in our country, in Europe, China and Japan.

Medical models have depicted and re-shaped our body image through the centuries. The medieval cosmological metaphor of Zodiac Man was astronomically determined when we were creatures of humours and bile. The 16th century anatomist, Vesalius, and others of that time, made an argument for anatomy as a holy and divine art. Interpreting anatomy within a theological context was to “seek to ‘know thyself’ by recognizing that God is present within the human body.”(3) We were worthy of study and the body was open to investigation in order to understand the secrets of life. With the Renaissance and the emergence of the practice of dissection – of the “open body” – artists began to depict the anatomical figure, in human scale, as dynamic and dimensional. Leonardo da Vinci, pivotal artist and anatomist of the 16th century, opened the body labyrinth, even to initiating the anatomical positions and the cross section -which are still standards today. He drew the open torso as a body fragment with the fetus in utero, umbilically connected and close to term. Studying the body in specialized sections is current medical school practice, just as medical specialization is standard practice in contrast to holistic medicine.

Fragmented Body

Fragmentation is typical of the postmodern period as historian Linda Nochlin argues in her book, The Body in Pieces. (4) I have seen recent medical texts without a single whole body image.

In the 18th century gifted Italian craftsmen and a noted woman, Anna Morandi Manzolini, a professor of anatomy, an unusual role for a woman at that time, created life-size and life-like figures of painted wax with the texture of skin. They are still on display in medical collections at the University of Bologna, La Specola in Florence and the Josephinum in Vienna, Many were presented in the typical seductive poses of their time, as a reclining male odalisque, a “vein man,” and as a reclining female nude, her arm gracefully bent beneath her head, with long blond hair, earrings and necklace of pearls, with open eyes and open abdomen.

Historically, the anatomical model has been male. Anatomical depictions of women have featured the uterus, often with fetus in utero, as childbearing remains a primary interest in women’s bodies, even depicted without the woman. Before the 14th century, when life and death formed a unity, medieval woodcuts depicted the fetus as a miniature person – a little adult – fully formed and seemingly, free standing. As the practice of dissection emerged the anatomical figure was presented in human scale, as dynamic and dimensional, with a search for physiological precision. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, brought the X-ray and metaphors of transparency. The surprise discovery of 1896, the X-ray, the “new light” as it was called, revealed for the first time, the hidden recesses of the living body. I traveled to Dresden to the Hygiene Museum to see the first transparent “Visible Woman” which revealed internal body parts. She is molded in the yellowing hard plastic of the early 20th century and placed on a pedestal with arms upraised. She is life-size. Contemporary models in the art and medical worlds raise new issues of human scale, as it escalates in the postmodern period to the gargantuan.

Today we can walk the 50 foot length, head- to- toe, of a contemporary anatomical model at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Called “Tess,” a glowing red light illuminates the interior architecture of the enormous bald head. The whole “body” is a cage of plastic and metal and blue-green retractable panels of hard “skin.” See-through windows with flashing lights reveal the huge internal moving parts. She is ten times human size. We are the equivalent of a fetus or tumor in this labyrinthine figure. One hundred and twenty people can surround and view this supermodel at one time. To what degree can we identify and illuminate our own bodies with models of this scale and glitz? And what does it mean to lose our sense of human scale when exaggeration is as much a keystone of public attractions as it is of the grotesque? In Philadelphia at the Mutter Museum, the extremes of human skeletal form are displayed side-by-side in a circular case as curiosities with a circus sideshow feel.

Today we have sonograms and C-T scans, MRI’s and PET scans to view the internal body in real time, and which require informed visual reading, as, in fact, do figurative images in any context. Analysis is interpretation, as when a subject, a woman in labor, for example, becomes an object. In a contemporary delivery room, a woman in bed is typically wired to monitors, which continuously display her vital signs. Seated next to her, a nurse gently moves a mouse across her abdomen while diligently watching the screen to monitor the performance of the fetus. That is, if she has not been replaced by a virtual nurse as in some hospitals in Japan. What does it mean if a woman’s body processes are well attended, when she herself is ignored?


Our western historical tradition has focused on a physiological creature of flesh and blood, of skin, viscera and body fluids on an armature of bone, our embedded skeleton as primary structure. However with the arrival of the x-ray we could skip the knife and see through skin to bone to see a mysterious realm of tonal gradation. The rigorous training of radiologists in the strategies of visual reading often surpasses that of contemporary visual artists. In our era with advancing technologies of medical visualization, (computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography) of photonics and bio-photonics, we are losing our physical selves. We are being reinterpreted through medical imaging at the forefront of body representation, dramatically demonstrated at annual conferences, such as “Medicine Meets Virtual Reality.” (5) With the advances of remote, robotic surgery the eye-hand co-ordination of 8 to 12 year olds from playing video games is training them in the requisite skills of today’s and tomorrow’s new surgeons. Advanced medical schools are even considering robotic surgery as a specialty training program – for the Da Vinci Surgical System, for example- that would be separate from the standard four year medical school curriculum for medical doctors. Such specialist surgeons, operating from remote locations, even different countries, would not even have to meet the patient.

The contemporary Visible Human project is the result of a very costly, highly complex process, whereby a self-donated criminal cadaver has been micro-sliced and digitized and made available from the National Library of Medicine as a distribution base for an extensive range of independent programs for medical study. Medical schools and research labs have developed 3-D Virtual Reality Anatomy programs of the Visible Man and Visible Woman. Now we can exchange a physical self for a 3-D virtual reality display on a 2-D.screen, at a time, when for economic, rather than practical reasons, some medical schools are abandoning their established anatomical dissection programs for computer and real-time laboratory demonstration dissection. However, what is lost is the powerful hands-on sensory experience of the unpredictable, individual physical self. After all, no two bodies are alike, many with remarkable differences, which cause huddles in the anatomy lab.

We can now study the heart with goggles and magnetic finger tipped gloves. We can enter the rib cage, zip into the inferior vena cava, orbit the chambers and valves, and ride the looping Perkinge fibers, conveniently colored yellow. We can enlarge the image until it seems to emerge from the screen. It was illuminating to discover that, to develop this display at UCSD, advanced drawing skills were invaluable in visualizing and programming the quarter turns of body parts, as the available 3-D imaging programs were inadequate. The scale is variable and we can enlarge to room size in a total surround. That is, if we can afford the equipment to do it.

We now have the option of a cosmetically reconfigured self within our evolving social/cultural/medical and genetic age of cyborgs and avatars. With photonic and bio-photonic imaging we are represented as scans and graphs, as neon colored printouts of body hot spots, and as linear genetic arrays, in effect more virtual than physical. Even in death we have more options than burial or cremation. We can be cryogenically frozen or plasticized as the plasticized cadavers of Gunter von Hagens’s “Bodyworlds” and its offspring exhibits of “The Body.”

Our challenge is to understand and respond to the implications and consequences of these advancing phenomena that culturally define us. It is because we are still here, in our skin, embodied and temporal, transforming physically over a lifetime, even as a reluctant public takes the adversarial position of refusing to accept that we are of nature,  that we age and die. I argue for the immediate and the visceral because I believe that the life we have is an evolutionary gift, and that, at whatever our stage of life, we, in ourselves, are a unique demonstration of that vital process. We are the perfection of ourselves.

Note: This commentary has been abbreviated from a paper presented at a 2009 College Art Association Conference Panel titled “Clothing, Flesh, Bone: Visual Culture Above and Below the Skin,” Co-Chairs, Sarah Adams and Victoria Rovine.


1. Martin Kemp, “Medicine in View: Art and Visual Representation”, Western Medicine: An Illustrated History, ed. Irvine Loudon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 11.

2. Arthur C. Danto, The Body / Body Problem (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001) p. 14.

3. Walter Schubpach, The Paradox of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy of  Dr. Tulp’ (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1982) p. 31.

4. Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995).

5. Medicine Meets Virtual Reality 17, NextMed: Design for/the Well Being. Medicine Meets Virtual Reality is an annual conference on emerging data-centered technologies for medical care and education. It includes The Well, which merges formal exhibits with casual demonstrations and The Salon, which mingles the visual arts, science, and medicine.  January 19 – 22, 2009. The Hyatt Regency Long Beach, Long Beach, California


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