Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

The human body – specifically, the experience of being an embodied subject – is a rich source of artistic inspiration. In contemplation of this immortal theme, The Anatomy Lesson features a series of loosely connected artworks from the University of Melbourne’s medical school.

The exhibition takes its name from Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). The scene shows a doctor’s dissection of a corpse in front of his attentive pupils; their prominent ruffs, pointed hats and puffed sleeves seem absurdly incongruous in this setting. In its contrast between the imposingly attired students and the dissected corpse, Rembrandt’s etching depicts the power division between doctor and patient – a theme that runs through the exhibition.

Although the pieces assembled for the collection are not tightly connected, common themes often emerge. One major concern is the body’s experience under situations of stress. Barbara Hepworth’s pencil drawing The Beginning (1967), for example, represents an individual’s experience of surgery as one of effacement. Here, the body of the patient, which would usually be at the composition’s centre, is completely obscured by the bulk of the operating surgeons: the literal ‘blanking out’ of the patient’s body from the paper mirrors the erasure of consciousness under anaesthetic.

Several of the exhibition’s most arresting works are by Melbourne artist Ruth Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s concerns seem to lie with the implications of being a human subject situated within a physical body, which allows her to explore the problem of how consciousness interacts with flesh. Hutchinson’s three-part Eye Examination (2006) features intricate drawings of the eyeball and optic nerve, bound in a slightly macabre miniature pop-up book that resembles a miniaturised, expressionistic version of Gray’s Anatomy. In Mind Entrapment (2006), Hutchinson represents the eyeball’s visual field as a wooden cage. This echoes William Blake’s lament about the conceptual limitations of our five senses, where man only ‘sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern’.

Yet pessimism isn’t Hutchinson’s only metier: she reveals her tonal diversity with the lovely Sympathetic Ear (2005), which visualises the exchange of information between two people as a physical link between their auditory systems. The large drawing depicts two human heads joined at the shoulder, their ear canals connected via a vast, maze-like complex of tubes and alleys. Trapped within one of these tangled creepers is a string of letters, which gradually become more garbled as it makes the tortured transition from one person to another. It’s a lyrical way of illustrating the imperfections of communication.

Complementing Hutchinson’s charming reimagining of our bodies’ internal workings are her sculptures, many of which seek to undermine the impermeable wall we have erected between human intelligence and animal instinct. Cerebral Slither (2009–10) presents an unholy hybrid of a human brain with a seething mass of snakes; Natural Tap (2006) features a brain encased in a cage of crab claws. A vertebra is suspended from this contraption by a piece of wire, perhaps to convey our brain’s slender line of communication with our body. Most strikingly of all, Vessel to Hold One’s Breath (2012) features a finely woven replica of the lung’s bronchial tubes, suspended in a spherical beaker of clear fluid.

Hutchinson’s compellingly strange meditations on embodiment contrast somewhat jarringly with a series of subtle turn-of-the century oil paintings, whose gentleness is at odds with the angst and disorientation displayed by many of the show’s modern works. George CoatesLife Study, Seated Man (1893), for example, is a quiet, tender portrait of a bearded male, naked to the waist, staring meditatively downward with clasped hands. Constance Winifred Honey’s Life Study, Seated Man, ¾ Length from Back (c.1909) combines intimacy with an obsessive attention to the details of his musculature, down to the prominent nub of each vertebra. A more modern attempt to capture the human body’s beauty without airbrushing its material reality is Terence Stewart Bogue’s Penumbra I & II (2012), a meditative diptych of a man’s legs and feet, their joints and tendons deep in shadow.

Against these sober, grounded meditations on the body is contrasted the lurid extravagance of Juan Davila’s Indigenous Angel with Matisse Background (1985), a riotous celebration of bodily possibility and potential whose palette bursts with bloody, earthy tones. The androgynous figure’s split and doubled face prevents any clear identity from forming in the spectator’s mind. To further blur the figure’s nature, its genitals have been replaced with a bird’s head, its single glowing eye and hooked beak buried deeply within the crotch. It’s a striking image, but it sits oddly with its more cautious neighbours.

Another confronting view of bodily existence is presented by Stelarc’s Sitting, Swinging Event for Rock Suspension (1980) and Event for Stretched Skin no. 4 (1977), each of which depict the naked artist suspended above the ground by metal hooks. Beyond the initial shock value, though, it is unclear what the masochism is intended to convey – the body’s frailty, perhaps. Yet Stelarc’s works seem to function only on a level of pure exhibitionism. Once the spectacle of the artist’s pain is presented, there seems to be little more to say.

Despite the somewhat loose connection between its works, The Anatomy Lesson contains many striking insights. Viewed as a series of individual responses to the body’s strangeness, it revealingly probes the human experience of physical existence.

The Anatomy Lesson
1 September 2012 – 20 January 2013
Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne

Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.