Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anatomists, 18th c. and 21st c.

No preparation, even executed with the greatest care, holds to me any value if it does not demonstrate a new fact or the resolution of a debated issue. All their preparations, collected in the cabinet, satisfy only the gaze; few among them serve to demonstrate any new truths, to refute old errors; the refinements throughout are not instructive and demonstrate only the handiwork of their creator.”

This quote reads like it is a criticism of Gunther von Hagens' plastinates, but it was actually a remark made in 1779 by German doctor Georg Ludwig Rumpelt upon seeing the preparations of French anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799). Roughly 200 years after Fragonard's death, von Hagens paid his predecessor homage by replicating his most famous écorché, "Horse and Rider," using his plastination method to arrive at an even more vivid "Man on Horseback."

Fragonard created many of his masterpieces at a veterinary school outside Paris. The Fragonard Museum at École nationale vétérinaire d'Alfort is where many of his creations are still curated, including hundreds of animal skeletons and specimens (1st image). Fragonard preserved human cadavers to demonstrate comparative anatomy to the veterinary students, who may well have been more interested in his preparations "The Llama"(3rd image), "The Monkey Holding a Nut" (5th image), and "The Bust of a Sheep with Four Horns" (7th image). He was dismissed from his post for being considered a madman.

Gunther von Hagens has made a name for himself presenting anatomized humans to the public, but starting just this month offers an under-the-skin (and the fur and the feathers) look exclusively at animals to visitors at the Cologne Zoo (video here). The exhibits include a horse's head (2nd image), a camel family (4th image), a gorilla (6th image, with von Hagens), and a series of horned animals (8th image). He, too, is considered by some to be quite mad!

There is plenty written about Gunther von Hagens on the web, but if you - like me - have been starved for details about his 18th c. counterpart, you will be thrilled to know that a new book - Fragonard Museum: The Écorchés, The Anatomical Masterworks of Honoré Fragonard - has just been published! There was no guidebook available when I visited the Fragonard Museum in 1999, but my craving for images (including Fragonard's specimens above), biographical information, and embalming "recipes" has now been duly satisfied.

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