banner by Alex McDonough 

The Art of Dissection

by Bailey Sasseville

He towers over crumbled ruins, gazing to the sky as his arms stretch above him like a dancer’s. It makes no difference to him that his skin is missing, revealing striations and divisions of bare muscles from head to foot. He is a drawing in Andreas Vesalius’ book “De humani corporis fabrica” (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”) called an écorché – Latin for “flayed” - a man stripped of his skin to display the underlying muscles. While anatomical écorchés had just arisen during the Renaissance, they soon became prominent subjects for artist-anatomists who over and over again drew, sculpted and painted images of men and women separated from their skin, but still living. The écorché represented the new fascination with the human body and the fundamental shift in how we viewed our bodies, both inside and out.

It all started during the Renaissance around 1500, when artists became employed by scientists and publishers to recreate the hand-drawn anatomical diagrams in old manuscripts in order to be mass produced by woodblock printing. From there, many began to create their own images, some going as far as to perform their own dissections to make observations. At the time, dissecting had become very popular among all classes of people, almost considered a “theatrical event” and a public spectacle. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most famous artist-anatomists of this period and indeed of all history, producing the iconic “Vitruvian Man” from his studies. He performed many dissections to examine the underlying nature of human bodies both in the scientific pursuit of knowledge and as a way to create more accurate art. During these dissections, da Vinci made several exciting discoveries about the location and shape of the cerebral ventricles, drew the first accurate diagram of the spine and most importantly, uncovered the structure and muscular nature of the heart. Though his discoveries were groundbreaking, his sophisticated anatomical drawings were unfortunately rarely published.

Andreas Vesalius was a publisher who arose soon after da Vinci and produced his own medical publication. This publication was unusual in that it included many anatomical illustrations commissioned by him, but created by an unknown artist. These illustrations were both stylistic and very scientifically accurate for the time period. The unknown artist managed to unite the two disciplines in a way that few others achieved, and thus entered the realms of history.

Another highly influential Renaissance publisher was Juan Valverde de Amusco, who eventually created his own publication containing new images and ones that bordered on plagiarism of Vesalius. Perhaps his most famous illustration is that of another écorché, this one holding a knife in one hand and his peeled skin in the other, the holes of the eyes, mouth and nostrils visible. In the typical écorché style, he does not look pained or upset by his condition, but rather freed and at peace, like his skin was a burden he has thankfully and willfully shed. The écorché is represented not as an unwilling subject of dissection, but as an active and leading participant, and with the revelations of his underlying substance not gruesome, but alluring. It is representational of the popular view of anatomy and dissection during the Renaissance era.

In the early 18th century, Frederik Ruysch added a new dimension and element of creation to this field of anatomical art. He created extremely complex drawings depicting real dioramas he made using fetal skeletons and other body parts, such as blood vessels hardened by injecting wax. In several drawings, what look like leafless bushes or shrubs or other plants in the background are, in reality, veins, arteries and capillaries. Ruysch shows the elegance and beauty contained inside our own bodies by portraying potentially macabre structures as natural landscapes.

Clemente Susini echoed these ideas later in the same century in his detailed and extremely life-like wax models of bodies opened up for examination. His most famous work is a female who looks as if she is sleeping, displayed with styled hair and pearls around her neck, as well as with her torso opened from her chest to her pelvis to reveal the organs and tissues beneath. Throughout history, anatomical artists have seemed determined to show the aesthetic beauty of this potentially gruesome subject matter, as if trying to say, “Yes, externally the human body is beautiful, but internally we are just as beautiful, if not more.”

In the late 20th century, Gunther Von Hagens’ invention of plastination, a method of preserving dead bodies from decay, allowed the creation of an entirely novel art form: that of cadavers themselves, arranged in displays called Body Worlds. Like Ruysch, Body Worlds used real bodies instead of ones created from wax, but displayed the bodies themselves as art instead of drawings of them. Many are écorchés, showing off the muscular system, while others delve further into other organ systems like cardiovascular and skeletal. Few have skin. The bodies are displayed in positions of motion, giving an almost frightening appearance of being alive and full of energy. These Body Worlds are ongoing in several places around the world today, still led by Gunther Von Hagens, and other unaffiliated versions have arisen using the same techniques.

Anatomical art is still in full flower today and continues to evolve. While images for textbooks are now created primarily by computer and with clarity and simplicity in mind, they lack some of the artistic style developed in the 16th century. Nonetheless, the influence from the Renaissance still reverberates through our culture today. Clearly inspired by many of these earlier artists, the work of contemporary painter Fernando Vicente is particularly emotional and provocative, and displays women with heads tilted back seductively, eyes closed or half-closed, pulling the fabric of their clothing away from their chests to reveal the exposed muscles of the neck or the heart sheltered in her ribcage.

In modern poet Nadine Sabra Meyer’s poem “The Artist at the Dissection,” she writes: “[L]ook, the Muscle Men have stepped from their fleshy membranes and wear their lovely muscles loose on their frames, as if each had worked his whole life to be in death a perfect specimen,” inspired by Vesalius’ écorchés. The écorché appears in more than just the fine arts. In contemporary pop culture, the idea appears as the giant, monstrous écorchés called Titans in the anime “Attack on Titan, and in the short story and 2014 short film “He Took His Skin off for Me,” a twisted love story in which a woman convinces her lover to rip off his skin and become an écorché, so that she can see all of him.

Speaking of this strange modern resurgence of the écorché, Jeff Aziz, Ph.D., who teaches classes such as “Literature and Science” and “The Renaissance in England,” at the University of Pittsburgh says, “There is a return to the body all through culture, and it isn’t just scholars in medical humanities, it’s all through culture from the art gallery to the tattoo parlor.” During the Renaissance, Aziz says, death was not shied away from or hidden – paintings of écorchés would be displayed prominently in homes, yet today most would not think of hanging depictions of a flayed man in our living room. While the body has always been a popular topic in art, perhaps these modern references to écorchés in poetry, anime and film indicate a revival of our fascination with anatomical art and a return to a Renaissance mindset. Perhaps, a decade from now, écorchés will once again decorate our living spaces, admired and treasured.