Most figurative artists spend some time studying human anatomy – basic musculoskeletal structure, often just enough that your Spider-Man doesn’t come out looking like Popeye. But of course the study of anatomy is a vast edifice, with wings and annexes, great halls and obscure corridors, constructed by physicians and yogis, gymnasts and psychiatrists, animators and masseurs, mystics and coroners. Let’s call this imposing monument the Anatomium.
For an artist, the body is more than just a physical structure. It is an instrument for experiencing and portraying realities beyond the physical plane: emotions, energy, spirituality. We need to understand structure, but we also need to go beyond structure. Your teacher may have urged you to spend most of your time studying in the great hall of bones and the gallery of muscles, but there is much to discover in the more obscure rooms of the Anatomium. Let’s look at some curious specimens found in many different parts of the labyrinthine palace, from the viewpoint of the artist. (All of these images were found on the web, and clicking on an image will take you to the page where I found it, and where, usually, more pictures and information will be found.)
The brilliant ad that leads this post tells us that if we are what we eat, we can construct a healthy body from a vegetable diet. In folk wisdom, it’s often been thought that various plants and other substances support the functioning of the body parts they resemble, so for instance walnuts are supposed to be good for the brain, and tomatoes for the heart. This way of seeing the anatomy arises from a metaphorical understanding of the body as a garden or landscape, a popular image since the time of Arcimboldo, at least. Here’s Aurel Schmidt’s beautiful contemporary rendition of body as garden, a teeming but unsettling garden full of insects, snakes, birds, and cigarette butts.
Since the industrial revolution, the metaphor of the body as a factory or machine has been common in the culture. A lot of medical practice, especially orthopedics, is essentially based in this mechanical metaphor. Perhaps the ultimate realization of the industrial view of the body is Woody Allen’s depiction of the internal sexual functions as a military-industrial deployment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.
The technology of the industrial and digital era has given us countlesss new ways of seeing and studying the human body. X-rays, MRIs, and endoscopes have become essential tools in medicine. The National Institutes of Health and the National Medical Library collaborated on the “Visible Human Project”, high-resolution 3D scans of real bodies for anatomical study. The bodies were sliced in razor-thin layers and scanned, the data assembled into a 3D image that can be viewed in any cross-section or in the round, or even “flown through” in a digital animation.
Controversial physician and showman Dr. Gunther von Hagens invented a technique for preserving human tissue by replacing the water with plastics, which enabled him to prepare real cadavers for public display in his “Body Worlds” exhibits. Von Hagens’ figures follow the renaissance convention in anatomical illustrations of posing flayed figures as though alive and active. These exhibits are educational, fascinating, and more than a little creepy.
Therapists, athletes, dancers, and others who study movement, posture, and fitnesss experiment with the living body, which can reveal dynamic aspects of the structure that may be missed when you’re cutting up cadavers. This illustration from Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains, a study of the fascia and connective tissue in bodily movement, looks like a bit of couture in the outré style of an Alexander McQueen.
The illustration below shows the dermatomes. Most of the nerves of the body are wired to the spinal cord, and the dermatomes are the areas of the skin divided according to the particular vertebra where each area has its nerve connection to the spinal cord. The different areas of the spine are color-coded, cervical (neck) nerves in white, thoracic in yellow/black, lumbar in blue/black, and sacral nerves in red/black. This too looks like a bit of latex fetishwear or a high-tech superhero costume.
Within the field of anatomical studies, there are many ways of dividing the body into regions. Here’s a diagram for doctors with named regions on the surface of the body, for the purposes of clinical description.
“Surface Anatomy” is an interesting field for the artist who works with live models, as it’s all about learning to identify underlying structures based on what can be seen or felt at the level of the skin.
Seeing beneath the surface shows that the beautiful reality of the body conceals even more beautiful hidden realities.
These back muscles look like the head of a goat – cool.
The illustration below shows a method of analyzing the structure of the face by geometrical analysis of a series of identifiable points. This kind of analysis was invented for forensic use, but it’s also the basis of computer face recognition and other forms of digital biometrics.
This kind of geometrical analysis of faces and bodies is also important to artists working with digitally generated 3D graphics. Some of the most interesting anatomy illustrations, from an artist’s point of view, are found in CGI tutorials.
Here’s a look at the different typical patterns of fat distribution on the male and female body. It’s a fine illustration, although that male figure looks disconcertingly like me! These sketches derive from works by Prud’hon and Rubens.
This one compares the basic skeletal structure of a person with that of a four-legged animal such as a dog. I think the best way to grasp anatomical realities is to see how the same basic structure manifests with variations in different individuals and even different species. You can learn a lot about anatomy just petting an animal!
In this illustration, an artist shows how different arrangements of the shoulder girdle express different emotions.
The brain contains its own models of the body. The sensory cortex and the motor cortex are bands of the human brain devoted to the senses and to movment, respectively. When the image of the body is projected to correspond with the appropriate parts of the brain, the resulting distorted figure is called a “homunculus” (latin for “little human”). The homunculus, the body in the brain, has huge lips and hands, since those areas are so important for sensation and action. Note that the hand area is right next to the eye area – perhaps this facilitates the connections a visual artist makes. And the genitalia area is right next to the feet – an explanation for foot fetishism?
Many forms of traditional therapy use this kind of mapping of the whole body onto a part of the body. Auricular acupuncture, for example, is a form of acupuncture in which the ear stands in for the whole body, and practitioners believe that any part of the body can be treated by needling the corresponding parts of the ear. Reflexology massage of the feet and hands is another treatment that uses similar charts.
Of course these aren’t anatomical studies in the scientific sense, but the ancient energy arts, including qigong and tantric yoga and many kinds of martial and healing arts, are based on extensive experiential study of energy flow in the body. Understanding the immaterial but dynamic aspects of the body should interest any artist who strives to capture the feeling of aliveness. Here’s an unknown artist’s attempt to represent the human aura, the field of energy clairvoyants say they can perceive around the body.
Chinese Traditional Medicine, martial arts and practices of “internal alchemy” aimed at physical or spiritual self-transformation, use a highly developed system of subtle anatomy to understand the movement of many different kinds of energy within and around the body. For a visual artist, but even more for a performing artist, this way of visualizing and projecting emotions and forces can be a powerful tool.
Going back to scientific medical imaging, but keeping the emphasis on energy flow, we have thermographic imaging, which shows patterns of heat radiating from the body. (Check out a brief excerpt from a dance film made with high-resolution thermographic cameras.)
For an artist, the most subtle part of the human form, the most difficult thing to capture, is the spark, the life force, the flow of energy. It’s important to understand structure, but it’s also important to see the dynamism and tension within that structure. Anatomical studies of all kinds can open our eyes to the amazing tornado of different forces that is the human body.
I’ll conclude this post with a traditional medical anatomical illustration, but one of great beauty. This is an abstraction, not a visual transcription of reality. Of course the veins aren’t really blue and the arteries red and the nerves yellow – this is just a convention to aid in a functional understanding of what is going on. But the life force in all its explosivenesss expresses itself here.
In researching on the web and my own archives for this post, I found such a wealth of incredible anatomical images that I think there will be many posts to come on the general subject of human anatomy.
Nearly all of these images link back, if you click on them, to where I found them on the web. If any of my readers has further information about the sources or artists behind these images, please let me know. It is often frustrating to me that so many great images on the web are published without attribution.