BODY AND SOUL: Body culture, art, women and medical care
In this age of COVID-19 and an insecure future time makes its presence felt even more than usually is the case. During days of isolation it would presumably be dragging on. Nevertheless, that does not seem to be the case. Could the reason be that a dreary season, with encroaching darkness, falling leaves and heavy rain, makes days disappear with greater ease? Not for me – it is rather the boredom, the
monotony, lack of socializing and variation which make every day appear as being equal to the one before. Time seems to be a vanishing puff of air in an endless infinity. It is now Wednesday evening, soon time to go to bed, it was just like that a short while ago – another Wednesday evening and time to go to bed. As in those “care home for the elderly” with ridiculous names like Sunset or Eden Rest.
I try my hand at a selfie, a picture of elusive time. I cannot understand how people might find pleasure in taking pictures of themselves. To me, it's just tragic to look at those pathetic self-portraits. The camera, or correctly phone, is far too honest when it reveals a gray-looking, old man. An experience similar to being forced to listen to my own voice, revealed to lack the sonority and moderation I assume hearing when I speak. However, when I am listen to a recording of my voice I become irritated by the key, the rhythm and not the least the sound of the voice itself. Do I really sound like that? Has my voice always been like that? Under all circumstances … my appearance has changed beyond recognition if compared to the one I once was.
I cannot help smiling at the picture of an ugly, old man and am reminded of an autobiography I once read by the Palestinian lawyer and politician Raja Shehadeh, in which he describes, among other things, how his temperamental grandmother becomes furious at the town photographer:
When she was in her late sixties, she took one look at a passport photograph taken of her and proceeded to scold the photographer: “What sort of picture is this? You should be ashamed of yourself taking such a picture. What nerve. But it seems you have no shame. No shame.” He looked at her wanting to say the obvious, but she would not allow him.
I try go back in time and search for a younger Jan Lundius, though in my computer I do not find any photographs of that young man. They are kept in a box up in the attic in far-away Bjärnum. In my computer there were only five random, old photos, among them an old class photograph. How did it end up there? A seven-year-old Jan is standing behind Maud. I am the only boy with long hair. The pictures on the wall indicate that the photo was taken by Eastertime in 1962. Behind us stands our teacher – Maj Ahle. I met her again four years ago in my hometown, Hässleholm. She was approaching ninety years of age and was almost the same person as she was sixty years ago. She remembered me well, but did not recall that she once gave me a slap on the cheek. However, I remembered it well as well as the incident which made her do it. That little boy on the photo. He with the stringy mop. Is it really me? Does he abide inside me? Do we still share the same body?
This will be the theme of today, the idea behind this blog post – the inner and outer body. How they age and change. How unknown they are to him who is now dragging them along. I am once again studying the selfie I just took and imagine discerning traces of the life I lived. Is the soul visible from the outside? Like in the picture of Dorian Gray.
I read with pleasure and fascination about the villain and poet François Villon. We know him from his poetry and contemporary trial records. He was probably born in 1431, something that may be calculated through information provided in his masterpiece The Great Testament, where he claims to be thirty years old. After 1463, he disappears completely out of sight.
The son of poor parents, Villon was raised by a relative who was a priest and eventually was able to enroll the intelligent, but rebellious, youngster at the University of Paris, where at the age of twenty Villon became a licentiate in canon law. However, already then he was lost among taverns, brothels, thieves and adventurers. Trial records state that in 1455 Villon fatally wounded a priest during a quarrel over a prostituted girl. Shortly afterwards, he and his companions stole the cash box from the Faculty of Theology. After that, the gang traveled around the Kingdom spreading fear and anxiety under the name Les Coquillards, The Shell Dwellers.
Villon was arrested, sentenced to death and wrote his Grand Testament in prison. He was pardoned after signing a promissory note that he within three years would have paid back the money he had stolen from the Faculty of Theology. It is doubtful if he ever paid back any of them. A year later, Villon was once again arrested this time for another, unknown crime, tortured and sentenced to be hanged. Villon then wrote his incomparable Ballade of the Hanged Men, had the sentence revoked and instead sentenced to deportation from Paris. After that he disappears for ever. The first edition of Villon's writings was published in 1489, but by then he was probably long dead.
When I now read Villon's poems again I find they mostly deal with the shortness of life, aging, death and vanity – Mais ou sont les neiges d´dantan? But where are last year's snows?
La mort le fait frémir, pâlir,
Le nez courber, les veines tendre,
Le col enfler, la chair mollir,
Jointes et nerfs croître et étendre.
Corps fémenin, qui tant es tendre,
Poly, souef, si précieux,
Te faudra il ces maux attendre?
Oui, ou tout vif aller ès cieux.
As death comes, you tremble and blanch,
your nose hooks down, your limps go limp;
your necks swells up and your flesh go slack,
your joints and nerves, inflamed bulge out.
Even a woman´s body – so tender
smooth, and soft, so fervently loved –
must suffer these ravages?
Yes – unless borne up to heaven intact.
With Villon’s poems in my head, I obeyed my family’s repeated appeals, went to my medical doctor and was thoroughly examined – inside out. Among other things, I was subjected to two ultrasound examinations. One of the throat and one of my intestines. Hooked up to an ultrasound machine I was confronted with the wonderment of looking at blurred live images of my inner self.
In the inner darkness of my body, my heart was beating. This miracle muscle has tirelessly beaten out its rhythmic thumping, day and night. Year out and year in. It has now kept me alive for sixty-six years. It is strange to behold its constant fight against age and death. A few years after the beginning of the “common era”, Pliny the Older described the heart:
It has a definite beat and a movement of its own as if it were a second living creature inside the body.
Watch, listen and marvel – the beat goes on every second, every minute you are alive:
Grandmas sit in chairs and reminisce.
Boys keep chasing girls to get a kiss.
The cars keep going faster all the time.
Bums still cry: “Hey buddy, have you got a dime?”
And the beat goes on, the beat goes on.
Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain:
La de da de de, la de da de da.
I listened to Dr. Bacci while he studied my test results. Looked around the room, with its framed certificates from Rome and the United States, models of internal organs, scales, examination bed while rain poured down in the gray dusk outside of the window. How many times have I found myself in such rooms?
With my mother at Dr. Bengtsson’s surgery in Hässleholm. Once when I had violent nosebleeds, he stuffed tampons into the nasal passages. When he pulled out one of them, the septum between the nostrils cracked. I do not remember how old I was, though the damage remains. Hardly a transformative experience, it can actually be seen on my selfie, as well as a mark left by another doctor who accidentally burned a blood vessel on my upper lip.
I came to think of all these more or less heroic General Practitioners around the world. The photographer Eugene Smith (1918-1878) likened his way of working with that of a playwright and pointed to fact that his photographs always told a story. One of Smith’s masterpieces is a photo sequence he in 1948 made on behalf of Life Magazine in which he told about Dr. Ernest Guy Ceriani’s everyday life. Dr. Ceriani served around 2,000 people in the small town of Kremmling, somewhere among the Rocky Mountains. The story intended to highlight The United States’ great need for GPs and is now considered to be a lasting ideal for effectively told photojournalism.
Among Smith’s photographs, I was seized by the image of an elderly man lying on an examination bed. He has the helplessly worried look that many of us obtain through a realization that our bodily shortcomings and ailments leave us unconditionally in the hands of healthcare professional's knowledge, assessments and abilities.
How our life, our entire existence, might depend on medical science and its servants.
The Spanish realist Antonio López García has in his art portrayed the defenseless vulnerability of our frail bodies. It could be a naked woman in a bathtub:
Or a patient who through cables and catheters is connected to a urinal, an ECG meter and a nutrient solution bottle:
Or who, exhausted, with a phone by the bedside side, recuperates after some extensive surgery.
Art often depicts such helplessness. Rembrandt drew his beloved Saskia within a sickbed where she soon would face death in tuberculosis, only twenty-nine years old.
Our helplessness is perhaps most obvious when we are confronted with in a child'’s illness and suffering. Who is unable to identify with another Dutch master’s, Gabriel Metsu’s portrayal of a mother with her sick child? I have also met that resigned, yet forgiving look of a sick and beloved child.
Illness and madness have seldom been portrayed as passionately and insightful as by Francisco de Goya. Sometime in 1819; deaf, plagued by old age and fears of going crazy, he isolated himself in his rural residence outside Madrid, La quinta del sordo, The House of the Deaf Man. Directly on its walls he painted depictions of the inner and outer tumult that tormented him.
In a self-portrait from the same time, we see Goya, weak and disillusioned in the arms of his doctor and friend, Eugenio García Arrieta. Under the painting, which he gave to Arrieta before he traveled to North Africa to study the effects of bubonic plague, the Spanish master wrote:
Goya, in gratitude to his fiend Arrieta: for the compassion and care which he saved his life during the acute and dangerous illness he suffered towards the end of of the year 1819 in his seventy-third year. He painted it in 1820.
We are constantly traveling towards Death. As in Holbein the Younger's magnificent death dance depictions. The couple, who forgetful through their love and well-being, is by of a triumphant skeleton accompanied to their death. Or an old man stumbling towards his grave, guided by his ailments and a zither-playing grim reaper, who to support him keeps one of the old fellow´s wrists in a firm grip.
Is Death scary? I don’t know. The imprint it made on the bodies I have seen has been peaceful. As in Silvestro Lega'’s painting of the deceased Giuseppe Mazzini. Life has fled from a man who fought for a united and independent Italy. A convinced, deeply religious nationalist who wanted his country to obtain “a permanent and democratic republicanism.” Mazzini became the inspiration for several postcolonial leaders around the world. However, in Lega'’s painting, Giuseppe Mazzini has ceased to exist and become a body, nothing more, though he has also become a monument.
I was alone with my father when he died and came to my mother a couple of hours after she died. When I saw their bodies, I was caught by a feeling similar to the one I encountered when I saw Lega’s painting of the dead Mazzini. In their death, my parents were beautiful. Life had left them, through their bodies still seemed to preserve what I loved in them.
My body does not only enclose my self, i.e. my self-consciousness, my thoughts, what I perceive as my existence. When I on the ultrasound screen saw my beating heart, I realized that my body also encloses a world largely unknown to me; internal organs, blood vessels, muscles and bones.
In one of his many drawings, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) indicated, maybe to his physician, where he had internal pains, it was probably liver problems.
Like Lionardo da Vinci (1452-1519), his twenty-years-older artist colleague, Dürer was a tireless explorer of nature and, like him, in constant search of the mysteries of life; harmonies, proportions, the nature as a seat of the soul.
During the Middle Ages, most philosophers, scientists and artists had seen nature through coloured lenses. It could be the Bible, but also Aristotle’s descriptions of the structure and function of the world, or Vitruvius’s speculations about human proportions and its influence on architecture, based on mathematically determined measurements.
da Vinci’s boundless curiosity, sharp observation and artistic skills soon found that much of Aristotle’s observations and theories, and especially Vitruvius’s, did not correspond to reality. He measured and drew male models, especially a man named Caravaggio, and compared his observations and calculations with what Vitruvius had come up with.
A few years later, during his two visits to Venice, Dürer had came into contact with writers, philologists and philosophers who were well versed in both Latin and Greek literature, and in the process of overthrowing age-old, hitherto unreservedly accepted opinions. Of course, among people like these Vitruvius’s writings were read and discussed, as well as Galen’s medical observations and theories, some of latter’s writing also concerned human proportions.
After his last Venetian visit in 1507, Dürer began to prepare a comprehensive instruction book on the basics of drawing and painting. Soon, he did however get stuck with Vitruvius and his theories about human proportions. For certain unaware of da Vinci’s previous studies, Dürer began to measure people and calculate the relationship between different body parts. However, Dürer was more systematic than da Vinci and measured a large number of men, women and children.
First, he measured distances between different parts of the body and calculated their relations and then compared them with the length of the measured individual. He then eliminated minor deviations, until he found what he assumed to be an average. Dürer then divided each drawing of an examined and carefully delineated body into six parts, comparing them with each other, as well as with the weight of the depicted person.
Dürer did not back down from difficulties arising disproportionate figures, as well as changes in bodily harmony caused by increasing age. He did not the least study himself. He looked for signs of how an ideal body could change during a person's lifetime, in accordance with mental states and an advancing age
Dürer’s goal was twofold – he wanted to find out whether absolute beauty exists and if it could be reflected through perfect bodily harmony, as well as he wanted to make it easier for an artist to distinguish whether deviations from such an ideal could reveal individual, primarily psychological, characteristics. Through his artistry Dürer tried to capture nature´s diversity, perhaps mainly in its shape of human bodies:
there are many forms of relative beauty conditioned by the diversity of breeding, vocation, and natural disposition. …. [and] the widest limits of human nature and all possible kinds of figures: noble or rustic, canine or fox-like, timid or cheerful.
In connection with his proportional studies, Dürer made a large number of drawings and in 1523 he had carved more than a hundred woodcuts, intended to be included in the first four parts of his instruction book for artists. However, his Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, Four Books on Human Proportion, was not published until 1528, six months after Dürer's death.
I do not know if Dürer, like da Vinci, explored the human internal organs by performing autopsies on his own. The only drawing, except when he points out the site of his liver pain, through which Düret draws attention to the human internal organs, is a proportional drawing on which he indicated the location of some internal organs by drawing them on an unopened body.
In his youth, Dürer also made a woodcut showing an autopsy, though strangely enough it depicts how a toad is sitting on top of the opened-up woman's internal organs.
da Vinci and Dürer were far from the first writers and artists to ponder about and pursue perfect human proportions. Some of the revolutionary thinking of the Renaissance had been stimulated by a a wide variety of translations of ancient Greek texts. During the Middle Ages, ancient Greek knowledge had been conveyed mainly through Latin –, and to some extent, Arabic translations and interpretations, though around the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greek originals began to appear and be interpreted.
An ancient Greek thought which became important for the “humanistic” thinking of the Renaissance was indicated by the Latin phrase Homo mensura, a term attributed to the Greek philosopher Protagoras (481-420 BC): “Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” This quote comes from Platos´s dialogue Theatetus and in a subsequent blog entry I intend to dwell more into this fascinating subject.
The fact that such teachings became widespread was to a high degree the merit of the medical doctor and writer Aelius Galen (129-200 AD). Galen was perhaps the most prolific writer of the Antiquity. It is believed that a third of his writings have been preserved, which is more than half of all remaining ancient Greek texts. It is mainly Galen’s philosophical speculations that have disappeared, while a large number his books dealing with anatomy and pharmacology remain. Translations of Galen were quite numerous in Arabic-speaking areas, and from the millennium onward, Latin translations were spread mainly in Italy.
There are also several manuscripts pretendeding to have been written by Galen. Some of them may have originated from original versions, mainly those known to have circulated among physicians active in Salerno during the twelfth - and thirteenth centuries. However, most such Pseudo-Galens did not have much in common with Galen’s original writings. In such a manuscript, written by the middle of the fourteenth century, we come across this strange illustration that indicates wounds caused by various weapons. It tells something about the brutal warfare of the time and what terrible damage a soldier, now as before, could be subjected to.
It was on battlefields and in warships that surgeons of learned their trade. They were often called sawbones since their efforts were generally limited to stop bleeding, treat wound infections, as well as performing trepanations and amputations. It was not until the nineteenth century, when anesthetics and the cause of blood poisoning were discovered, that curative surgeries could be carried out to any appreciable extent and surgeon became a prestigious profession. Until then, medical science, apart from autopsies, was mainly devoted to the external parts of the body.
In one of his writings, De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, Galen mentioned the Greek sculptor Polykelitos:
Chrysippos holds beauty to consist not in the commensurability or "symmetria" [ie proportions] of the constituent elements [of the body], but in the commensurability of the, parts, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and wrist, and of those to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polyclitus. For having taught us in that work all the proportions of the body, Polyclitus supported his treatise with a work: he made a statue according to the tenets of his treatise, and called the statue, like the work, the ‘Canon’.
The writings of Polykleitos (active 460-420 BC) has disappeared, though parts have been quoted by several ancient authors. According to them, Polykleitos did in his Canon state that “perfection comes about little by little (para mikron) through many numbers.” Something Dürer took note of.
Several art historian have assumed that the tangible Canon Polykleitos created to illustrate his theories, was a sculpture called Doryphoros, the Spear-Bearer. Like all of Polykleitos’s sculptures, the original was cast in bronze, though several Roman marble replicas have been found. Two intact specimens are exhibited in Naples National Archaeological Museum. One of them was in 1767 excavated in Herculaneum, and a few years later an even better replica was found in Pompeii, suggesting that such marble copies were fairly common throughout the Roman Empire.
Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 AD), who wrote about everything between heaven and earth, mentioned Canon and Doryphoros:
a statue of a man carrying a spear, the Doryphoros – a youth, but of rugged appearance, and a statue that artists call the Canon, since they draw their outlines from it as if from some sort of standard. In fact, thanks to this one work. Polyclitus, alone of all men, is considered to have created the very art of sculpture. […] Polyclitus very own discovery was the art of making statues with their weight on one leg.
The most striking feature of Polykleitos’s Doryphoros was his contrapposto, an Italian word which can mean something like “the opposite”. The term is used in art history to describe how a person stands with the body weight resting against one foot, while shoulders and arms deviate from the longitudinal direction of hips and legs, thereby providing an impression of movement/dynamics.
Sometime in the 1440s, the powerful Florentine patron Cosimo de Medici commissioned the already famous artist Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (1386-1466) to create a sculpture of the victorious David. The result was astonishing and completely unexpected. Donato Bardi, commonly known as Donatello, created the first naked, free-standing sculpture since antiquity ... and not only that. Wearing only a laurel-adorned hat and boots, the enigmatically smiling youth steps on Goliath's severed head. Like Doryphoros, David stands in contrapposto and was like Polykleitos’s original cast in bronze, something that was unusual at the time when Donatello created his masterpiece.
Donatello´s contemporaries were amazed. His David appeared to have been created out of nothing, especially as several considered Donatello to be a homo rozo e sempplicissimo in ogni altri cosa excepto ch´in scultura, a rough-hewn man, vulgar in everything but sculpture. Doryphoros was still unknown, though there were other Roman sculptures that stood in contrapposto. However, this did not hinder Donatello's concept of the nude David from appearing as an entirely unique piece of art. An added spice to its fame was that the sculpture soon became a homoerotic icon. Donatello's sexual inclinations were a well-known fact in contemporary Florence, and so were several other of his fellow artists’ infatuation with young men. Something that fifty years later became a central theme in several of the doomsday prophet Savonarola's ramblings against the immoral Florence and the penance that many artists under his rule were submitted to.
The connection between naked, heroic men, perfect symmetry and homo-eroticism was more or less pronounced during the Renaissance and did in nineteenth-century Europe develop into a formal cult, not the least through Neoclassicism, which from about 1750 until approximately 1820 was the most influential style in European and American art, design, and architecture. However, the cult of heroic, naked, young men survived long after that and reached a new peak during the Fascism and Nazism of the 1920s and 1930s.
Neoclassicism had at first been inspired by excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, where after the middle of the 18th century one spectacular find after the other was made. Particularly important for the development of the Neoclassical style was the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), who in 1763 was commissioned by the pope to oversee the care of Rome's ancient monuments. In his much-appreciated writings Winckelmann praised eine edle Einfalt und stille Grösse, sowohl in der Stellung als im Ausdrucke, a noble simplicity and calm grandeur in both gesture and expression. An opinion he formed about the Greek art of the Antiquity at the sight of the Laocoön Group in The Vatican Museums. Below is a photograph of a ten-year-old Jan Lundius looking at it on his first visit to Rome, completely unaware that he would spend much of his life in that city.
Of course, a homosexual aesthete like Winckelmann was a great enthusiast of Polykleitos’s art:
Polykleitos was in his art a sublime poet who, through his characters, sought to overcome the beauty of nature: that is the reason why he was primarily interested in young people and thereby was able to express the softness of a Bacchus, or the flourishing youthfulness of an Apollo, the strength of a Hercules, or the maturity of an Asklepios.
By Michelangelo the cult of the naked man had assumed different dimensions, characterized by a more titanic heroism. Michelangelo was more impressed by the powerful Lysippos than the quiet, mathematically calculating and balanced Polykleitos. Michelangelo was captivated when, in 1546, a giant sculpture of a tired Hercules had been excavated in the ruined Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The Hellinistic statue turned out to be a Roman marble replica of a bronze sculpture by Lysippos, which in lyrical terms had been hailed by several ancient writers. There are at least 50 preserved sculptures and fragments of copies of Lysippo’s bronze sculpture of a weary Hercules, excavated in various places throughout the ancient Roman Empire. The passionate and expressive Michelangelo certainly appreciated Pliny the Elder's statement about Lysippos: “He used to say that he made men as he visualized them, whereas his predecessors made them as they were.”
Before Michelangelo had become impressed by Lysippo’s Hercules, he had been inspired by the powerful dynamics of the so-called Belvedere Torso, which since 1430 had been on view in the papal palace. In the Sistine Chapel’s fresco The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo completed five years before the discovery of Lysippo’s Hercules, just to the right under the compact and muscular Christ, the naked old man Saint Bartholomew exposes his skinned hide, imprinted with Michelangelo's own features. Bartholomew’s chest is a powerful rendition of the Belvedere Torso.
Muscular bodies in violent motion were a common theme in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. The swirling movement of naked warriors who in the middle of their bath in the Battle of Cascina are surprised by a hostile attack, seek their counterpart in world art, and the masterpiece is even stranger considering that the episode is not at all depicting a battle.
For Michelangelo, the male body was a reflection of how the divine manifests itself among us. According to him, the presence of the holy could be reproduced through an artistic depiction of powerful and well-proportioned human bodies. Such bodies could evidently not be allowed to be marred and desecrated by some miserable garments, created by human hands. Most figures presented in Michelangelo´s Last Judgment were naked, few exceptions were Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary.
In the Roman Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva we are encountered with an athletically built and naked Jesus who standing in contrapposto triumphantly holds on to his cross. It can be understandable that Pope Pius IV had Michelangelo’s student Daniele da Volterra covering the genitals of the naked figures of the Last Judgment with various imaginatively draped pieces of clothing. Something that gave Volterra the nickname Il Braghettone, The Breeches Maker. It must have been somewhat awkward for a prelate to perform the sacrosanct Eucharist while crowds of naked flesh collapsed down the wall in front of him. However, it is more difficult to put up with the ridiculous prudishness which is the reason to why Michelangelo’s naked Christ currently is disfigured by an ugly, brownish lump of metal.
The combination of muscular, naked men and bombastic heroism has since Michelangelo had a troublesome presence in the public space. Especially if such images were created by artists who lacked in the artistic genius of masters such as Bernini, Canova, Thorvaldsen, or Rodin.
In Rome I came across one of the strangest museums I have ever visited. I was attracted by its name – Museo H.C. Andersen assuming it was dedicated to the great Danish storyteller, one of my favorite authors who actually spent some time in Rome. His first novel, The Improvisatore, was based on his Italian experiences and became a success in Germany and France. However, it turned out that the museum had nothing to do with Hans Christian Andersen, instead it was the Norwegian-born sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen’s (1872-1940) large studio and sculpture collection that he at the time of his death had bequeathed to the then Fascist Italian State. The museum was not opened to the public until 1978 and is in all its grotesque horror actually worth a visit – room after room filled to the brim with white marble statues depicting tall, muscular, naked men and some women, who, among other things, juggle with babies.
Andersen was an idealistic fanatic who throughout his working life sought to realize his dream of a World Capital, which according to him would be top modern and freshly constructed according to his own elaborated plans and equipped with morally uplifting art and architecture:
a fountain of overflowing knowledge to be fed by the whole world of human endeavour in art, science, religion, commerce, industry, and law; and in turn to diffuse throughout the whole of humanity as though it were one grand, divine body conceived by God, the vital requirements which would renew its strength, protect its rights, and enable it to attain greater heights through a concentration of world effort.
Pooh! Maybe a beautiful and inspiring thought and Andersen did not lack, wealthy patrons, even Mussolini appreciated his muscle-swelling titans. What may seem strange, however, is that the refined aesthete and renown author Henry James was attracted to this passionate, thirty-year-younger zealot, endowed with a somewhat dubious sense of beauty.
The passionate letters the respected and world-famous author addressed to the handsome Norwegian, every so often since they met in 1899 until James’s death in 1916, testify that it was not Andersen’s art and ideals that had attracted Henry James. In the Irish author Colm Tóibín's novel The Master, Andersen is portrayed as an opportunistic schemer who tried to use the support of the aging and besotted James to help up his career.
The slight dizziness I assume most visitors suffer from while being confrontated with all the inflated, somewhat dubious and hollow fervor that prevails within the walls of Museo H. C. Andersen, is also conveyed by Nazi depictions of muscle-swollen, naked supermen. Marble giants that arouse more disgust than feelings of pride and patriotism. Josef Thorak’s and Arno Breker’s, i.e. Nazi Germany’s two “official sculptors”, soulless beefcakes are actually more scary than any rotting zombie carcass.
Any totalitarian and basically art-hostile State seems to have an undisguised predilection for masculine and naked bodybuilder-art. The Soviet Union was filled with a plethora of such muscle gluttony. For example, the huge monument ensemble in Volgograd called Rodina-mat' zovyot – The Motherland Beckons, which in 1967 was erected to pay tribute to Stalingrad's fallen heroes, planned and constructed by Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin. In its centre rises a no less than 85 meters high statue of Mother Russia. Certainly a mother who, in all her patriotism, appears as somewhat frightening, surrounded as she is by heavily armed and muscular soldiers.
Inspiration for Mother Russia, and for a wealth of other over-sized monuments around the world, included Vera Mukhina’s colossal Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. This striking sculpture did in 1937 adorn the Soviet pavilion, which during The Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life was erected opposite Nazi Germany's contribution, which that likewise was filled with muscular presentations of soldiers and workers.
Such inflated and soul-dead Mastodon Art is far from obsolete. As recently as 2010, a fifty-metres-high African Renaissance Monument was inaugurated in Senegal’s capital Dakar, with a muscle-swelling macho giant followed by his wife in the same forward advancing position as Mukhina's Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, though with the slight difference that the man in his left hand does not brandish a hammer but, in a manner of several of Hendrik Christian Andersen’s sculptures, holds a baby boy who pints out the direction forward. This grotesque “work of art” was created by the Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan, who apparently is incurably infected by the worst Soviet bodybuilder-art.
The above-mentioned artistic abominations might be described as a triumphs of ideal bodies, where the human frame has become an empty envelope; a construction, a machine devoid of any personality. Who exactly are Vuchetich’s Mother Russia, Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman and Magherusan’s Africa – everyone and nobody at all; empty, chilly shells without any hints at internal characteristics and properties.
I wonder if certain anatomists, pathologists and surgeons do not look at the human body in a similar manner – as some kind of machine that may be repaired at best. Cole Porter's superb and witty The Physician comes to mind:
Once I loved such a shattering physician,
Quite the best-looking doctor in the state,
He looked after my physical condition
And his bedside manner was great!
He said my bronchial tubes were entrancing,
My epiglottis filled him with glee,
He simply loved my larynx
And went wild about my pharynx,
But he never said he loved me.
And though, no doubt,
It was not very smart of me,
I get on a-wracking of my soul,
to figure out why he loved every part of me,
And yet not me as a whole.
He said my maxillaries were marvels,
And found my sternum stunning to see,
He did a double hurdle
When I shook my pelvic girdle,
But he never said he loved me.
He lingered on with me till morning
And when I went to pay him his fee
He said, "Don't be funny,
It is I who owe you money"
Ah! but he never said he loved me.
Porter’s usual rhyming equilibrism ends with an aspect of doctor and patient that in modern times has become increasingly important – the payment for medical attention. It is a well-known fact that many persons are attracted to the medical profession by the large incomes it may generate, something that the cartoonist Frank Reynolds (1876-1953) 1925 pointed out in a satirical drawing in the British satirical magazine Punch:
Doctor: What did you operate on Jones for?
Surgeon: A hundred pounds.
The doctor: No, I mean what had he got?
Surgeon: A hundred pounds.
There are several versions of The Physician and as usual the best are generally sung by Cole Porter himself. Julie Andrews made a strange version of the couplet in William Wyler’s film Star, which was a failure in 1968, although it may not be quite as bad as its reputation. Strangely enough, Andrews sings the song in the form of an initially knitting lady of a harem:
In contrast to the exterior of our bodies, the interiors have seldom been portrayed as neither heroic nor inspiring. Although they are hidden within each and everyone of us, our internal organs are generally unknown to the nonprofessionals and if exposed, they might arouse both fear and disgust. As with the onlooker in Thomas Eakins’s depiction of a public operation performed by Dr. Samuel D. Gross in 1875 at Philadelphia Medical College.
Eakins’s painting shows both people's discomfort with blood and intestines, as well as scientists’ interest in what our interior organs really look like and how they function. Contrary to popular belief, autopsies were during the Middle Ages not at all banned by the Church, but it was not until 1315 that a public “corpse opening” occurred. It took place for teaching purposes at the University of Bologna, under the direction of Mondino di Luzzi. What di Luzzi intended to do was actually proving that a human individual’s internal organs and their functions largely corresponded with Galen's discoveries, despite the fact that this ancient physician only had performed autopsies on animals.
An inquisitive artist like Lionardo da Vinci went further than his fellow artists, who generally only were interested in the exterior of a body and possibly its musculature. More than anyone before him, da Vinci penetrated further and further into the human body and furthermore produced detailed and impressive drawings of our internal organs.
The Flemish Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was the one who finally set out to explore the interior of a human being even more thoroughly. Like an explorer venturing into the white spots of an ancient map he dug deep into the human body and tried to establish the connection between the inner organs and find out how everything interacted. Like the artists who before him, through direct observations and calculations, had overthrown Vitruvius’s rules of human proportions, Vesalius deepened and denied Galen's theories about the appearance of internal organs, their relationships and functions. After becoming a professor at the University of Padua in 1537, Vesalius began to use body openings as part of his teaching and thus became the first physician to lecture while cutting up a body and demonstrating the organs.
Autopsies soon became popular attractions at the universities of Padua, Pisa and Bologna. After a few years, anatomy theaters" had been built at several universities around Europe. Below is the anatomy theater in the Gustavianum of the Swedish Uppsala University, which was built in 1663 and where public autopsies were performed for paying audiences.
In Venice, Vesalius met in 1542 with Jan Stephan van Calcar, a pupil of Titian and together they had already in 1542 produced an epoch-making and magnificent study of the human body De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, Seven Books about the Stucture of the Human Body.
It is one of Vesalius’s books that is opened up by the foot of the robber Aris Kindt’s corpse in Rembrandt's painting depicting how Dr. Nicolaes Tulp 1632 presented his annual lecture for the members of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild. Kindt had been executed by hanging a few hours before the lecture began. His left arm had then carefully been cut open and prepared by a surgeon-barber, before it was time for Tulp to begin his demonstration cum lecture.
Even though science now is familiar with the tiniest details of our internal organs, muscles and bone structure, our interior continues to be unknown territory for most of us. Our interest in our internal organs is mixed with a certain, eerie feeling making most of us reluctant to be confronted with the sight of opened bodies, surgeries and even blood. Anxiety about such things might be connected with our wonder about and fear of death, the final event we all have to face and thus makes us all equal. Thus a human corpse represents each and everyone of us. As in the Medieval dances of death, a carcass makes us realize there is no difference between a lord and a slave.
Perhaps it was fear, wonder and fascination with death that used to draw people to public executions, torture and autopsies. The combination of show and science that attracted onlookers to the universities’ public dissections has currently been revived by the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who has invented a method to preserve biological tissues down to the smallest detail. von Hagens calls his method plastination and runs three large plastination centres – one in the town of Guden, divided between Germany and Poland, one in the Chinese city Dalian and one in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Since 1995, von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibitions have been visited by more than fifty million people and presented in more than 140 cities around the world. They display entire animal and human bodies, plasticized in lifelike poses revealing different internal organs, structures and systems.
Wearing a hat similar to the one Dr. Tulp wore on Rembrandt's painting, and which von Hagens now always wears, he did in 2002 in London perform the first public autopsy in Great Britain in 170 years. von Hagens has later staged similar, sold-out events in other cities. I find von Hagen's activities rather distasteful, perceiving them as some kind of profanation of the human body’s traditional sanctity, done for commercial purposes in the guise of “science”.
A number of works of art have emphasized the dichotomy between a desirable female body and the profanation an autopsy is often considered to be.
Compare, for example, the anatomist’s hesitation to cut up a beautiful female body in a painting by the Czech artist Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max (1840-1915), with the more “cold” and clinical rednition of the Swiss artist Annie Stebler-Hopf (1861-1918).
Several artists have shown a delicate skill when it comes to depicting the beauty of the naked female body and have done so with a sensuality far removed from the soulless renderings of fascist athletes. Consider, for example, how Hades grabs Proserpina’s thigh in a sculpture by the only 23-year-old Bernini in Rome's Borghese Gallery.
To a greater degree than versions of nude men, works of art depicting naked women tend have a voyeuristic, alluring trait. They may represent men spying on desirable bathing nymphs, as in Dominichino's Diana's Hunt found in the same place as Bernini’s The Rape of Prosperina. abduction.
And similar motifs depicted by Renoir and Boucher.
Through their “soft porn” depictions of desirable women Boucher's exquisite rococo paintings became very popular and the artist was praised for his outstanding “ability to portray an attractive female rear.”
The Swedish painter Anders Zorn’s renditions of attractive dalkullor, Dalecarlian damsels, are just a sensual as Boucher’s contributions to the same genre.
Zorn was at least as skilled as Boucher in producing seductive female bottoms and his fresh depictions of Nordic nature in which nude women move about with great naturalness are more genuinely authentic than Boucher’s, after all, exaggerated artificiality.
In all their unadulterated and hardly psychologically profound sensuality, artists such as Titian, Zorn, Boucher and Renoir evidence great artistic skills, and so does Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who has been called “the Mozart of art”. In his portrayals of women, not the least in his astonishing Turkish Bath, which final version Ingres painted in 1862, when he was eighty-two years old, he excels in depictions of desirable female bodies.
Visual presntations of harems are certainly representative of the mixture of lust, desire, control and ownership hidden in what has been termed the male gaze, which characterizes so many artistic representations of women. It is found for example found by Titian's organ player who has been distracted (or inspired?) by the exposed allurements of a naked Venus. An effect the female body quite naturally has on most men and which is clearly evident from a lone woman's confrontation with the unveiled judging male gaze of a group of men in a street of Milan.
Likewise, the contrast between a luxuriant female body and the withering one of an aging woman is a common vanitas, a rendering of the transience of life, futility of pleasure, and certainty of death.
There is no denying that in most societies women have been considered subordinate to men, even as their property. In both art and medicine, women have often been viewed and interpreted from a “male point of view”. This applies to both women’s bodies and diseases, something that came to my mind with full force when I sometime in the eighties read Edward Shorter’s revealing A History of Women's Bodies. In his book Shorter described how religion and medicine within a patriarchal framework have discriminated against women, primarily by disregarding their physical and mental health. Male chauvinists have denied women and girls the care their specific physique and various societal roles require.
I had Shorter's book in strong memory when I several years ago visited the Andean highlands and interviewed women about their life situation. I had previously discovered that as a stranger, and even more so as a foreign man, I could best approach the reserved, shy and often very withdrawn women if I did so in the company of a local and respected midwife. What mainly upset me was the deplorable state of health of several of the women I met. I assumed it was the midwife’s presence and my total alienation that made the women reveal their physical pains and problems.
Several of them suffered from various stages of vaginal prolapse, uterine cancer and several other serious health conditions that particularly affected the female reproductive system. Diseases caused by congenital malformations or difficulties during pregnancies that they generally had suffered far to early in life and which afterwards became far too frequent. Women’s suffering could also be the result of untreated infections, poor hygiene, inadequate preventive care, hard work and sexually transmitted diseases. Ailments that affected the reproductive system were considered extremely shameful, concealed and hidden. Everything related to the female body was burdened by prejudice, chauvinism, and religious bigotry. My encounter with these women made me realize that equality is not exclusively a matter of equality between men and women, physical differences between the sexes must also be taken into account and addressed.
Unfortunately, my opinions often fell on deaf ears when I later came to work at UNESCO’s gender equality department. Especially my female boss did not want to hear about issues like women's special physique. Her unavailing discourse was that women’s complaints were solely due to social injustices caused by male chauvinism. Of course, this was quite true, but it could not mean a denial that women’s bodies are different from men’s. Ignorance of women’s different physical constitution has over the centuries caused unnecessary suffering and prevented their well-being. O top of that women have been forced to suffer shame for sexually transmitted diseases and cruel, completely unnecessary genital mutilation.
A female experience that men are completely excluded from is childbirth, and the incredible pains and dangers it can bring about. Since time immemorial, childbirth has almost exclusively concerned women – the expectant mother, the midwife, female friends and relatives. Men were generally prevented from participating in the process. What midwives lacked in formal, academic training, they compensated through experience and ancient traditions.
With the emergence of a professional medical profession and with it an increased interest in an income-generating business, it became during in the latter part of the 18th century increasingly common for male doctors to take an interest in births among wealthy people in the upper and middle classes. Generally, these doctors opposed traditional methods of childbirth. Before male involvement, women generally gave birth in a partially upright position, often in specific birth chairs, or they hung by their arms so midwives could take help from gravity, while other women supported both the midwife and the birth-giving mother. Since male obstetricians, on the other hand, preferred that the expectant mothers remained in bed during the birth process, they were called accouchers, from the French á coucher, go to bed.
It was claimed that surgeons were better educated in scientific medicine than midwives, who relied on popular medical traditions. In several countries, midwives were even gradually legislated against in favour of male doctors. In his book, Edward Shorter claimed that the increasingly male-dominated delivery techniques were initially to the detriment of the expectant mothers, causing unnecessary inconvenience and suffering.
For centuries, childbirth had not only been a female activity exclusively focused the actual birth procedure, it also involved support and help during pregnancy and aftercare. Midwives were generally, unlike men, mothers themselves and could thus consider ailments and dangers from a female perspective. Several of them were also knowledgeable about how to alleviate labour pains and were furthermore experienced in more controversial, and often secretive areas – such as how to prevent pregnancy and abort fetuses. The midwives knew quite well, through their own – and collective experiences, as well as wide range of ancient traditions, how a female body functions and how it reacts to pain.
Until now, the role of women in the healing and care of the sick and injured has generally been marginalized. This does not mean that it has not been decisive. Responsibility for the welfare of family, relatives and even strangers has actually been considered as a female duty, even as part of their nature. An approach which meant that the role of women in healthcare was taken for granted and they were thus offered neither education. nor payment. If there existed some form of general medical care, it was generally unpaid nuns who in Europe took care of the sick and they were assumed to gain their skills and knowledge through practice. Well into the twentieth century, doctors were almost exclusively men and nurses were subordinate to them in almost everything. In addition, they were paid significantly less, if they could count on any salary whatsoever for their hard work. Men in white were, and generally still are, the princes of hospitals and it is/was common for them to treat women as subordinate servants. Something that manifested, for example, through the hospitals’ big rounds when the chief physician accompanied by assistant doctors and male doctoral candidates visited bedridden patients, while nurses remained discreet in the background.
It was not until the bloody massacres and modern warfare of the 19th century that female nurses gained a greater role and schools began to be set up to train them in health care. However, their education was generally entirely hospital-based and had well into the twentieth century an emphasis on practical experience. Despite their increased education, nurses continued to be largely unpaid in many places, and in Catholic countries they were generally still nuns.
During the last century, it was again warfare that improved the position of women in healthcare. During World War I, nurses were integrated into the war effort, and during World War II, warring nations established units with specifically trained nurses. For example did the Nazis, who were otherwise much more reluctant than, for example the British and Russians to engage women in the war industry, recruit more than 40,000 female nurses for their armies.
Over time, the fact that male doctors became increasingly involved in obstetrics also became crucial for the avalanche-like development of the medical profession. In my opinion, this is the area where science has actually achieved an incredible success that has largely been beneficial to human well-being, contributing to increased compassion and a reduced brutality in everyday life.
Due to the immense pain and risk of fatal infections, surgical procedures were during millennia limited to superficial operations, as well as amputations and trepanation. It was through male obstetric care that the first breakthroughs in guaranteeing sterility in healthcare took place. The first steps towards the discovery of the role of bacteria and viruses in infections took place in 1846 when Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered that more women died in maternity wards staffed with male surgeons, than those cared for by female midwives. Semmelweiss was able to trace the cause to the fatalities to male medical students who did not wash their hands properly after dissecting carcasses. Although Semmelweis’s sanitary recommendations were largely ignored and he himself was driven to madness, the bacterial theory and research developed after his death. Semmelweis is now recognized as a pioneer in aseptics and the prevention of nosocomial infection, hospital illness.
The presence of male doctors at births made them realize the immense pain caused by disturbed nerve pathways, which led to anesthesia methods becoming increasingly developed. Advances that, together with aseptics, enabled surgical interventions in the body’s interior. It was during a birth in Edinburgh in 1847 that James Young Simpson used chloroform anesthesia and after the same method was used in 1853 when Queen Victoria gave birth to Prince Leopold, anesthesia spread around the world. When Robert Koch in 1879, beyond any doubt, succeeded in establishing that infections are spread by bacteria, and in 1881 introduced heat sterilization of all surgical instruments, his contributions, combined with various forms of anesthesia, made medical sciences ttake huge steps forward.
However, the fact remains, as I stated by the beginning of this journey through our body consciousness – time gnaws at body and soul. An artist doctor like Paul Marie Richer (1849-1933) might summarize this blog post. As a skilled anatomist, he translated his knowledge into sculptures in which he in a true 1920’s spirit praised the athletic, male body.
However, in his art, Ticher also depicted the ravages of age and disease and he then generally chose to depict them through renditions of female bodies, as here by an old woman suffering from Parkinson's disease.
Several artists have been fascinated by how age has changed the look of their faces. Over the years, Rembrandt made more than eighty self-portraits.
Even more ruthless to herself than Rembrandt ever was in his depictions of himself was the ingenious Finnish-Swedish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) in her more than forty self-portraits.
Rembrandt and Schjerfbeck created their magnificent art until they died and they during all that time in full use of their senses. A tragic case, which visually indicated the decay of body and soul, was William Utermohlen (1933-2007). He was born in Philadelphia, USA and came to England in 1957. Utermohlen was a relatively successful artist and was offered some official assignments to create some impressive frescoes in synagogues and hospitals.
However, Utermohlen became best known for the large paintings he began to execute in the early 1980s and which he called Conversation Pieces. They depict how people converse across a table. In 1995, Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and hid Conversation Pieces began to change character. At first, the paintings had mainly focused on conversations he had with his wife Patricia, an art historian, and in them Utermohlen paid homage to the warm, cheerful atmosphere of their shared home.
During the 1990s, the conversation groups were expanded with friends and acquaintances, but the intimate atmosphere was maintained. Gradually, however, perspectives began to shift; objects and people seemed to become separated, their volume and size change. Nevertheless, between 1991 and 1994 Utermohlen’s skills as a realistic artist seemed to be well maintained, his illness suddenly took a turn for the worse.
When Utermohlen painted his lasy Conversation Piece by the end of 1995, he depicted himself sitting alone with bent back at the usual table with a cup of coffee in front of him. However, the surroundings have now become sterile and empty, deserted and stylized. Above the solitary Utermohlen a large skylight opens up, outside of which there is no glimpse of the landscapes, which were visible in his other Conversations Pieces, but an empty, blue sky with the same colour as the apartment’s floor.
Utermohlen did not stop painting in 1995, though after that he only made self-portraits, until the last painting had been completed in 2000, after that he was finally lost in the dark confusion of his brain. This state of mind lasted another seven years. Utermohlen's last self-portrait is gray and dissolved; a cracked, terrifying death mask.
An eerie image making me associate with Voldemort´s face in the Harry Potter movies.
I do not want to end this blog entry of the body’s mysteries in such a gloomy key, but finish with another of Anders Zorn's tributes to the female body within a summer sunny Sweden anno dazumal.
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