The Apotheosis of the Dissected Plate: Spectacles of Layering and Transparency in 19th- and 20th-Century Anatomy

Transparency. Artist: Gladys McHugh. McHugh, Polyak et al., The Human Ear in Anatomical Transparencies (Elmsford, NY, 1946). Courtesy National Library of Medicine. Photo: Mark Kessell.

Presented by Michael Sappol, National Library of Medicine
Date: Thursday, May 23
Time: 8:00 PM
Admission: $8
Presented by Morbid Anatomy

This is a story about “topographical anatomy”— a tradition of slicing and sawing rather than cutting and carving — and its procedures for converting bodies from three dimensions to two dimensions and back again. In topographical cross-section anatomy, the frozen or mummified body was cut into successive layers that were then transcribed and reproduced as pages of a book or a sequence of prints or slides (sometimes with the original slices preserved as a sequence of specimens for the anatomical museum). The topographical method influenced, and was in turn influenced by, flap anatomy (the technique of cutting out printed anatomical parts on paper or cardboard and assembling the parts into a layered representation of the human body). In the 20th century, medical illustrators and publishers developed a new technique of three-dimensional anatomical layering: the anatomical transparency — an epistemological/heuristic device which in the postmodern era has come to enchant artists as well as anatomists. I will argue that these anatomical productions — artworks, but also, exhibitions, toys, gimmicks, and other objects of consumer desire — are meaningful to us because the oscillation between the dis-assembly and re-assembly of bodies as images and image-objects, rehearses our own ambivalent relation to the anatomical body. It also rehearses (perhaps more mysteriously) our ambivalent relation to the planearity of anatomical images which serve as an effigy of self and other, and to the Flatland universe of planearity in which we imaginatively dwell. This talk features astonishing photographs by Mark Kessell.

Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health), Bethesda, MD. His scholarly work focuses on the body; the history of anatomy; the history of death; the history of medical illustration and display; and the history of medical film. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies (2002) and Dream Anatomy (2006), and editor of Hidden Treasure (Blast, 2012). PDFs of his selected works can be read or downloaded here. He currently lives in Washington, DC.

Mark Kessell, an Australian medical doctor and professional artist  based in New York City, focuses on the art and science of our species and its biology. His next exhibition, “Perfect Specimens”, a life cycle of Homo sapiens, opens at Last Rites Gallery, a renowned center of the tattoo-and-bod-mod subculture, in August 2013.

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