The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.
Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.
First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.
Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.
A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.
Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.
Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…
It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.
But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.
Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711
At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.
You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.
This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.
After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).
And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
In 2002 Lydia Fairchild, a 26-year-old woman living in Washington state, was already a mother of two kids, with a third one on her way, and without a steady job; she had decided to seek public assistance.
The procedure required her children to undergo DNA testing to confirm that their father was indeed Jamie Townsend, Fairchild’s former partner. It should have been a routine check, but some days later the woman received a strange call, asking her to come in the prosecutor’s office at Social Services.
And that is when her world almost fell apart.
Once she went in, the officers closed the door behind her and started drilling her: “Who are you?”, they kept asking her repeatedly, without her understanding what was going on.
The reason behind the relentless questioning was absolutely unpredictable: the DNA tests had proven that Jamie Townsend was actually the children’s father… but Lydia was not their mother.
Although the woman kept repeating that she had carried and delivered them, the results categorically excluded this possibility: the genetic profiles of her children were in fact made up for one half from their father’s chromosomes, and for the other half from the chromosomes of an unknown woman. Lydia Fairchild was facing the risk of having her kids taken away from her.
Before the woman’s despair, Social Services ordered a new test, which gave exactly the same results. Lydia showed no genetic link with her children.
During the following 16 months, things got worse. The officers launched court action to remove her custody rights, as this could turn out to be a case of abduction, and the state even had a court officer witness her third child’s delivery, so that DNA test could be run immediately after birth. Once again, the newborn baby showed no genes in common with Lydia, who then became a suspect of acting as a surrogate for payment (which in Washington state is considered gross misdemeanor).
Lydia Fairchild was living a true nightmare: “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying. They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mum.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand“.
Her lawyer Alan Tindell, though initially perplexed by the case, decided to investigate and one day stumbled upon a similar story that happened in Boston, as described in a paper on the New England Journal of Medicine: a 52-year-old woman, Karen Keegan, had undergone a hystological exam in view of a transplant, and the results had shown no link between her DNA and her children’s.
Quite often the solution for the most intricate mysteries turn out to be disappointing, but in this case the explanation was just as incredible.
The lawyer understood that, just like the mother the scientific paper was about, Lydia too was a chimera.
Tetragametic chimerism happens when two egg cells are fertilized by two different sperm cells and, instead of developing into two fraternal twins, they fuse together at a very early stage. The chimeric individual is equipped with two different genetic makeups, and can develop whole organs having different chromosomes from all the others. Most chimeras do not even know they are, because the existence of two cellular lines is not often noticeable; but they carry inside them for instance the liver, or some other gland, that should have been part of their unborn twin.
In Fairchild’s case, the “foreign” organs were her ovaries. Inside of them were hidden those unknown chromosomes that formed the genetic makeup of Lydias’s children, as was confirmed by the examination of the cells obtained via pap test.
Finally the court dismissed the case. In the court hearing, the judge openly wondered how reliable could DNA tests be, as they are even today held essential in forensic cases — but what if the criminal is a chimera?
Today Lydia Fairchild is back to her normal life, leaving this terrible adventure behind. And some years ago she gave birth to her fourth daughter; or, if you will, the fourth daughter of that sister she never had.
The New England Journal of Medicine paper mentioned in the post can be read here. To discover some less-known istances of chimerism, I suggest this articolo.
Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.
(Cesar A. Cruz)
Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.
In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.
Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.
The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).
But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?
Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.
Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.
Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).
In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.
Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.
Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.
Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.
Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.
Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.
But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.
This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.
And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.
Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.
This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.
Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.
Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.
Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.
This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.
The incubators building in Buffalo.
The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.
But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.
If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.
Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.
In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.
Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.
Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.
Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.
Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.
Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.
After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.
Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).
The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).