Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anatomy/Academy in February

This post is a pre-print of a similar article for the The Chronicle, a monthly publication of the Philadelphia Regional Chapter of the Medical Library Association.

MLA-Phil librarians experienced a unique look into a unique exhibit now on view at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Anatomy/Academy is a look at collaboration between Philadelphia's medical and art communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Allow me to forewarn, dear reader, that in the days before my M.S.L.I.S degree from Drexel University's iSchool (College of Information Science and Technology), I used an M.A.M.S. to pay my bills. (Yes, enough letters to make a decent alphabet soup.) That master of associated medical sciences degree (now an M.S.) from University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of Biomedical Visualization was in medical art. My emphasis was medical sculpting which I used for 10 years in the field of applied materials. More details about that career path will have to come in person over a pint of Guinness.

(Permit me also to add proudly that my mother, Ruby Wang, studied at PAFA in 1958 and '59.)

Our good fortune having this event on the spring calendar (Thanks Gary Kaplan and Nina Long for the idea.) was made unique with the pairing to PAFA docent and MLA-Phil member Sue Couch. Our tour took place on a bright and mild Thursday afternoon, February 24, with an unexpectedly large turnout of 26 intrepids. The pairing with Sue was serendipitous. She must have jumped at the opportunity the moment she learned of the impending visit. Among those in attendance were Michael Angelo and Nina Long, both of Wistar Institute, whom the show's curators consulted at some length to borrow works owned by the Institute for inclusion.

Our tour took place in the Fisher Brooks Gallery of the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building. Sue led us through the exhibit chronologically, beginning with the early 1800s room and the earliest years of PAFA. William Rush and a host of other artists founded Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia in 1805. The focus of that room is a plaster replica (1890-1900) of L'Écorché, the Flayed Man (1767), by Jean Antoine Houdon. An écorché is a representation of the human figure stripped of skin to highlight its musculature. Flanking L'Écorché are charcoal sketches of the human body by Charles Schussele, a teacher of Thomas Eakins, and terra cotta busts by William Rush.

The late 1800s room showcases the sensational Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) completed in 1875. Gross was a celebrated physician at Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University) which owned the portrait until 2006 when it attempted to sell it to the National Gallery of Art to raise money. Apprehension about losing the painting generated an effort to out-purchase the National Gallery with donations from thousands of local donors that resulted in PAFA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art obtaining collective ownership. The painting portrays Gross explaining the surgical removal of an osteomyeloma from the patient's left femur to a gallery of medical students. Sue directed our attention to numerous elements of the painting including the presence of Eakins himself in the operating room gallery and the accurately six-fingered figure of the patient's mother recoiling from the vivid horror of her son on the operating table.

In this room also were grisailles, gray-toned paintings, of gender-segregated figure painting classes taking place at PAFA, plaster casts of a dissected male body painted to match the original, over-sized wood carvings of anatomical features of the body for auditorium teaching, paper maché anatomical models, a human heart preserved by the injection of wax, and even a pillow sham embroidered by PAFA students with anatomical subject matter.

The tremendous variety of artistic media represented in this room and throughout the exhibition did not fail to catch my attention. One would expect to find pencil, paint, photographic media, and plaster. Unexpected was terra cotta, wood, paper maché, and cotton. I was pleased to see wax models on loan from the Mutter Museum. Because of its translucency and workability, wax was often used to make anatomical models in the 18th and 19th centuries with a shocking degree of realism. For those enamored of the morbid, the wax models of La Specola in Italy are, or should be, standard material (Use Google and Google Image to search La Specola). Anatomy/Academy includes a model of the lymphatic system of the neck that highlights the vessels and nodes of the body's drainage system in spidery detail.

The last section of the exhibit is the early 20th century. Here we viewed Marcel Duchamps' Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, whose cubist treatment drew derision from the public and critics of the day much more accustomed to realism. Other paintings and photographic works look at the human body with varying degrees of attention to anatomy.

Outside the Fisher Brook Gallery are more contemporary looks at the human body. One work took the form of a photographic triptych by the art collective, TODT: “...medical technology can easily cross the line of ethical practice and become an instrument that violates the body.” Another was an assemblage of fabric in bottles—vaguely resembling wet specimens of organs—wired together with a score of ½-sized plastic skeletons.

For my educational background, I found the exhibit ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps I should have considered that PAFA does not have either a medical art or a scientific illustration program. It is called Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, after all. Even with that shortsightedness in mind, the combination of anatomical studies with works of fine art still struck me as being an opportunity to thread together works with an otherwise modest connection. My perspective. The work is still beautiful, the variety immense. Gross Clinic is masterful, Nude Descending a Staircase provocative. Go yourself and pass your own judgment. The exhibit began January 17 and runs until April 29. Admission is $15, although we paid $10 for our group tour. Snooze, you lose.

In closing, I'll remark that I walked through the exhibition with an eye out for the philosophical connection of medical librarianship to anatomical art. I experienced no epiphanies until the conclusion of our tour when I joined a conversation with member Peg Fallis (Shout out. She's now unemployed and job-hunting.) and Penn Biomedical Library intern Gerard Regan (Soon to be graduating and also on the job prowl.). I confirmed to them what Nina shared about a medical artist acquaintance testifying to the broad variety of courses she had to take as a student. “It's not different from librarians taking courses in cataloging and classification when they could end up in reference services,” interjected I. Nor is it different from art students taking coursework through the gamut of artistic media. On the one hand, you don't know what will interest you until you've received some exposure to it. On the other, what you learn in divergent courses of study can not fail to speak to whatever you ultimately end up doing. Dissect that during your own tour of Anatomy/Academy.