Galleries: a new exhibition explores the intimate relationship between art and anatomy

It’s always good to have a bit of intellectual material among the minced pies during the holiday season, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend mixing the two. Not least with this fascinating exhibit at Surgeons’ Hall that would almost certainly allow you to trace any fictional pie’s journey through the esophagus and beyond – and in somewhat sinister detail. “A Model Education” is a temporary exhibition in the galleries of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum that traces the influence of art on the teaching of anatomy.

It has its roots in the collections of the Surgeons’ Hall, which date back to its inception some 500 years ago. Illustrated anatomical atlases from the 16th century sit alongside models made over the following centuries from wax, plaster of Paris and even papier-mâché, which, despite what his own attempts in the classroom might once have suggested , enables deeply detailed reproduction.

There’s even a somewhat unusual wooden kidney. The exhibit was conceived by curator Louise Wilkie, who researched the historical aspect of the art of anatomical illustration, combing through the archives of numerous institutions for the exhibit. There are works on loan here, which is a first for the museum, from the Hunterian in Glasgow, the Anatomy Museum at the University of Edinburgh, the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Kings College London, the Whipple Museum in history of science from the University of Cambridge and the University of Aberdeen.

Each collection contains specialist materials that tell the story of a practical yet often surprisingly beautiful art form that developed, loosely, in 16th century Italy when the hegemony of ancient Greek theoretical knowledge of anatomy , still in use some 1000 years later, has been broken by tastes. of Vasalius, an anatomist who dissected while the artists drew on “life”, tempering the somewhat stark effect by artfully placing the figures in a classical landscape.

“They all look pretty thoughtful,” laughs Thomas Elliott, Head of Learning and Interpretation. “It was about softening the harshness of the dissecting room, whereas in Britain in the late 18th to early 19th century there was a real movement to achieve anatomical precision, even though the illustrations were more gruesome.”

But the anatomical representations of Vaselius were extremely influential in the movement towards the observation of life and away from the more theoretical knowledge that had been transmitted since antiquity, a result of and fueling the thirst for exploration of all aspects of life. human life in Renaissance Italy, from the representation of the human form – and in this they were inspired by the artistic refinement of the classical period – to the mysteries of the human body.

Elliott tells me of the “star exhibits”, which include the Royal College of Surgeons proof copy of Gray’s Anatomy, annotated with suggested amendments by Gray himself before publication in 1858. There are wax models from the late 18th century by the anatomist Joseph Towne, who worked for Guys Hospital in London. “The wax models usually came from Italy. We have a dissected head and torso – you see the dissected head bilaterally and see the outer surface on one side and the interior on the other. The torso is open to show the main organs.

This was to show medical students what to expect. The problem of the historical study of anatomy, which these types of models evolved to overcome, was twofold. “Corpses were lacking in the 18th century. There was a moral and legal question mark over the provision of bodies, and the public perception was that it was untoward. Then there was no refrigeration, so even if you could run an anatomy class, there would be issues with putrefaction after the body was dissected. The models had more permanence and they were remarkably accurate.

Elliott’s favorites are the papier-mâché models made by French anatomist Thomas Louis Auzoux in the late 18th century at a factory in Normandy where he began mass-producing models that were sent to medical schools. of the whole world. “They’re gorgeous,” says Elliott. Surgeons’ Hall has a mini-figurine of Auzoux that breaks down into 92 pieces, all labeled and designed for distribution by students, so they can take the figure apart and reassemble, “and get familiar with the anatomy.”

“Ten years ago, I was in France and found a museum dedicated to his work. These were life-size papier-mâché human anatomy figures, made up of hundreds of detachable parts, and other things too – a massive snail and a spider, botanical models, all very detailed. The finish and skill level was astounding.

The anatomical models were designed to be reused, so the fact that we still have so many some 130 years later is testament to the craftsmanship involved.

A Model Education, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Nicholson Street, Edinburgh, 0131 527 1711/1600, www.rcsed.ac.uk Until 26 June 2022 (Closed for Christmas at 3pm on 24 December; reopening 5 January 2022) Daily 10am-5pm, Admission included in Surgeons’ Hall entrance ticket price £8 / £4.50

Critic’s Choice:

THE Scottish Ornithologists Club HQ is housed in a charming building just outside Aberlady, and while its excellent shop has everything from bird-related Christmas decorations to binoculars and a fantastic selection of second-hand books on birds, its exhibition space, overlooking the reeds towards the sea, offers an ever-changing list of exhibits, each interpreting the world of birds through different eyes. This month, and until January 9, it’s the turn of East Lothian-based artist Darren Woodhead, who works in watercolor in the field, painting birds as he goes. meet them in all weathers. This has always been Woodhead’s way, painting directly in watercolour, the resulting images both impressionistic and evocative, while having a precision in terms of bird behavior and plumage that comes from the enthusiasm and knowledge of a lifetime. Many of the paintings, all of which are for sale, have been completed over the past year as we cycle through lockdowns – although Woodhead quite literally did it on his bike, painting supplies on his back. All the local birds are here, from the flash of an unexpected kingfisher to the swoop of thrushes on a winter hedgerow. “Although the world has changed, my need to observe, document and record through watercolor has not changed. Even more so now is my escape, my sense of serenity and belonging. Many of the paintings originated from watching birds in the garden or from “a man on his bicycle” trips in the field. Here I could immerse myself in the changing seasons and the parallel natural world, and feel the connection ultimate with my subject, near my home.

Close to Home, Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, Waterston House, Aberlady, East Lothian, 01875 871330 www.the-soc.org.uk, until 9 January, Wed-Sun 10am-4pm, closed 25 December to January 2

Don’t miss

As throughout the country, An Tobar mounts its annual open exhibition in time for the festive season, a celebration of the region’s artistic work. This year’s theme, open to interpretation and all comers, selected, is Hidden. Alongside this is a wonderful display of painted bones and bone jewelery by the talented children of Dervaig Primary School, who also created workshop films to illuminate the whole.

Hiddden/Bones, An Tobar, Argyll Terrace, Tobermory, Mull, 01688 302211, www.comar.co.uk Until 11 March 2022, Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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