bioephemera

. . . they could have. Or pretty darn close, at least – they just needed to visit one of the many European cabinets of anatomical curiosities, to see the work of anatomists like Honore Fragonard.

Fragonard’s eighteenth-century ecorches were the clear precursors to Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds” exhibits: preserved, injected, partially dissected bodies in lifelike, dramatic poses, with ragged strips of muscle draped like primitive clothing over exposed vessels and nerves. The effect is eerie – like a Vesalius illustration sprung to (half-)life:

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Man with a Mandible

Several of Fragonard’s surviving ecorches (including Man with a Mandible, above) are now housed in France’s Musee Fragonard d’Alfort (below, with its armies of bleached, skeletal quadrupeds), and described in a new illustrated book by Musee Fragonard curator Christophe Degueurce.

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To create an ecorche, Degueurce explains,

a body, chosen for its leanness, had its large superficial veins cut in several places to drain it of blood, and then it was washed and placed in a heated water bath to warm it in preparation for the injections into the heart and vessels. The substance injected was a mixture of resin, tallow, oil, and beeswax and was stained red for the arteries, blue for the veins. . . . Once the body had been injected, it was then dissected as rapidly as possible before decomposition set in.


The dried specimen was then washed in alcohol and allowed to dry out, with constant adjustments to maintain the final pose (which was often assisted with a wooden frame, needles, and blocks.

Fragonard’s preservation techniques (which resembled those used by his contemporaries but are generally regarded as superior) are detailed in an appendix to Degueurce’s very thorough book (see pp. 139-46). After drying his specimens, Fragonard retouched the paint and coated the final specimen with a costly resin-based varnish used on oil paintings (and possibly the paintings of Fragonard’s cousin, the rococo painter). This treatment produced the shiny, lacquered appearance characteristic of the Musee’s specimens, and – in Degueurce’s estimation – protected the specimens from the insect damage that claimed many other pieces over the centuries.

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Human Bust

In addition to cataloguing and describing the handful of surviving ecorches at the Musee Fragonard, Degueurce seeks to provide some context for their creation. Fragonard doesn’t spring to life as a fully realized personality, but one does get the impression of a man dedicated to a larger vision. Fragonard rose to prominence at a new veterinary school, which was founded in 1766 at Alfort, outside Paris. (The Musee Fragonard is now housed there.) At Alfort, Fragonard and his colleagues built a renowned cabinet of curiosities that included specimens like the wild-eyed “Man With a Mandible” (at the top of the post), the “Horseman,” a rider and horse fully preserved mid-stride, and the graceful “Doe of the Indies” below:

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Nilgai/Doe of the Indies

Fragonard was well-known and popular, but eventually, conflicts with the veterinary school’s founder led to Fragonard’s dismissal, and he began producing specimens for private collections. In 1792, Fragonard made the case for a national anatomy museum in a report addressed to the National Assembly, volunteering to supply the specimens himself. Fragonard wrote, “except for a few small ‘cabinets of curiosities,’ all Mr. Fragonard’s handiwork and privately owned, we have nothing, absolutely nothing in France to shed light on the wonders of [anatomy], which, despite so much hard work, has not much progressed.”

Although the museum never materialized, Fragonard helped inventory extant anatomical collections for preservation – including the three thousand specimens in the veterinary school collection he helped create. In 1795, Fragonard took a position as director of anatomical research at the Paris School of Health. He passed away in 1799, his dream of a national anatomical museum unrealized, and many of the specimens he curated and created were transferred away from Alfort and/or lost.

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Le nouveau parfait marechal ou la connaissance generale et universelle
Francois de Garsault, 1755

Degueurce seems regretful that while Fragonard and his peers helped catalyze a monumental shift in how we view our bodies – “man and animal inexorably came closer together” through the comparative anatomists’ work – Fragonard’s successors largely forgot him (perhaps partly through the efforts of his jealous ex-boss). Many of Fragonard’s lost ecorches, Degueurce suggests, “suffered the common fate of old scientific objects: outdated, lacking relevance to current interests, such things are often disposed of.” In a collaborative concluding essay written with Laure Cadot, Degueurce juxtaposes Fragonard’s ecorches with von Hagens’ plastinates, observing how public displays of anatomy fell out of popularity, only to recently rise again:

Despite a popular interest undiminished for more than a hundred years, the turn of the twentieth century nevertheless saw a progressive decline in these anatomical collections, as much on the technical level as on that of the moral, and with a disapproving eye some came to be viewed as inappropriate excesses in displays of morbid pathologies and monstrosities. The advent of increasingly realistic and accurate medical imaging and the revulsion with which flesh was regarded in the wake of the atrocities of the First World War gave the coup du grace to what had become an almost obsessive building of such collections. They began, little by little, to fall into the shadows, leaving the anatomists to pursue their investigations away from the uninitiated. . . In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the history of anatomy, and the development of worldwide shows such as Professor Gunther von Hagens’ Body worlds exhibition, and his many imitators, once again puts the unhallowed figure of the ecorche at the fore of today’s news. Is this merely a current fad resulting from the whiff of scandal or is it symptomatic of the corpse’s resistance to the dematerialization of our era?

Degueurce’s attitude toward the plastinate-driven resurgence is ambivalent. In one view, the faddish fascination with bodies indicates that human society has become unfamiliar with death, distant from it, in a way that makes death a “spectacle” of “morbid fascination.” Questions about the legitimacy and propriety of plastinate exhibitions have spilled over to affect historical, scholarly collections like the Musee Fragonard’s – questions that Degueurce, as curator, likely has to answer fairly often.

On the other hand, Degueurce clearly sees Fragonard as a pivotal symbol of the Age of Enlightenment, and his ecorches as works of great emotional and artistic significance:

[even] if intended by its creator as nothing more than a model demonstrating anatomy – a “beautiful specimen,” as Fragonard noted – Man with a Mandible has validity as an artistic creation in its success as an anatomical model, in its refined, virtuosic execution, and in the powerful emotion it expresses.

Thus, Degueurce argues, it is not necessary to resolve whether Fragonard intended his ecorches to be works of “art,” as well as works of science: “even if in our century science no longer considers the ecorches to be more than rather disturbing remnants of the long march toward human knowledge, the tracks of which must be carefully preserved, artists see in them dynamic and fertile aesthetic and conceptual associations.” Though modern science has forgotten Fragonard and prefers bloodless virtual atlases to his varnished tableaux, artists and historians of science still find the ecorches evocative – as do we.

When I first started blogging, I was surprised that there was very little information on the internet about medical illustration, wax moulage, anatomical museums, etc. When I wrote posts like Wombs, Waxes and Wonder Cabinets or Invading Hands, Sleeping Beauties, I had to dig for content. That’s not the case anymore; the fascination of vintage medical paraphernalia has gone mainstream, as shown by shows like the Discovery Channel’s Oddities. Nevertheless, it’s still hard to find good virtual tours of places like the Musee Fragonard. You can occasionally find tourists’ photos on Flickr (these photos by Nicholas Borenstein are good) or an old documentary like this one on YouTube, which gives you a sense of how eerie Fragonard’s work really is. Given the lack of resources on Fragonard’s ecorches, Degueurce’s book is a very helpful addition – especially the discussion of the techniques used by the master anatomist. I’ve seen Fragonard’s injection technique described as “lost” or “mysterious” before; I’ve never seen it explained at the level Degueurce does. If you are interested in the process, you should seriously consider getting this book.

On the other hand, I was disappointed in one respect: the photos of the ecorches weren’t as sharp, detailed, or clear as I had hoped. The isolated specimens floating on their black fields reminded me a little of stills from a 1980s film souvenir book – like 1/12th scale models from a nascent Guillermo del Toro – Jim Henson horror collaboration about zombies invading a natural history museum (wow – that sounds awesome, doesn’t it?). Some of that could have been remedied by better photography; I wish the specimens had been taken off the velvety blackfield and more carefully lit, to eliminate the glare of varnish. But on some level, Fragonard’s ecorches just aren’t detailed enough to yield the crisp, well-lit eye candy we expect from a plastinate specimen or a modern medical atlas.

This is hardly a criticism of Fragonard. I learned from a wonderful, surreal conversation I once had with a curator at the Hunterian Museum that we have today lost many preservation techniques known to past anatomists – they really were innovators and artisans. However, what we’ve lost in the nuances of chemical preservation, we’ve largely made up in digital photography, MRI, cellular imaging, etc: today, we expect detail and scientific accuracy that Fragonard’s posed, painted ecorches, like oil paintings or sculptures, simply don’t deliver. Even next to the plethora of vintage medical illustrations, engravings and paintings Degueurce provides as historical context, the ecorches themselves look dulled and hazy with age. That patina is part of what makes them remarkable, but it’s also . . . frustrating.

In the end, this book about Fragonard and his specimens is not meant to teach anatomy or physiology, any more than Fragonard’s specimens are themselves today used for such a purpose. Rather, the book is a window into how we approached anatomy in the past, juxtaposing history with today’s experiences of mortality and the body. That Fragonard is obscure, while his cousin, the painter of The Swing, gets almost all the Google hits (and the tourists, with a few rare exceptions) says something about our conception of Western culture. That Gunther von Hagens’ plastination exhibits are popular, yet controversial, spectacles (and have led some critics to ask, “is it possible to stage an exhibit such as BODY WORLDS while respecting human dignity?“) indicates that we retain a disquieted fascination with the human body. Are Fragonard’s ecorches really that different from von Hagens’ plastinates? It’s hard to say, apart from the patina of history and mystery that clings to Fragonard’s work – but does any piece in Body Worlds have quite the same spark of madness to it as Man with a Mandible?

Fragonard Museum: The Ecorches: recommended, especially for fans of curiosity cabinets, medical museums, Oddities, etc. (you know who you are!)

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Human Bust

Credits:

All ecorches by Honore Fragonard, from the collection of the Musee Fragonard; images reproduced courtesy of Blast Books, from Fragonard Museum: The Ecorches.