The Phaidon Folio

Beyond the Figure: 8 Anatomical Artworks that Peer Inside the Human Body

Beyond the Figure: 8 Anatomical Artworks that Peer Inside the Human Body
"Fetus at Thirteen Weeks, Spaceman," 1965, Lennart Nilsson; photograph, dimensions variable. Picture credit: Lennart Nilsson Photography/TT News Agency

While the human figure has played a central role in art since the very beginning, an artist's rendering of the internal body is only as detailed as science's ability to understand and depict anatomy. Phaidon’s new book Anatomy: Exploring the Human Body brings together images from the worlds of both science and art that chronicle the intriguing visual history of human anatomy, highlighting its amazing complexity and our ongoing captivation with the systems and functions of our bodies.

Throughout the book, we see how humans have used their imaginations and tools to uncover the materiality of our existence over time. From abstract drawings to microscopic photographs, here are eight artists who have rendered human anatomy into works of art.

Abdominal Arteries (2018)

Abdominal arteries, 2018, Alain Pol False-colour arteriograph X-ray (angiograph), dimensio Abdominal arteries , 2018, Alain Pol False-colour arteriograph X-ray (angiograph), dimensions variable. Picture credit: Alain Pol, ISM

With pink clouds blooming against a startling blue background far removed from conventional representations of anatomy, this image could almost represent the flowing tendrils of an underwater plant. In fact it is a false-color arteriograph, also known as an angiograph, of the abdomen of a healthy adult human, created by injecting the arteries with a fluid that shows up as opaque when X-rayed. Against the pale vertebrae of a clearly visible spinal column, the image delineates the arteries that supply blood to the kidneys, spleen and liver. The image is the work of the prolific French photographer Alain Pol, who sets out to use arteriography to create anatomical images that are as beautiful as they are informative. Cerebral arteriography, also known as cerebral angiography, was invented in 1927 by the Portuguese physician Egas Moniz, who used the procedure to diagnose various diseases of the brain. Since then the technique has become a mainstay of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), using an iodine-based fluid to make blood show up on scans. Pol adds false color for additional contrast, using it to create striking images of the body’s internal workings whose unearthly qualities make them popular printable downloads that can even grace smartphone cases—but perhaps not for the squeamish.

Bleeder (2007)

Bleeder, 2007, Walter Oltmann, collection of the South African Broadcasting Cooperation. P Bleeder , 2007, Walter Oltmann, collection of the South African Broadcasting Cooperation. Picture credit: Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

Is it a human figure? An anatomical illustration? A tree? This arterial drawing in ink by the South African artist Walter Oltmann (born 1960) echoes the frequent analogy of the body’s network of blood vessels with the roots, trunks and branches of trees, a comparison clearly visible in prepared specimens or depictions in medical textbooks. Here, however, the association with the tree is not merely visual: instead it signals a fusing of form central to the artist’s practice. Bleeder resonates strongly with Oltmann’s sculptural works. Based on natural phenomena of humans, plants and animals, Oltmann creates labor and time intensive structures in woven wire that, in resemblance and deftness, reference the material craft traditions of South Africa. Oltmann’s exploration of bodily interiority and exteriority, hybridity and mutation, are played out against a backdrop of social and political concerns: his reconfiguration of the male human frame—either intrinsically protected like an insect with a shell or clothed in an armored covering like an exoskeleton—invokes a sense of both vulnerability and the militarization of the masculine body as a defense mechanism. The figure shown here, made up of vibrant red vessels, may be indicative of a breaching of those defences, a traumatic bleeding out that highlights fragility rather than strength.

Representation of the retinal photoreceptor mosaic ( c .2010)

Representation of the retinal photoreceptor, mosaic, c.2010, Mark Fairchild; digital image Representation of the retinal photoreceptor, mosaic , c.2010, Mark Fairchild; digital image, dimensions variable. Picture credit: © Mark D. Fairchild, Reproduced with Permission

At a dinner party in 1817, the poet John Keats lamented that the demonstration by Isaac Newton over a century earlier that sunlight comprised a mixture of different colored rays had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow." Humans perceive color through the visible spectrum: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Each color has a specific wavelength to which receptors or cones in the eye’s light-sensitive layer, the retina, are responsive. Three types of cones—for short (S, blue), medium (M, green) and long (L, red) wavelengths—enable normal trichromatic color vision. The image on the left represents a mosaic of cone receptors at the fovea of a trichomatic eye. There are around 150,000 receptors per square millimeter at the fovea, which is the retinal area with best color vision. In the image on the right, the red (L) cones have been replaced with green (M) cones, signifying that the individual has a color-vision deficiency known as red–green color blindness. These individuals confuse bright reds and greens and cannot clearly distinguish colors containing red. Congenital red-green color blindness affects about 8 per cent of males and less than 1 per cent of females, but is passed from mother to son on the X chromosome.

Musketball! (2012)

Musketball! 2012, Howie Tsui, Collection of the artist. Picture credit: Image courtesy of Musketball! 2012, Howie Tsui, Collection of the artist. Picture credit: Image courtesy of the Artist and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Photo: Paul Litherland

Drop the targets on either side of this pinball machine based on the human torso and lights on the table will spell out the words ‘mangled viscera’; at the top of the table, bones indicate the paths to the holes, while the bumpers are adorned with images of mutilated eyes. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Nigeria and Canada, the Canadian visual artist Howie (Ho Yan) Tsui (born 1978) was commissioned to create a medically themed work for a 2012 exhibition marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812, fought between the United States and the United Kingdom. Tsui’s research on battlefield surgery and the horrors of battlefield wounds led him to a surprising realization—on entering the body, a musketball rattled around inside the organs much as a pinball might bounce around on a table. To illustrate his theme, Tsui redesigned a pinball machine with a painting of a British soldier being shot by a musketball on the front glass panel. The uniquely destructive path of a musketball within a human body is matched by the path of the musketball fired by the pinball plunger. Tsui’s written instructions accompanying Musketball! give each player three balls per turn, and the reward for hitting a rib is gradually to light up the words ‘mangled viscera’ in order to gain the bonus multipliers that lead to a high score.

A single sperm being inserted into a prepared egg cell ( c .2004)

A single sperm being inserted into a prepared egg cell, c.2004, Spike Walker; photomicrogr A single sperm being inserted into a prepared egg cell , c.2004, Spike Walker; photomicrograph. Picture credit: Spike Walker

This microscopic photograph captures a marvel of medical ingenuity: the moment in in vitro fertilization (IVF) during which a single sperm cell is inserted into an egg cell, or ovum, which sits in the center of the composition as a giant sun, its orange, red and yellow colors appearing to shine with metallic overtones. The sperm appears at left in a micropipette pushing through the egg’s lining, held in place by suction from another micropipette on the right-hand side. A single male sperm has twenty-three chromosomes, which join with the twenty-three chromosomes of the female egg. Fertilization takes place when the respective nuclei of a sperm and an egg fuse to make a diploid cell, which is termed a ‘zygote’. This starts prenatal development. Fertilization commonly involves sperm being ejaculated during copulation, but with IVF this action is managed scientifically, an egg being combined with a sperm outside the body— in vitro means ‘in glass’. Spike Walker (born 1933), the British micrographer who produced this image, uses light microscopes to photograph biological samples. Having taken a degree in zoology, he worked as a schoolteacher before he began to produce photomicrographs in his garage-cum-laboratory, publishing his first images in 1961. He has been recognized by the Royal Photographic Society for his outstanding contribution to photography and its application in the service of medicine.

Symbiosis (detail) (2015)

Symbiosis (detail), 2015, Rebecca D. Harris; hand- and machine-embroidery on fabric. Pictu Symbiosis (detail) , 2015, Rebecca D. Harris; hand- and machine-embroidery on fabric. Picture credit: Rebecca D Harris

These colored balls of thread embroidered onto a contour map of the human head are a graphic demonstration of an often overlooked fact: that the human body is itself a rich ecosystem, a landscape home to trillions of microbes, with different microbes preferring different habitats. The color-coding adopted by the British artist Rebecca D. Harris (born 1977) is suggestive rather than literal, but it underlines the fact that these micro-organisms are present everywhere our bodies come into contact with the world: on our skin, in our ears, noses, mouths, genitals and gut. These microbes include bacteria, fungi, archaea and more, and many are not only harmless but positively beneficial. Microbiome research is currently using ever advancing technology to explore uncharted territory. From mouth to intestine, microbes of the gut in particular are the subject of rigorous current investigation. New sequencing approaches have allowed scientists to look at tiny amounts of DNA from multiple microbe species in complex samples such as saliva and even feces to understand their role in digestion. The powerful, wide-reaching, intimate relationship we share with these microbes is being uncovered further with every new study. Surprising even scientists, it turns out to be more closely entwined than previously imagined, with gut microbes in particular affecting mood, memory and other aspects of our health via the immune, hormonal and nervous systems.

La liberté en écorche (2013)

La liberté en écorche, 2013, ORLAN; 3D video. Picture credit: © David Oliveira 237; Prod La liberté en écorche , 2013, ORLAN; 3D video. Picture credit: © David Oliveira 237; Produced and directed by ORLAN

A flayed woman—who none the less looks very much alive—holds one arm outstretched above her head as her gaze directly meets our own; the breasts are shown in their full tissue and include the nipples. Some sections are highlighted luminous green, including the accoutrements of buckled straps around the upper arms, encasements on both knees and two bumps above her eyebrows, which indicate where the artist had two implants inserted beneath her skin. This is self-portraiture; a manifestation of carnal art as defined by the French artist ORLAN (born 1947) whereby the reconfiguration of the flesh is enabled by the technology of our times. The artist is revealed as a digitized anatomical representation of liberty in the pose of the famous statue, extending her perception of the body as a modified readymade. ORLAN has dedicated her life’s work to, at first, challenging social and political norms and, more recently, distancing herself from the social while embracing more fully the technological. She uses her body as her material while subverting or underscoring what is meant by freedom. Often with humor and always provocative, perhaps the artist’s best-known works were those produced in the early 1990s: her series of surgical interventions, while awake and reciting, pushed boundaries of performance and medical ethics in artistic practice.

Fetus at Thirteen Weeks, Spaceman (1965)

Fetus at Thirteen Weeks, Spaceman, 1965, Lennart Nilsson; photograph, dimensions variable. Fetus at Thirteen Weeks, Spaceman, 1965, Lennart Nilsson; photograph, dimensions variable. Picture credit: Lennart Nilsson Photography/TT News Agency

It may be commonplace now to see images of the fetus in the womb—albeit rarely with this degree of resolution and clarity—but when the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson (1922–2017) published his photo essay ‘Drama of Life Before Birth’ in Life magazine more than fifty years ago, he gave most people a revelatory first view of how a baby develops in the womb. The photographs made a sensation, and on publication in April 1965, the magazine sold eight million copies in four days. Nilsson’s pioneering images are not all that they appear, however. His methods remain somewhat mysterious—and controversial. He is rumored to have shot fetuses after miscarriages or abortions, learning to light them as if they were floating in the amniotic fluid of the womb. More often he inserted cutting-edge cameras and lights into the womb during diagnostic procedures such as laparoscopy, developing his own wide-angle endoscope cameras. Despite their uncertain origins, Nilsson’s images were highly influential in shaping how people view life before birth and the debate about the sanctity of human life, helping to encourage the growth of the anti-abortion movement. Nilsson continued to pioneer photography of the human body, taking some of the first images of viruses such as HIV and SARS, but he remains best known for producing images of the unborn baby that quickly became so iconic that they were carried on the Voyager spacecraft—which are now close to carrying them beyond the edge of the solar system.



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