Making art out of dead things, part II: The dioramas of Frederick Ruysch

In one of my earlier posts Making art out of dead things, I ruminated on the curious tradition of constructing art objects out of dead stuff. This ‘dead stuff’ ranged from taxidermic kittens and artfully-arranged insects to formaldehyde-preserved sharks and the bones of Italian monks. To this macabre list, I would now like to add the dioramas of the 18th-century Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch.

An engraving by Cornelius Huyberts of one of Frederick Ruysch's anatomical dioramas.

I first learned of Ruysch’s dioramas while conducting research for my Master’s thesis last year. One of my advisers, a professor of Anthropology at York University who shares my fascination with the unusual and bizarre, sent me a link to the Zymoglyphic Museum, a web site that contains a wealth of information on the curious intersection of art with science. According to this site, Frederick Ruysch (1638-1731) was a pioneer in preservation techniques for organs and tissue. In addition to his scientific achievements, he created a ‘museum of curosities’ that featured his anatomical dioramas of human fetal skeletons and other such bodily materials. Playing off the tradition of the memento mori, these melodramatic arrangements included skeletons weeping into ‘handkerchiefs’ made from papery-thin slices of brain tissue.

Here’s an excellent description of Ruysch’s strange assemblages from author Stephen Gould:

“Ruysch made about a dozen tableaux, constructed of human fetal skeletons with backgrounds of other body parts, on allegorical themes of death and the transiency of life…Ruysch built the ‘geological’ landscapes of these tableaux from gallstones and kidneystones, and ‘botanical’ backgrounds from injected and hardened major veins and arteries for “trees,” and more ramified tissue of lungs and smaller vessels for ‘bushes’ and ‘grass.’ The fetal skeletons, several per tableau, were ornamented with symbols of death and short life – hands may hold mayflies (which live but a day in their adult state); skulls bemoan their fate by weeping into ‘handkerchiefs’ made of elegantly injected mesentery or brain meninges; ‘snakes’ and ‘worms,’ symbols of corruption made of intestine, wind around pelvis and rib cage. Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions. One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, ‘Why should I long for the things of this world?’ Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, ‘Ah fate, ah bitter fate.'”– Stephen Jay Gould in Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors

To view more of Ruysch’s dioramas, as well as other curiosities, visit the Zymoglyphic Museum.

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.