Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Cuir: Vesalius and Photoshop

From: Raphael Cuir
Date: Wed, 07 Mar 2007 12:56:41 -0800

Hi everyone, I’m trying to catch up on the previous cession of this fabulous conference, and Suzanne’s first question. As Miriam van Rijsingen as already said, picturing practices are ‘core business’ in art history. Could we imagine any art history without images ? I believe it would become the most boring thing ever. As Leonardo da Vinci emphasized and as we all know, images can be more speaking than words, especially in the realm of sciences. But I do not think art historians and scientists share the same point of view regarding images. Art historians do not built up images, they interpret existing images in which they have a peculiar interest. Of course, works of art could be seen as the scientific object of the art historian, and sometimes we need scientific imagery of an art work, like X-Ray, to find out about what lies hidden behind the surface. On the contrary, scientists create their images. It seems to me that they are nearer to artists in their use of pictures than they are to art historians. Scientists built an image of reality which is more or less faithfull exactly as artists do. But, no need to say that most of the time, they don’t share the same goal. But sometimes they do. Here is a woodcut from Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.

I think that this is an amazing image, of the kind that stops me and elicite my reflection. When we think about it, this image is really of the like we produce now, made up with a lot of photoshop allowing us to combine whatever forms we like. But this combination of sculpture and flesh into a representation is nearer to the beginning of modern printing than to computer generated images. It is as well an image from the Renaissance rebirth of anatomy, in the book which is embodying it. It is for us a paradoxical image : mixing the mineral and the organic. Undoubtedly this image does not belong to what Martin Kemp has called “rhetorics of reality”, in spite of Vesalius claim for direct observation of the corpse. Nonetheless this image conveys a rhetoric which, both for the artist and the anatomist, underlines the primary importance of the antique models in the Renaissance, here the torso Belvedere. By the same token this image puts in the foreground the taking into account by science of a beauty canon. “The body displayed in a public dissection should be as well compounded as possible […] so you may be able to compare other bodies to it as to a statue of Polyclitus.” (Vesalius, Fabrica, 1543, V, 19, p. 548.)

As Giovanni Frazetto pointed out visions of science have become narratives embedded in cultural phenomena, but since the Renaissance…

Raphael Cuir

image: Anon (related to Titiano’s studio), woodcut, in Andrea Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, Basel, Johannes Oporinus, 1543, Book V, fig. 22.

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semeiotica said...

"Could we imagine any art history without images ? I believe it would become the most boring thing ever."

For a blind person, an art history without images might be better. What about sound, taste, touch, smell...? All senses other than sight have been exploited in service to art and design. Why not MORE appreciation and preference for art histories without images?

devenir said...

"...scientists create their images. It seems to me that they are nearer to artists in their use of pictures than they are to art historians."

I think what scientists do is to interprete images created by their experiments, as much as to create the images. Can't we say that Vesalius's work is, like Leonardo da Vinci's, between art and science (or technology)?

raphaelcuir said...

In response to semeiotica… yes, I'm caught being sightcentric… if I may say so. The way I've been trained in art history makes it a discipline centered on sight, and I'm probably into this because sight is a sense I do privilege. Of course there is a lot happening in contemporary art which has to do with other senses… but still working on the model of exhibitions where you go and see the works… I know blind persons go to museums… how they enjoy it remains a mystery for me, and you incite me to find out. Art history for blind persons is, for me, a challenge, but there's one famous means to achieve it : ekphrasis, which then emphasize the literary aspect of the discipline… RC

raphaelcuir said...

in response to devenir's question,

Yes, I think we can definitely say that Vesalius' work is between art and science (not technology though). Vesalius was very well aware of the quality of the illustrations he had been seeking for, and able to secure for his book, and we know for sure that he worked closely with the artists, following all steps of the making of images, including the printing of proof samples sent to the printer, from Venice to Basel. These are woodcuts and they surpass by far the quality of many following engravings… RC