The Spellbinding Art of Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to Our Modern Times

Many of us have a fraught relationship with what medical illustrator Vanessa Ruiz, above, refers to as our anatomical selves.

You may have received the Visible Man for your 8th birthday, only to forget, some thirty years later, what your spleen looks like, where it’s located and what it does.

We know more about the inner workings of our appliances than we do our own bodies. Why? Largely because we saved the manual that came with our dishwasher, and refer to it when our glassware is covered in spots.

As Ruiz noted in her TED-Med talk last November, there’s a wealth of easily accessible detailed anatomical illustrations, but we tend to keep them out of sight, and thus out of mind. Once a student is finished with his or her medical textbook or app, he or she rarely seeks those pictures out again. Those of us outside the medical profession have spent very little time considering the way our bodily systems are put together.

This lack of engagement prompted Ruiz to found the aggregate blog Street Anatomy, devoted to ferreting out the intersection between anatomical illustration and public art. Exposure is key. In creating startling, body-based images—and what is more startling than a flayed human or piece thereof?—the artist reminds viewers of what lurks beneath their own skin.

Ruiz is deeply interested in the history of her craft, a practice which can be dated to Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. She sees beauty in bizarre early examples which inserted severed limbs into still lives and posed semi-dissected cadavers next to popular attractions, such as Clara, the touring rhino.

These days, the subjects of those purposeful illustrations are more likely to be rendered as 3-D computer-generated animations.

The more old school approach is visible in the work of the artists Ruiz champions, such as Fernando Vicente, who couches 19th-century male anatomical plates inside more contemporary female pin-ups and fashion illustrations.

Artist Jason Freeny gives Barbie, Legos, and Mario the Visible Man treatment.

Noah Scalin, who spent 2007 creating a skull a day, made a gut-filled gun and titled it “Anatomy of War.”

But let us not presume all viewers are in total ignorance of their bodies’ workings. A woman whose ankle had been smashed in a roller skating accident commissioned architect Federico Carbajal to document its reconstruction with one of his anatomically accurate wire sculptures. Carbajal incorporated his benefactor’s surgical screws.

Check out Ruiz’s recommended reading list to delve into the subject more deeply.

Related Content:

Download the Sublime Anatomy Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: Available Online, or in a Great iPad App

The Anatomical Drawings of Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci

Microscopic Battlefield: Watch as a Killer T Cell Attacks a Cancer Cell

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest script, Fawnbook, is available in a digital edition from Indie Theater Now.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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