Skip to main content

Exhibiting the Body


Module description

Medical images can capture the fragility and vulnerability of the human body, but also its beauty and intricacy. From the beginning, the anatomist’s art served far more than medical ends: held up as a mirror of the divine (and later, as a mirror of society), medical representations of the body have answered to the exhortation to ‘know thyself’. During the nineteenth century, the realistic representation of pathology gradually displaced the idealised - and often exquisitely crafted - anatomical models, drawings and engravings that had been made since the Renaissance. Modern artists as diverse as Edgar Degas, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix and Francis Bacon explored the poetic potential of these pathological or otherwise ‘deviant’ bodies. In the late twentieth century, medical themes and images reappeared in body and ‘abject’ art (Orlan’s surgical performances being an iconic example) and in the work of the Young British Artists Christine Borland, John Isaacs, Marc Quinn and Damien Hirst.

In this module, we provide a historical and conceptual framework for these artistic developments. We will think about the changing role of images in western medicine since the eighteenth century, and the place of medical representations within the visual arts and popular culture. You are encouraged to reflect on the ethical and political implications of these cultural exchanges through an investigation of specific artworks, exhibitions and visual media (drawing, painting and photography, but also screen media and performance). Some of this work will be collaborative and experiential, taking the form of seminar discussions and fieldtrips to museums and archives. You will be able to pursue individual research interests in your essay and might address, for example:

  • artists’ uses - or misuses - of medical subject matter
  • the politics of exhibiting bodies and the ethics of spectatorship
  • the display of human remains
  • contemporary permutations of the freak show
  • biomedical futures and the idea of the post-human
  • the aesthetics of public health
  • the interdisciplinary dynamics of art-science collaborations.

The module is structured thematically and makes use of London-based exhibitions and collections including the Wellcome Collection, the Hunterian Museum and Tate Modern. Although we will be looking at these museums, exhibitions and archives in their contemporary incarnations - through websites, catalogues and artist commissions, for example - their histories will be considered as well.

Case study weeks will focus on Birkbeck’s Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive; the collection of AIDS posters in the Wellcome Library; and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which we discuss in relation to the history of the freak show. These sessions will be interspersed with seminars exploring the changing relationships between art, photography, performance and medicine: from Henry Tonks’ delicate portraits of injured WWI soldiers to the afterlives of medical photographs and the understandings of prosthetic embodiment.