The macabre eroticism of the ‘Anatomical Angel’

Sex and Death. An alluring, if frequently controversial, coupling. The symbolically potent pairing of eroticism with the macabre has a long, well-established tradition across many different cultures. The artists of the Northern Renaissance in Europe gave us the now familiar Death and the Maiden motif with its inherently erotic subtext. In 1920-30s Japan, there was the emergence of ero guro — a literary and visual art form that combined eroticism with elements of the grotesque. The focus of this blog post, however, shall be on the curious convergence of the erotic with the grotesque/macabre in anatomical art produced during the Age of Enlightenment.

L'ange Anatomique by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, coloured mezzotint, 1746.

One of the best known of the 18th-century anatomical artists was Jacques Fabian Gautier D’Agoty. Renowned as a printmaker of exceptional technical skill, his image of a flayed woman entitled Anatomical Angel was viewed as highly controversial even during his lifetime. D’Agoty dubbed his image Anatomical Angel due to the flaps of skin pulled away from the cadaver’s back in a manner that suggests angel wings. Great attention has been devoted to the elegantly coiffed hair on her half-turned head. Her rosy cheek appears flush with life. D’Agoty’s aptly-titled Angel exists on a plane somewhere outside of death, rendering her an otherworldly creature.

Personally, I find D’Agoty’s Angel less erotic than she is aesthetic. One cannot, however, quickly dismiss the artist’s decision to depict a young, conventionally beautiful and, yes, sexually attractive woman. Of course, D’Agoty knew his audience: scientists and people in the medical field, all of whom would’ve been men.

Wax model with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

Let’s leave the Angel of D’Agoty and examine a comparable Italian wax anatomical sculpture entitled Anatomical Venus, dating from the last decade of the 18th-century. This exquisitely detailed sculpture, attributed to Clemente Susini, extracts the erotic elements that were merely a subtext in D’Agoty’s Angel and places them in the forefront. The languorous expression on the face of Susini’s Venus seems to evoke the petite mort of orgasm more than the morbidity of actual death. Similar to the aestheticism of D’Agoty, Susini styles his Venus with elaborately braided hair and an elegant pearl necklace. (Even in death, a girl must accessorize).

Anatomical Venus, wax model; probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

For more views of Susini’s Anatomical Venus, as well as other examples of anatomical sculptures, visit Anatomical Theatre. Highly recommended, if predictably macabre.

3 thoughts on “The macabre eroticism of the ‘Anatomical Angel’

  1. I think that as a researcher associated with York U (or as an independent researcher), you can get access. There may be a membership fee, but I recall it being reasonable – $25 or $50 (?) You can preview the collection on UToronto’s online anatomical collection.

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