In the Boston University Gallery at the Stone Gallery's "Teaching the Body," a new exhibit running until March 31, the boundary between art and medicine is shown to be not conventionally steadfast but unexpectedly fluid. The various featured artworks show how surgeons and their dissections have informed artists’ conceptions of the human form, and how artistic pieces were used in medicine long before the invention of modern medical imaging techniques. The exhibition follows artistic representations of human anatomy from 200 years ago up until the present day and concludes with unconventional, contemporary interpretations of the human body.
“Before the arts or medicine in America were professionalized, they really had to collaborate,” exhibition curator Naomi H. Slipp says. Collaboration is the lynchpin of the exhibit’s artwork and is very much evident in the earlier works, such as Oscar Wallis’s detailed paintings of the musculature of the neck and forearm. “The artists had to turn to the doctors to teach them how to picture the body,” Slipp says. In turn, doctors would then use the resulting works as a teaching guide in a time when cadavers were rare. “[The exhibition has] been a really interesting way to see the two things converge,” says Joshua R. Buckno, assistant director of the Boston University Gallery.
From Wallis’s precise anatomical watercolor plates to more conceptual modern works by Kiki Smith and Lisa Nilsson, the artworks themselves are surprisingly diverse in their treatment of rather exact medical content. The exhibition gives a clear view not only of the beauty of the human body but also of the patience and skill of the doctors and artists who collaborated to produce these works of art. The range of media is impressive, from sculptures in bronze and paper to treatises on the human body. There is even a small annex room where visitors can watch a videotaped anatomy lecture. “The great thing is just how full it is and how many dimensions can be approached,” Buckno says.
The exhibit contains many photographs of the casts of classical sculptures from which many anatomical drawings were rendered. These casts represented an ideal of the human form not reflective of the diversity of depicted individuals, particularly in terms of race. “Picturing the body is very much about class, and it’s about gender, and it’s about race. A lot of the sort of politics of anatomy are really fascinating,” Slipp says. There are other parts of the exhibition where these issues arise: In Emma Augusta Cross’s 1886 sketch “Skulls and heads,” the crania of different races are depicted in a way that clearly likens non-Caucasian peoples to apes.
Gender also informs some works in the exhibition. The restricted opportunities available to women in the past two centuries made their role in medical art all the more significant. One telling piece in the exhibit is a small sepia photograph from 1894 of a women’s sketching class. At the center of the photograph, one of the women confidently cradles a human skull among the easels and other students that surround her. The visible self-assurance of these women artists makes for a powerful image, particularly when juxtaposed against a written account elsewhere in the exhibition of female art students forced to wear veils to hide their identities while drawing nudes.
The exhibition explores the relationship between people and the body as well as the overlap between art and science. “I believe, as someone who’s very invested in the contemporary arts and art practices, that this kind of exhibition foregrounds just that relationship [between art and science],” says Kate McNamara, director and chief curator of the Boston University Art Gallery. This relationship is still present today, as evidenced by the exhibition’s contemporary works like Nilsson’s rolled paper pieces. These appear at first glance to be sagittal slices of the head and neck but in fact are carefully constructed from coiled multicolored paper. Throughout the exhibit, the continued urge to understand and represent the human body is clear.
Though “Teaching the Body” explores an interdisciplinary connection that has existed for centuries, it is by no means, as the title might have one believe, yet another chance to exhibit Renaissance prints and old Rembrandts. Instead, by drawing from a range of media and time periods—including the present day—“Teaching the Body” not only explores both art and anatomy but also demonstrates how the two historically linked disciplines still impact each other today.