A Curious Wellcome; Simply Grotesque: A Visitor Studies I Can't Help the Way I Feel, a Sculpture by John Isaacs, 2003 Lacking Context: Artificial Arm Made of Wood and Leather (1850-1919) A Life-Size Transparent Model of a Human Body: Press a Button to Find out Where Your Pancreas Is

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Curious Wellcome; Simply Grotesque: A Visitor Studies I Can't Help the Way I Feel, a Sculpture by John Isaacs, 2003 Lacking Context: Artificial Arm Made of Wood and Leather (1850-1919) A Life-Size Transparent Model of a Human Body: Press a Button to Find out Where Your Pancreas Is


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

EXACTLY a decade has passed since Deanna Petherbridge, then thedistinguished Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art (a post that nolonger exists), mounted an exhibition devoted to artists and anatomy. This, TheQuick and the Dead, was perfectly at ease with its subject, emphaticallyscientific and wonderfully and beautifully tempered by the many considerableartists who, before the invention of photography, recorded flesh and bone,sinew and organ, birth and death, through their individual aestheticsensibilities.

We witnessed the extraordinary beginnings of anatomy as art in the hands ofLeonardo, Michelangelo and Durer, and followed its course through the 17th and18th centuries when the great anatomist was as famous as the greatest actor oroperatic castrato, his cutting and dismantling of corpses a performanceconstantly in demand. We stood in awe of Italian waxworks whose makers had madea man's flayed penis and testicles a work of art, and sublime Netherlandishdraughtsmen who threw open the mysteries of the womb. And we realised that tothe not wholly dispassionate artist (for passionate interest must have been theinspiration of his response to things so grisly) anatomy was as interesting andimportant as to the anatomist himself.

Three years later, in October 2000, the Hayward Gallery mounted a rather largerexhibition, Spectacular Bodiesthe Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now. To many of us itseemed an unsubtle expansion of Professor Petherbridge's exhibition with scantrecognition of the ground that she had brokenthough that is a painful issue out of context here; it is enough to say that itmade us even more familiar with the subject but in greatly increasing theprominence of exhibits by immediately contemporary artists, emphaticallydemonstrated their irrelevance.

Contemporary artists are interested not in the refinements of anatomy, not inthe workings of the human body, but in any ghoulish aspect that can be conjuredfrom them, any frisson of horror and distaste; they contribute nothing of anysignificance to the long but now desuetudinous partnership.

I make this point with some fervour, for we now have another exhibition, indeeda revived and renewed museum, in which art and anatomy (and surgery andmedicine) are brought together, and again the work of contemporary artists hasbeen peppered over it, pointless interventions that add nothing to any of thearguments, lending the business only the irrelevant celebrity of Warhol,Gormley and half a dozen others on whom the famous 15-minute rule has alreadybeen exhausted. This is the Wellcome Collection, the extraordinary accumulationof specimens, curiosities, equipment and things of often very slight medical oraesthetic interest gathered by the philanthropic pharmacist, Sir Henry SolomonWellcome. Born in America in 1853, and sole owner of the English pharmaceuticalbusiness Burroughs Wellcome in 1895, he was as rich as Croesus and as curiousas the proverbial cat. A classic example of the anally retentive collector, hebought worldwide faster then he could unpack, in duplicate, triplicate andumplicate, some say more than a million objects, others twice that number, hisintention always to create a museum of mankind, medicine, myth and art. It wasas though, a hundred years too late, he thought himself a man of theEnlightenment with wealth enough to rival the range and riches of the BritishMuseum (from which the Natural History element had only recently beendetached), and indeed he was buying in competition with it and other suchinstitutions in Belgium, France and Germany.

It is in the thread of medicine and its history that the singularity of theWellcome Collection lies, but even in this we have the sense of waywardenthusiasm rather than a disciplined academic approach, the sense thatas with Charles Saatchihere was a collector so avid that he did not know whether he needed, or evenwanted, anything until he owned it, and only with possession could he decidethat it was relevant. …

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A Curious Wellcome; Simply Grotesque: A Visitor Studies I Can't Help the Way I Feel, a Sculpture by John Isaacs, 2003 Lacking Context: Artificial Arm Made of Wood and Leather (1850-1919) A Life-Size Transparent Model of a Human Body: Press a Button to Find out Where Your Pancreas Is
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