Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Observations on Martin Kemp's chapter 'Mark of truth'

These are notes from Martin Kemp, 'The mark of truth: Looking and learning in some anatomical illustrations from the Renaissance and eighteenth century' in WF Byrum and R Porter, eds., Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1993) pp85-121

Notes for the seminar on 29 Jan 2013. They may not be strictly coherent but offer a summary of Kemp.

Illustrations in medical texts are central to their usefulness, after all a picture says 1000 words and they provided a fundamental change in the history of dissemination of scientific information. 

However Kemp's concern is that naturalistic representation wasn't always a good thing because it was invested in a certain level of truth. And sometimes the images were misleading. He gives the example of the mandragora root which was said to be in the shape of a body. [what should be remembered is that this is part of a longer tradition of scientific illustration where images of mythical creatures were acceptable in bestiaries]. There was a growing realisation that this misrepresenting the truth was a bad thing; William Hunter said that it was unpardonable.

Kemp outlines two issues - 1) the potential of illustrations to mislead and 2) a knowledge of how to 'read' artistic convention.

Leonardo's anatomical drawings - it is unclear who the audience was, and they were never meant to be published in book form, but purely for his private use. His perfectionism meant repeated attempts to look at something from a number of view points and he invented many different techniques. His visual experiments were there with accompanying text to describe how something worked. Illustration and text required.

However until Vesalius publishes his work, it is impossible to see in great detail the subtlety of detail, tone and clarity of images of the body. He was a perfectionist too, with many conversations with the publisher. It is possible for us to forget how difficult and limiting the technical issues they faced were. They were conscious that they were producing a 'great illustrated work', prestigious with a royal patron. Once again the context was all - the anatomical issues were also fine art pieces. A beauty and respectability to the dead body in classical poses and backgrounds

Heading into the 18th changes in taste were evident but there was a continuity. Many books remained prestigious and not within financial reach of the average student. Chesleden was keen to show the fine drawing techniques within his plates and carefully supervised his artists, engravers and draughtsmen. when the anatomist isn't the artist, it leads to distance and more margin for error. There has to be sympathy between the two.  Some books of this time had no images because they were designed to be read during practicals.

Albinus excused his decorative backgrounds on the grounds that they provided perspective. The lighting in his images almost provides flesh to the bones of his skeletons, rounding them so you can see right through, and positioning them as mobile and elegant as any deathly dandy. He was obsessive with detail and his architectural details are reflected in the architecture of the human body. [As glorious as any cathedral or palace]

Hunter's images, in contrast. are extremely fleshy and solid. The body becomes machinery rather than architecture.  Drawings are not done from memory but direct observation; aiming for absolute fidelity, with every blemish, irregularity and as large as life. Interesting to have a window reflected in a moist membrane in one plate. This immediacy, direct connection with the artist and surroundings offers authenticity. This non classical realism 'warts and all' was reflected in the artistic tastes, eg the RA at this time. Once again his book was a prestigious one, designed for a wealthy audience. The realism also suggests a sympathy/empathy with the subject. Still it meant that the minutiae of printing was really important. Not enough just being an anatomist, but they had knowledge of sophisticated state of the art engravings and printing techniques.

There are many truths in an anatomical image - as subject to their age as any artistic fashion. Intellectual social and visual. [Not to mention subject to technological limitations]

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