The Theater of Anatomy: The Anatomical Preparations of Honore Fragonard
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 63-79

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The Theater of Anatomy:
The Anatomical Preparations of Honoré Fragonard

Jonathan Simon


It is striking how many present-day debates reflect issues that were current in the Enlightenment. In Body Criticism, Barbara Maria Stafford has pointed to a shared concern about the effects of the techniques for anatomical visualization. Comparing recent medical imaging technology with anatomical illustration, she asks whether the "open-ended trend towards complete exposure [will] give rise to the same sense of vulnerability, shame, and powerlessness that the eighteenth century associated with anatomization." 1 In this essay, I want to address the more specific question of the situation of the human corpse at the interface between medical science and the public both in the eighteenth century and today. In particular, I will be looking at the permanent anatomical preparations that Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) produced from human cadavers. These preparations are extraordinary achievements of technical virtuosity that, I will argue, challenge our ability to read artifacts from the Enlightenment in contemporary terms. While they would offend against many people's sense of what is acceptable in the presentation of real human cadavers today, they do not appear to have done so two centuries ago. As in the issue of anatomical visualization, the question of propriety in relation to the display of the dead has been raised quite recently in the wake of new techniques for the permanent preservation of anatomical preparations from real human bodies.

Körperwelten (Body Worlds), the public exhibition of "plastinated" humans by Gunther von Hagens in Mannheim in 1997-8, set off a debate over the ethics of displaying real human corpses in a public educational context. 2 The [End Page 63] criticisms raised on ethical grounds concerned the propriety of presenting anatomical displays made from real corpses, the issue of propriety being intimately related to the context of display. While no criticism was expressed over the dissection of corpses in the context of education in medical schools, the same rights of access to the viscera of human beings were not taken to extend automatically to the general public. According to the exhibition's organizers, all the bodies in the exhibition had been donated with the understanding that they would be prepared and publicly displayed, but many commentators still considered the exhibition unethical. As no obvious rules of ownership or informed consent were being broken, the way this criticism was expressed was somewhat oblique. Thus, Johannes Reiter, a Catholic ethicist at the University of Mainz, condemned the exhibit in the following terms: "He who styles human corpses as a so-called work of art no longer respects the importance of death." 3 The implicit contrast is between the preparation and display of a corpse with deliberate attention being paid to its aesthetic effect and the appropriate reverent treatment of dead human bodies, which, as I said, presumably does not exclude their dissection by or preparation for students in the context of a formal medical education.

The problems that many people seemed to have with von Hagens's Body Worlds exhibition lie in a combination of aesthetic issues (aesthetics in the sense of both the visual qualities of the exhibit and its ethical dimension) and questions of access. The complaint against von Hagens was that the mise-en-scène of the figures was in poor taste, although what characterized this lack of taste was never spelled out. He replied that the presentation was at the same time artistic and educational. What would presumably be an uncontroversial exhibit, were the anatomical models made entirely out of synthetic polymers, becomes a moral issue once it is known that the displays are made from human cadavers.

In order to mark the distinction between such contemporary displays and the eighteenth-century figures that form the subject of this essay, I want to point out two relevant changes in our relationship to death that have occurred since the eighteenth century. The first is the relative rarity of seeing dead bodies in the modern, industrialized world. While it is...