Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.
A few days ago I was invited to speak at the Rome Tatttoo Museum for Creative Mornings, a cultural event held every month around the world; it is a free and informal breakfast combined with a conference on a set theme, the same for all 196 cities in which the initiative takes place. January’s theme was SURREAL, and I therefore decided to talk about the relationship between anatomy and surrealism. Here is the revised transcription of my speech.
Near the railway station the annual Foire du Midi is held, gahtering in the capital all the traveling carnivals that tour Belgium.
Our protagonist is this man, just over thirty years old, who’s wandering around the fair and looking at the various attractions until his gaze is captured by a poster advertising Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical museum.
Dr. Spitzner is not even a real doctor, rather an anatomist who tried to set up a museum in Paris; he did not succeed, and started traveling with the carnival. His collection, behind a pedagogical façade (the museum is supposed to inform the public about the risks related to venereal diseases or alcohol abuse), is designed above all to arouse the audience’s mobrid curiosity and voyeurism.
The first thing that attracts the attention of our man is a beautiful wax sculpture of a sleeping woman: a mechanism makes her raise and lower her chest, as if she were breathing. The man pays the ticket and enters the sideshow. But past the red velvet curtains, a vision of wonder and horror appears before his eyes. Pathological waxes show the ravages of syphilis, monstrous bodies like those of the Tocci siamese twins are represented along scenes of surgical operations. Women appear to be operated by “phantom” hands, without arms or bodies. The same sleeping Venus seen at the entrance is dismantled under the eyes of the public, organ after organ, in a sort of spectacular dissection.
The man is upset, and the vision of the Spitzner museum will forever change his life.
In fact, our protagonist is called Paul Delvaux, a painter who until then has only painted post-impressionist (yet quite unimpressive!) bucolic landscapes.
After his visit to the Spitzner museum, however, his art will take a completely different path.
His paintings will turn into dreamlike visions, in which almost all the elements seem to refer to that original trauma or, better, to that original epiphany. The strange non-places which the figures inhabit seem to be suspended halfway between De Chirico‘s metaphysical landscapes and the fake neoclassical sceneries used in fairgrounds; his paintings are populated with sleeping venuses and female nudes, showing a cold and hieratic eroticism, and dozens of skeletons; the train station will become another of Delvaux’s obsessions.
Regarding that experience Delvaux will declare, many years later:
That disturbing, even a little morbid atmosphere, the unusual exhibition of anatomical waxes in a place meant for joy, noise, lights, joviality […] All this has left deep traces in my life for a very long time. The discovery of the Spitzner museum made me veer completely in my conception of painting.
(cited in H. Palouzié e C. Ducourau, De la collection Fontana à la collection Spitzner, In Situ [En ligne], n.31, 2017)
But why was Delvaux so touched by the vision of the inside of the human body?
In Bananas (1971), Woody Allen wakes up after taking a blow on the head, and upon touching the wound he looks at his fingers and exclaims: “Blood! That should be on inside”. I believe this to bethe most concise definition of anatomy as a Freudian repression/denial.
What is inside the body should remain off-scene (obscene). We should never see it, because otherwise it would mean that something went wrong. The inside of our body is a misunderstood territory and a real taboo – we will later attempt to see why.
So of course, there is a certain fascination for the obscene, especially for a man like Delvaux who came from a rigid and puritan family; a mixture of erotic impulses and death.
But there’s more: those waxes have a quality that goes beyond reality. What Delvaux experienced is the surrealism of anatomy.
In fact, whenever we enter an anatomical museum, we’re accessing a totally alien, unsettling, absurd dimension.
It is therefore not surprising that the Surrealists, to whom Delvaux was close, exploited anatomy to destabilize their audience: surrealists were constantly searching for this type of elements, and experiences, which could free the unconscious.
Surrealism also had a fascination for death, right from its very beginnings. One example is the Poisson soluble, Breton‘s syllogy which accompanied the Manifesto (the idea of a “soluble fish” can make us smile, but is in truth desperately dramatic), another is the famous creative game of the “exquisite corpse“.
The Surrealist Manifesto stated it very clearly: “Surrealism will introduce you to Death, which is a secret society”.
So Max Ernst in his collage wroks for Une semaine de bonté often used scraps of anatomical illustrations; Roland Topor cut and peeled his characters with Sadeian cruelty, hinting at the menacing monsters of the unconscious lurking under our skin; Réné Magritte covered his two lovers’ faces with a cloth, as if they were already corpses on the autopsy table, thus giving the couple a funereal aspect.
But Hans Bellmer above all put anatomy at the core of his lucid expressive universe, first with his series of photos of his handcrafted ball-joint dolls, with which he reinvented the female body; and later in his etchings, where the various anatomical details merge and blur into new configurations of flesh and dream. All of Bellmer’s art is obsessively and fetishly aimed at discovering the algorithm that makes the female body so seductive (the “algebra of desire”, according to its own definition).
In the series of lithographs entitled Rose ouverte la nuit, in which a girl lifts the skin of her abdomen to unveil her internal organs, Bellmer is directly referring to the iconography of terracotta/wax anatomical models, and to ancient medical illustrations.
This idea that the human body is a territory to explore and map, is directly derived from the dawn of the anatomical discipline. The first one who cut this secret space open for study purposes, at least in a truly programmatic way, was Vesalius. I have often written about him, and to understand the extent of his revolution you might want to check out this article.
Yet even after Vesalio the feelings of guilt attached to the act of dissection did not diminish – opening a human body was still seen as a desecration.
According to various scholars, this sense of guilt is behind the “vivification” of the écorchés, the flayed cadavers represented in anatomical plates, which were shown in plastic poses as if they were alive and perfectly well – an iconography partly borrowed from that of the Catholic saints, always eager to exhibit the mutilations they suffered during martyrdom.
In the anatomical plates of the 17th and 18th centuries, this tendency becomes so visionary as to become involuntarily fantasy-like (see R. Caillois, Au cœur du fantastique, 1965).
A striking example is the following illustration (from the Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano by Valverde, 1556) showing a dissected cadaver which in turn is dissecting another one: surrealism ante litteram, and a quite extraordinary macabre fantasy.
At the time scholars were quite aware of the aesthetic problem: two of the greatest anatomists of the late 17th century, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, became bitter enemies precisely because they disagreed on which kind of aesthetics was more suitable for the anatomical discipline.
Bidloo, in his treatises, had ordered the illustrations to be as realistic as possible. Dissection was shown in a very graphic way, with depictions of tied bodies and fixing pins. This was no idealized view at all, as realism was pushed to the extreme in a plate which even included a fly landing on the corpse.
On the other hand, Ruysch’s sensibility was typical of wunderkammern, and as he embellished his animal preparations with compositions of shells and corals, he did so also with human preparations, to make them more pleasing to the eye.
His anatomical preparations were artistic, sometimes openly allegorical; his now-lost dioramas were quite famous in this regard, as they were made entirely from organic materials (kidney stones used as rocks, arteries and dried veins as trees, fetal skeletons drying their tears on handkerchiefs made from meninges, etc.).
Often the preserved parts were embellished with laces and embroidery made by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel, who from an early age helped her father in his dissections (she can be seen standing on the right with a skeleton in her hand in Van Neck‘s Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch).
We could say that Ruysch was both an anatomist and a showman (therefore, a forerunner of that Dr. Spitzner whose museum so impressed Delvaux), who exploited his own art in a spectacular way in order to gain success in European courts. And in a sense he won his dispute with Bidloo, because the surreal quality of anatomical illustrations remained almost unchallenged until the advent of positivism.
Going back to the 1900s, however, things start to radically change from the middle of the century. Two global conflicts have undermined trust in mankind and in history; traditional society begins breaking down, technology enters the people’s homes and work becomes more and more mechanized. Thus a sense of loss of idenity, which also involves the body, begins to emerge.
If in the 1930s Fritz Kahn (above) could still look at anatomy with an engineering gaze, as if it were a perfect machine, in the second half of the century everything was wavering. The body becomes mutant, indefinite, fluid, as is the case in Xia Xiaowan‘s glass paintings, which change depending on the perspective, making the subject’s anatomy uncertain.
Starting from the 60s and the 70s, the search for identity implies a reappropriation of the body as a canvas on which to express one’s own individuality: it is the advent of body art and of the customization of the body (plastic surgery, tattoos, piercing).
The body becomes victim of hybridizations between the organic and the mechanical, oscillating between dystopian visions of flesh and metal fused together – as in Tetsuo or Cronenberg’s films – and cyberpunk prophecies, up to the tragic dehumanization of a fully mechanized society depicted by Tetsuya Ishida.
In spite of millenarians, however, the world does not end in the year 2000 nor in the much feared year 2012. Society continues to change, and hybridization is a concept that has entered the collective unconscious; an artist like Nunzio Paci can now use it in a non-dystopian perspective, guided by ecological concerns. He is able to intersect human anatomy with the animal and plant kingdom in order to demonstrate our intimate communion and continuity with nature; just like Kate McDowell does in her ceramics works.
The anatomical and scientific imagery becomes disturbing, on the other hand, in the paintings of Spanish artist Dino Valls, whose characters appear to be victims of esoteric experiments, continually subjected to invasive examinations, while their tear-stained eyes suggest a tragic, ancestral and repeated dimension.
Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin used the body – both the imperfect and different body, and the anatomized body, literally cut into pieces – to represent the beauty of the soul in an aesthetic way. A Catholic fervent, Witkin is truly convinced that “everything is illuminated”, and his research has a mystical quality. Looking for the divine even in what scares us or horrifies us, his aim is to expose our substantial identity with God. This might be the meaning of one of his most controversial works, The Kiss, in which the two halves of a severed head are positioned as if kissing each other: love is to recognize the divine in the other, and every kiss is nothing but God loving himself. (Here you can find my interview with Witkin – Italian only.)
Valerio Carrubba‘s works are more strictly surrealistic, and particularly interesting because they bring the pictorial medium closer to its anatomical content: the artist creates different versions of the same picture one above the other, adding layers of paint as if they were epidermal layers, only the last of which remains visible.
Anatomy’s still-subversive power is testified by its widespread use within the current of pop surrealism, often creating a contrast between childish and lacquered images and the anatomical unveiling.
Also our friend Stefano Bessoni makes frequent reference to anatomy, in particular in one of his latest works which is dedicated to the figure of Rachel, the aforementioned daughter of Ruysch.
Much in the same satirical and rebellious vein is the work of graffiti artist Nychos, who anatomizes, cuts into pieces and exposes the entrails of some of the most sacred icons of popular culture.
Jessica Harrison reserves a similar treatment to granma’s china, and Fernando Vicente uses the idea of vanitas to spoof the sensual imagery of pin-up models.
And the woman’s body, the most subject to aesthetic imperatives and social pressures, is the focus of Sally Hewett‘s work, revolving around those anatomical details that are usually considered unsightly – surgical scars, cellulite, stretch marks – in order to reaffirm the beauty of imperfection.
Autopsy, the act of “looking with one’s own eyes”, is the first step in empirical knowledge.
But looking at one’s own body involves a painful and difficult awareness: it also means acknowledging its mortality. In fact, the famous maxim inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself“, was essentially a memento mori (as evidenced by the mosaic from the Convent of San Gregorio on the Appian Way). It meant “know who you are, understand your limits, remember your finitude”.
This is perhaps the reason why blood “should be on the inside”, and why our inner landscape of organs, adipose masses and vascularized tissues still seems so unfamiliar, so disgusting, so surreal. We do not want to think about it because it reminds us of our unfortunate reality of limited, mortal animals.
But our very identity can not exist without this body, though fleeting and fallible; and our denial of anatomy, in turn, is exactly the reason why artists will continue to explore its imagery.
Because the best art is subversive, one that – as in Banksy’s famous definition – should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfotable.
We’re back with our bizarre culture column, bringing you some of the finest, weirdest reads and a new reserve of macabre anecdotes to break the ice at parties.
But first, a couple of quick updates.
First of all, in case you missed it, here’s an article published by the weekly magazine Venerdì di Repubblica dedicated to the Bizzarro Bazar web series, which will debut on my YouTube channel on January 27 (you did subscribe, right?). You can click on the image below to open the PDF with the complete article (in Italian).
Secondly, on Saturday 19 I’m invited to speak in Albano Laziale by the theater company Tempo di Mezzo: here I will present my talk Un terribile incanto, this time embellished by Max Vellucci’s mentalism experiments. It will be a beautiful evening dedicated to the marvelous, to the macabre and above all to the art of “changing perspective”. Places are limited.
And here we go with our links and curiosities.
- In the 80s some lumberjacks were cutting a log when they found something extraordinary: a perfectly mummified hound inside the trunk. The dog must have slipped into the tree through a hole in the roots, perhaps in pursuit of a squirrel, and had climbed higher and higher until it got stuck. The tree, a chestnut oak, preserved it thanks to the presence of tannins in the trunk. Today the aptly-nicknamed Stuckie is the most famous guest at Southern Forest World in Waycross, Georgia. (Thanks, Matthew!)
- Let’s remain in Georgia, where evidently there’s no shortage of surprises. While breaking down a wall in a house which served as a dentist’s studio at the beginning of the 20th century, workers uncovered thousands of teeth hidden inside the wall. But the really extraordinary thing is that this is has already happened on three other similar occasions. So much so that people are starting to wonder if stuffing the walls with teeth might have been a common practice among dentists. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
- The state of Washington, on the other hand, might be the first to legalize human composting.
- Artist Tim Klein has realized that puzzles are often cut using the same pattern, so the pieces are interchangeable. This allows him to hack the original images, creating hybrids that would have been the joy of surrealist artists like Max Ernst or Réné Magritte. (via Pietro Minto)
- The sweet world of our animal friends, ep. 547: for some time now praying mantises have been attacking hummingbirds, and other species of birds, to eat their brains.
- According to a NASA study, there was a time when the earth was covered with plants that, instead of being green, were purple.
- This year, August 9 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in history: the Bel Air massacre perpetrated by the Manson Family. So brace yourselves for a flood of morbidity disguised as commemorations.
In addition to the upcoming Tarantino flick, which is due in July, there are at least two other films in preparation about the murders. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, Sharon Tate’s clothes, accessories and personal effects have already been auctioned. The death of a beautiful woman, who according to Poe was “the most poetical topic in the world“, in the case of Sharon Tate has become a commodity of glam voyeurism and extreme fetishization. The photos of the crime scene have been all over the world, the tomb in which she is buried (embracing the child she never got to know) is among the most visited, and her figure is forever inseparable from that of the perfect female victim: young, with bright prospects, but above all famous, beautiful, and pregnant.
- And now for a hypnotic dance in the absence of gravity:
- Meanwhile, Hollywood’s most celebrated actors are secretly 3D-scanning their faces, so they can continue to perform (and earn millions) even after death.
- In the forests of Kentucky, a hunter shot a two-headed deer. Only thing is, the second head belonged to another deer. So there are two options: either the poor animal had been going around with this rotting thing stuck between its horns, for who knows how long, without managing to get rid of it; or — and that’s what I like to think — this was the worst badass gangster deer in history. (Thanks, Aimée!)
- Dr. Frank Netter’s illustrations, commissioned by pharmaceutical companies for their fliers and brochures, are among the most bizarre and arresting medical images ever created.
- This lady offers a perfect option for your funeral.
- Who was the first to invent movable-type printing? Gutenberg, right? Wrong.
- Sally Hewett is a British artist who creates wonderful embroided portraits of imperfect bodies. Her anatomical skills focus on bodies that bear surgical scars or show asymmetries, modifications, scarifications, mastectomies or simple signs of age.
Her palpable love for this flesh, which carries the signs of life and time, combined with the elegance of the medium she uses, make these artworks touching and beautiful. Here’s Sally’s official website, Instagram profile, and a nice interview in which she explains why she includes in all her works one thread that belonged to her grandmother. (Thanks, Silvia!)
- Prof Andrew Chestnut, a Santa Muerte expert, has written together with prof. Kate Kinsbury a very interesting article on the recent surge in exorcisms across the world, which is likely caused by the growth of Pentecostalism in Christianity.
- The feud between the two greatest 17th-century Dutch anatomists, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, was essentially a battle over which kind of aesthetics this new science should have.
- The feud between the two greatest seventeenth-century Dutch anatomists, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, was essentially a battle on the right aesthetics to be given to this new science.
- In closing, here is the danse macabre according to British animator Ciriak:
- “Cogito, ergo… memento mori“: this Descartes plaster bust incorporates a skull and detachable skull cap. It’s part of the collection of anatomical plasters of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and it was sculpted in 1913 by Paul Richer, professor of artistic anatomy born in Chartres. The real skull of Descartes has a rather peculiar story, which I wrote about years ago in this post (Italian only).
- A jarring account of a condition which you probably haven’t heard of: aphantasia is the inability of imagining and visualizing objects, situations, persons or feelings with the “mind’s eye”. The article is in Italian, but there’s also an English Wiki page.
- 15th Century: reliquaries containing the Holy Virgin’s milk are quite common. But Saint Bernardino is not buying it, and goes into a enjoyable tirade:
Was the Virgin Mary a dairy cow, that she left behind her milk just like beasts let themselves get milked? I myself hold this opinion, that she had no more and no less milk than what fitted inside that blessed Jesus Christ’s little mouth.
- A great piece by Jen Aitken on obituaries, and on death and end-of-life terminology:
Death isn’t a war. When we “battle,” “fight,” or “struggle” “valiantly” and “courageously,” we’re setting up death as something evil that we can “beat.” Death isn’t failure. It’s inevitable. People don’t “lose,” they simply die.
- Do libertines still exist? What was the relationship between free love and free thinking? What’s the link between Lord Byron and George Best? (Italian only)
- Here is a warm, comfy and very soft nest, lovingly prepared by a snowy owl. A nest entirely built out of dead lemmings.
- In 1973 three women and five men feigned hallucinations to find out if psychiatrists would realize that they were actually mentally healthy. The result: they were admitted in 12 different hospitals. This is how the pioneering Rosenhan experiment shook the foundations of psychiatric practice.
- Can’t find a present for your grandma? Ronit Baranga‘s tea sets may well be the perfect gift.
- David Nebreda, born in 1952, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19. Instead of going on medication, he retired as a hermit in a two-room apartment, without much contact with the outside world, practicing sexual abstinence and fasting for long periods of time. His only weapon to fight his demons is a camera: his self-portraits undoubtedly represent some kind of mental hell — but also a slash of light at the end of this abyss; they almost look like they capture an unfolding catharsis, and despite their extreme and disturbing nature, they seem to celebrate a true victory over the flesh. Nebreda takes his own pain back, and trascends it through art. You can see some of his photographs here and here.
- The femme fatale, dressed in glamourous clothes and diabolically lethal, is a literary and cinematographic myth: in reality, female killers succeed in becoming invisible exactly by playing on cultural assumptions and keeping a low and sober profile.
- Speaking of the female figure in the collective unconscious, there is a sci-fi cliché which is rarely addressed: women in test tubes. Does the obsessive recurrence of this image point to the objectification of the feminine, to a certain fetishism, to an unconscious male desire to constrict, seclude and dominate women? That’s a reasonable suspicion when you browse the hundred-something examples harvested on Sci-Fi Women in Tubes. (Thanks, Mauro!)
- I have always maintained that fungi and molds are superior beings. For instance the slimy organisms in the pictures above, called Stemonitis fusca, almost seem to defy gravity. My first article for the magazine Illustrati, years ago, was dedicated to the incredible Cordyceps unilateralis, a parasite which is able to control the mind and body of its host. And I have recently stumbled upon a photograph that shows what happens when a Cordyceps implants itself within the body of a tarantula. Never mind Cthulhu! Mushrooms, folks! Mushrooms are the real Lords of the Universe! Plus, they taste good on a pizza!
- Surely the time has passed when tattoes were a prerogative of social outcast, prisoners, criminals. But the history of this kind of body art wouldn’t have been the same without tattoed ladies who performed in sideshows and freakshows. Here’s a nice interview with a scholar who studied the lives of these artists. As a reading soundtrack, nothing better than Groucho Marx’ classic signature song Lydia The Tattooed Lady.
- Can a 18th-century cabinet make your jaw drop? Just take a look at this video.
- The latest entry in the list of candidates for my Museum of Failure is Adelir Antônio de Carli from Brazil, also known as Padre Baloeiro (“balloon priest”). Carli wished to raise funds to build a chapel for truckers in Paranaguá; so, as a publicity stunt, on April 20, 2008, he tied a chair to 1000 helium-filled balloons and took off before journalists and a curious crowd. After reaching an altitude of 6,000 metres (19,700 ft), he disappeared in the clouds.
A month and a half passed before the lower part of his body was found some 100 km off the coast.
- La passionata is a French song covered by Guy Marchand which enjoyed great success in 1966. And it proves two surprising truths: 1- Latin summer hits were already a thing; 2- they caused personality disorders, as they still do today. (Thanks, Gigio!)
- Two neuroscientists build some sort of helmet which excites the temporal lobes of the person wearing it, with the intent of studying the effects of a light magnetic stimulation on creativity. And test subjects start seeing angels, dead relatives, and talking to God. Is this a discovery that will explain mystical exstasy, paranormal experiences, the very meaning of the sacred? Will this allow communication with an invisible reality? Neither of the two, because the truth is a bit disappointing: in all attempts to replicate the experiment, no peculiar effects were detected. But it’s still a good idea for a novel. Here’s the God helmet Wiki page.
- California Institute of Abnormalarts is a North Hollywood sideshow-themed nightclub featuring burlesque shows, underground musical groups, freak shows and film screenings. But if you’re afraid of clowns, you might want to steer clear of the place: one if its most famous attractions is the embalmed body of Achile Chatouilleu, a clown who asked to be buried in his stage costume and makeup.
Sure enough, he seems a bit too well-preserved for a man who allegedly died in 1912 (wouldn’t it happen to be a sideshow gaff?). Anyways, the effect is quite unsettling and grotesque…
- I shall leave you with a picture entitled The Crossing, taken by nature photographer Ryan Peruniak. All of his works are amazing, as you can see if you head out to his official website, but I find this photograph strikingly poetic.
Here is his recollection of that moment:
Early April in the Rocky Mountains, the majestic peaks are still snow-covered while the lower elevations, including the lakes and rivers have melted out. I was walking along the riverbank when I saw a dark form lying on the bottom of the river. My first thought was a deer had fallen through the ice so I wandered over to investigate…and that’s when I saw the long tail. It took me a few moments to comprehend what I was looking at…a full grown cougar lying peacefully on the riverbed, the victim of thin ice.
In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.
∼ 2009 ∼
I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.
In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.
I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.
∼ 2017 ∼
Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.
It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.
∼ 2018 ∼
London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.
This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.
The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.
Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.
Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people think – Leopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.
∼ Convergence ∼
Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.
In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map
Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.
I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.
The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.
Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.
Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.
Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).
On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.“
The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:
The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.
(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)
On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.
This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.
A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.
Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.
We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.
The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.
But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.
That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?
There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.
And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.
Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.
What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words – is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.
The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.
The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.
Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.
“Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice
We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) died 150 years ago today.
This is a good occasion to re-read a poem taken from The Flowers of Evil (1857), the extraordinary A Carcass, — a virtuoso piece of poetic reverie on decomposition and memento mori.
On YouTube you can find several lectures of this poem, more or less successful; but all of them sound solemn and declamatory.
Instead, I present you with a version put to music and recited by Léo Ferré, who interpreted Baudelaire’s lyrics as a grotesque wild ride, a vortex of visions and “black batallions” of insects assaulting our senses.
England, despite the sweetness of its mild hills standing out, or its pleasantly green countryside, always had a funereal quality to my eye.
I am well aware that such an impression, indistinct and irrational as it is, is but an indefensible generalization; yet I cannot help this feeling deep inside of me every time I go back across the Channel.
It may be because of the many convent ruins characterizing the landscape since Reformation, or because of the infamously leaden sky, or the lingering memory of Victorian mournings; but I suspect the idea that this whole country could have an affinity with death was actually suggested to me by the British I happened to know throughout the years, who seemed to be fighting against a sort of innate, philosophical resignation with the weapons of irony.
In his sketches, John Cleese often made fun of the deferential British austerity, that fear of hurting or being hurt if feelings are given free rein — the same bottled up behaviour which finds its counterpart in the cruelty of British humour, in Blake’s dazzling ecstatic explosions, in the dandies’ iconoclasm or in punk nihilism. Thus, as hard as I have tried, I cannot get rid of the sensation that the English people think more than others, or maybe with less distractions, about vanitas, and are able to transform this awareness of futility (even in respect to social conventions) into a subversive undercurrent.
This is why heading to England to talk about memento mori felt somehow natural right from the start.
At the University of Winchester was gathered a heterogeneous crowd of academics (medievalists, medical historians, anatomists, paleopathologists, experts in literature and painting) and artists, all interested in the relationship between death, art and anatomy.
These three days of memorable intellectual stimulation really fueled my mind, by nature already overexcited.
Therefore I arrived in London in a state of augmented perception, as the town greeted me with a bright sun and crystal blue skies over its buildings, as if eager to deny all the aforementioned stereotypes. And yet, in retrospect, the days I spent in the capital proved to be a protraction and a follow-up to the meditations initiated in Winchester.
My first, inevitable visit was obviously paid to the Wellcome Collection. This Museum, founded in 2007, is particularly dear to me because it addresses, like I often do on these pages, the intersections between science, art and the sacred. Its permanent collections feature anatomical dolls, memento mori, human remains (for instance a Peruvian 5 to 7 centuries-old mummy); but also fakirs sandals, shrunken heads, chastity belts and religious objects.
A fascinating temporary exhibition entitled States of mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness introduces the visitor to the mysteries of the Self, of what we call “consciousness”, through the liminal territories of nightmare, somnambulism and its opposite — hypnagogic paralysis —, all the way to the uncharted realms of vegetative state. In the last room I learned with a shiver how recent studies suggest that patients suspended between life and death might be much more aware than we thought.
The Grant Museum of Zoology, just a five-minute walk from the Wellcome Collection, is the only remaining University zoological museum in the capital. The space open to the public is not very big, but it is packed to the ceiling with thousands of specimens covering the entire spectrum of animal kingdom. Skeletons, wet and taxidermied specimens are a silent — yet meaningful — reminder of the vortex of biodiversity.
Another ten-minute walk, and I reached 1 Scala Street, the location for what is probably one of the most peculiar and evocative museums in London: Pollock’s Toy Museum.
The visitor must proceed by climbing steep narrow stairs, passing through corridors and small rooms, in a sort of maze unfolding on multiple levels across two different houses, one built in the 1880s and the other dating back to the previous century. Ancient toys are stacked everywhere: dolls, tin soldiers, train models, stuffed animals, rocking horses, puppets, kaleidoscopes.
Coming from the Zoology Museum, I can’t help but think of how play is a fundamental activity for the human mammal. But what could appear just as a curious excursus in the history and diverse typologies of toys soon turns into something different.
Standing before the display cases crowded with hundreds of time-worn puppets, overwhelmed by the incredible quantity of details, one could easily fall prey to a vague malaise. But this is not that sort of phobia some people have for old dolls and their vitreous gaze; it is a subtle, ancient melancholia.
What happened to the children who held those teddy bears, who played out fantastic stories on tiny cardboard theaters, who opened their eyes wide in front of a magic lantern?
It might have been just another suggestion caused by previous days spent in heartfelt discussions on the symbols and simulacra of death; or, once more, my preconceptions were to blame.
But to me, even a museum dedicated to child entertainment somehow looked like a triumph of impermanence.
(This article continues here)
Here comes the third volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, Mors pretiosa – Italian religious ossuaries, already on pre-sale at the Logos bookshop.
This book, closing an ideal trilogy about those Italian sacred spaces where a direct contact with the dead is still possible, explores three exceptional locations: the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, Rome, the hypogeum of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in via Giulia, also in Rome, and the chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan.
Our journey through these three wonderful examples of decorated charnel houses, confronts us with a question that might seems almost outrageous today: can death possess a kind of peculiar, terrible beauty?
From the press kit:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” sings Leonard Cohen, and this is ultimately the message brought by the bones that can be admired in this book; death is an eternal wound and at the same time a way out. A long way from the idea of cemetery, its atmosphere of peace and the emotions it instils, the term “ossuary” usually evokes an impression of gloomy coldness but the three places in this book are very different. The subjects in question are Italy’s most important religious ossuaries in which bones have been used with decorative ends: the Capuchin Crypt and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome, and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. Thick with the sensation of mortality and vanitas, these ossuaries are capable of performing a completely unexpected role: on the one hand they embody the memento mori as an exhortation to trust in an afterlife for which the earthly life is a mere preparation and test, on the other they represent shining examples of macabre art. They are the suggestive and emotional expression – which is at the same time compassionate – of a “high” feeling: that of the transitory, of the inexorability of detachment and the hope of Resurrection. Decorated with the same bones they are charged with safeguarding, they pursue the Greek concept of kalokagathìa, namely to make the “good death” even aesthetically beautiful, disassembling the physical body to recompose it in pleasant and splendid arrangements and thereby transcend it. The clear and in-depth texts of the book set these places in the context of the fideistic attitudes of their time and Christian theological traditions whereas the images immerse us in these sacred places charged with fear and fascination. Page after page, the patterns of skulls and bones show us death in all of its splendour, they make it mirabilis, worthy of being admired.
In the text are recounted some fascinating stories about these places, from sacred representations in which human remains were used as props, to the misadventures of corpse seekers; but mainly we discover that these bone arabesques were much more than a mere attempt to impress the viewer, while in fact they represented a sort of death encyclopedia, which was meant to be read and interpreted as a real eschatological itinerary.
As usual, the book is extensively illustrated by Carlo Vannini‘s evocative photographs.