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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