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"The Anatomy Professor: Doctors, Death and Dining" at The Royal Academy - Review

18 January - 17 March 2019

FREE entry


The Royal Academy presents new display "The Anatomy Professor", a celebration of science as an art, which shines a light on our scientific and artistic development as a nation, showing the lengths at which artists and doctors alike are going, in order to progress. The Royal Academy, first founded in 1768, was designed as a place to nurture talent and promote the arts. By 1769, when the Schools opened, anatomical training became a crucial part of developing artistic skill. Rather than being taught external physiology in particular, they were also encouraged to display the internal, a controversial decision at the time. The eighteenth century hosted an abundance of rumours about bodysnatching and skulduggery, which was subsequently developed by the inability to dissect bodies (that did not belong to murderers) legally until 1832.

What is morbidly fascinating about this exhibition is the memento morithat lingers in each piece, as well as the macabre representations of our physiology. What exactly was sparking the artistic minds of these scientists?

To truly envisage the difficulties in obtaining bodies to dissect, the Royal Academy presents letters from surgeons about the illegal dismemberment of bodies,pre the 1832 Anatomy Act, followed by a bill of expenses. This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition as one of illegal activity, even if in the name of progress. There is something quite sinister about the unlawful mutilation of people, even after death, and this atmosphere lingers in the room of this display, with its dark walls contrasted with spotlights. The presence of so much artistic death compels a feeling of uneasiness before even glancing at the works themselves.

Nevertheless, the viewer should not be deterred off due to this ghoulishness. The display is utterly captivating in its unveiling of the truth behind our scientific advancement. Gustav Storey’s crude sketch of a lecture taking place at the Royal Academy presents this the best, with images of skulls and various limbs hanging from the wall in the background, and a team of students crowding around a professor, taking a knife to a cadaver who is limp and lifeless on a table, covered partially by a sheet. It is dehumanising, to the extent that you feel sorry for the dead, but at the same time, it leaves you rather crudely as intrigued as the students, as you too have to peer in to view the body.

The Crown Jewel in this exhibition is William Hunter’s ecorché figure and the corresponding portrait of Hunter by Chamberlin holding a miniature anatomical figurine. It depicts a deep obsession with the anatomical that draws you in to feel the same obsessed nature. The polychrome is made from a cast of a flayed body, depicted in striking realism, with the open skull contrasted with the muscle. There are pieces of this corpse, which are exposed entirely and royally ripped apart. It focuses a lens on the human frame itself as something strong and built for a purpose, but its exposed flesh represents a much darker side of our frailty and human cruelty. The painting of Hunter holding a miniature human figure is memento mori in the deepest sense, a reminder of our human littleness and an inability to be entirely in control of ourselves. Hunter’s expression is one of success, but the way in which he holds the figure enclosed in his fist suggests an almost godly control over the human body. It makes the viewer rethink the powerful position of the surgeons, as they held the ultimate power over the body, thereby able to cut and carve the corpses as they pleased.

The astonishing power of science is depicted in all the works of art and allows the audience to feel as minuscule as the human figurine, and as powerless as the flayed corpse. "The Anatomy Professor" is a display of astounding contradiction between the body and the mind.

Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova

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