Here is a fun fact: I used to work at haunted houses. This stems not necessarily from my desire to scare other people (though that is fun), but because, like all proto-goths and many Neoromantics, I have a fondness for the macabre. There’s something breathtaking in death (literally, ha ha ha), and there’s been a long human tradition extending even beyond the black and white film female victims in Hammer Horror films to trying to find something beautiful about death. When I first saw “The Anatomical Venus” on the shelves in my store, I got really excited because it combined two things that I enjoy–that is, wax models of dead people with exposed organs and books talking about the history of science–and I asked for it for my birthday. Lo and behold, here it is, featuring one of the pretty, flayed Venuses on its cover.
In some ways, “The Anatomical Venus” is a lot like an art book. Its topic, though technically about medical studies, really relies on how art made anatomical study much more available to not only med students, but the general public since the wax Anatomical Venuses (and Adonises and Eves) allowed people to examine a corpse that was still an idealized woman who didn’t smell like decay. It’s also a history book–taking the reader from the wax figure’s Catholic origins as a stand-in for the bodies of saints to where it became a suitable object for scientific study. The writing within the book is accessible, which is good for people like me who, while interested in looking at things that may evoke that sense of the uncanny (which is also discussed, though not in overwhelming detail), has no idea how these things became popular or the specifics of what an organ might be called.
The images within the text are clear, and I felt as though they used nice detail shots; since most of us probably aren’t going to be able to see these things in person (it costs money to travel), it helps to look at photos that show each part as it’s taken away from the body. Plus, if you like this kind of thing (the morbid and the macabre), you’re probably going to be satisfied. The juxtaposition of the old Anatomical Venus at the beginning of the book versus a modern interpretation of the Anatomical Venus is a nice fit for how the book really does follow a good timeline of how we ended up from then to now (though I think one of the actual bodies from the “Body Worlds” exhibit might have been more fitting). Very cool.
Overall, I was impressed by the book and I learned a few things about the history of wax anatomical models (always a plus–apparently male models were generally without skin while female ones had it). It made me really consider the role death plays in art and science, and the interaction between the Enlightenment all the way to now. It even got me thinking about religion, which is a welcome note (don’t all things to do with the sciences–from earth to biology–get me thinking that way anyway though?). There’s even discussion of how female nudity was only acceptable if the subject being portrayed was a) dead and b) pregnant, which: guys, why have you literally always been weird. I collect bones and I’m not that weird and creepy. One of the wax artists even had works he had made for “private collections” confiscated because they were considered obscene, so I guess if history has told us anything, it’s okay to make your dead women sexy, but not too sexy.
I do have a few complaints though. First: I kind of wish that they would finish their sentences more often before going into several page spreads of the bodies. I get that most people are probably getting the book for the images (fair, that’s why I wanted it), but it can really disrupt the flow of reading, and there were a lot of times where I thought I had missed something because of this. Secondly: While I’m happy about the discussion of nudity as a thing that can only be acceptable under certain conditions, I am frustrated about a lack of commentary on the pretty racist portrayals of black people within fairgrounds. From my own background I can say yes, I know that a lot of these circuses and fairs dealt in the dehumanizing of PoC (and specifically, women of color, who were treated like animals to be examined in those circus-type settings), but that might not be the case for everyone reading the book. Some of those wax busts of black people were racist caricatures, and some of the ads for the events that are reproduced in this book feature some images that also are racist caricatures, and it’s not really great that that’s not touched on at all. We get the message that these events had some purpose (entertainment and a little education, especially about venereal diseases), but in that same mindset if you’re going to include that in your book on wax models, it seems irresponsible to me not to get into it at least a little bit.
Despite those shortcomings, however, I felt as though “The Anatomical Venus” did its job. I was educated, I got to see some really cool works of art, and I’d probably recommend this to other people who are also into dead things.
Read more about the Anatomical Venus here, on Morbid Anatomy’s blog.