Anatomy of a Fascination with Bodies; Art

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Spectacular Bodies Hayward Gallery **** *

Spectacular Bodies is a fascinating, though sometimes rather yukky, show on a deeply interesting subject.

There has always been a substantial overlap between the way science and art have looked at the human body.

Artists have always needed to acquire a profound knowledge of anatomy to draw the human figure; medical schools, until the 20th Century, relied on the expertise of craftsmen to produce anatomical models.

What this exhibition explores is the interest of artists in scientific and pseudoscientific approaches to one of their core subjects, the human body. It started with Leonardo; what this also shows, in a group of first-rate new pieces of art, is that it is a fascination which shows no sign of diminishing.

Gallery-goers are probably pretty familiar with anatomical studies; they are things which every art student used to have to produce. Sometimes, in the occasional artist, such as the great 18th Century English painter George Stubbs, they become rather more than that, and his studies of skeletons and flayed figures (what are technically known as ecorche figures) are at the heart of his work.

But much less familiar are the beautifully made, repulsive models which the medical profession used for teaching. Some distaste has been voiced at the inclusion in this exhibition of body parts and a 17th Century foetus in a jar; personally, I found the wax models of the circulation and the muscles far more difficult to look at. But there is no denying the masterly skill of the sculptor.

Of course, some of these scientific interests faded away, leaving only their curious trace in works of art. The Swiss artist Lavater thought that the expressions of the face could be listed and described, and wielded enough influence that, in a lot of art of the 19th Century, it is difficult to understand precisely what is meant by a grimacing face without reference to his dictionaries. …