The Body Sketchers

Read Time:
2m 48sec

HUMAN ANATOMY: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age.
By Benjamin A. Rifkin, Michael J. Ackerman, and Judith Folkenberg. Abrams. 343 pp. $­29.95

The Complete Coloured Plates of 1831–1854.
By Jean Baptiste M. Bourgery and Nicolas Henri Jacob. Taschen. 714 pp. $­200

With the notable exception of the work of Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical illustration has generally been a collaborative effort. There is the anat­omist who dissects the bodies and at least one artist who, working with the anatomist, his notes, and sometimes his sketches, illustrates the findings. Since illustration is by definition an editorial ­process—­things are left out, subdued, or empha­sized for clarity or ­impact—­it is an ideal tool for the anatomist who wishes not only to record what has been observed but also to teach it. Over the past 500 years, these partnerships between artists and anatomists have produced many works both useful and occasionally even magnificent, and Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age offers an enjoyable look at them.

Art historian Benjamin Rifkin’s insightful overview of anatomical works, from Andreas Vesalius and Jan Stefan van Kalkar’s The Fabric of the Human Body (1543) to Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (1858) by Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter, is largely given over to brief biographies of the anatomists and portfolios of their plates. In the closing chapter, biomedical engineer Michael Ackerman considers the present and future of anatomical illustration. With the latest scanning technology, it is no longer necessary to create the illusion of ­three-­dimensionality or to suffer inaccuracies of placement or relative dimension. And yet one cannot help but mourn the loss of images created by informed human observation rather than digital data sets. The book’s only disappointment, aside from its wee format, is the inclusion at the end of “illustrations” from the New Atlas of Human Anatomy (2000). They may be accurate. They may be the way of the future. But they also suggest, by their lack of subtlety and garish colors, that we are made of ­plastic.

Still, all is not lost. That eclectic publishing house, Taschen, has released a truly extraordinary volume, Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery. Where the Abrams book serves as a handy guide to possible journeys through the art of anatomy, the Taschen publication is the Grand Tour itself. Its 714 pages contain all the plates from the eight volumes produced by French anatomist ­Jean ­Baptiste Marc Bourgery (1797–1849) and his primary artistic accomplice, ­Nicolas ­Henri Jacob (1782–1871).

The original plates were printed using lithography, a technique that allows both remarkable detail and a ­life­like softness when practiced by artists of Jacob’s caliber. His illustrations are so successful in capturing both the procedures and the sense of human life that the surgical ­plates—­showing, for example, how to remove a leg step by step, so to ­speak—­are not for the squeamish. On the other hand, the illustrations of specimens observed through the microscope are worth the journey all by themselves, and the book’s double foldouts take your breath ­away.

The care with which this book has been produced, not to mention the fact that it was pro­duced at all, is a fitting tribute to Bourgery, whose work never received the recognition he felt it deserved. The original work was without doubt a tour de force, and so, appropriately, is this new ­edition.

—David Macaulay

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