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  • Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now
  • Frieder Nake
Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now edited by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace. University of California Press and Hayward Gallery, Berkeley, CA, and London, U.K., 2001.

From October 2000 to January 2001 the Hayward Gallery in London mounted the exhibition Spectacular Bodies, curated by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, of which this book is a documentation. Even for someone like myself, who did not have a chance to visit the actual event, Spectacular Bodies invokes some of the awesome feelings visitors may have experienced when confronted with the sliced-up, wide open human bodies in the show. Scientific investigation meets aesthetic appreciation. The book reproduces a large number of the exhibits in full color, and the extraordinarily informative and insightful text by the show's two curators takes us through the exhibition from station to station along the path of history.

The human body has, of course, been a prominent subject of art through almost all its eras and styles, with a few exceptions. However, the body as an art subject is not the focus of this exhibition and book; the focus here is rather on the human body as a subject of physiological and anatomical study. Such study, as a scientific activity, started with the Renaissance, where it immediately found, in Leonardo, one of its grand masters.

As with architectural drawings, precise renderings of the human body (or of selected features of it) represent a juncture between science and art. Medical science needs images of the body for various purposes, and such images define one of the starting points for what is now called visualization. In order to generate such images, a considerable mastery of drawing, coloring, composition, selecting perspectives and other artistic capabilities is required. Following the proliferation of such artistic images, the photographic picture began to assume importance in this field, eventually taking over as a means of displaying views of the human body as perceived by new generations. More recently, the artist's and other living bodies themselves have become used as means of depicting the body.

Having been greatly impressed by the pictures of dissected bodies and of people performing the dissections and moved by the stories and history behind these pictures, my intention in this review is merely to bring readers' attention to this volume by describing its contents. There are, after the introduction, three sections: "The Divine Machine," "The House of the Soul" and "New Bodies." Roughly speaking, the first section concentrates on renderings of dissected bodies in their use for imparting information about human anatomy in all its aspects. The second section deals with attempts at deducing the inner feelings and conditions of a person from his or her outer appearance. Notable in this section are the notorious measurements and categorizations of facial structures of criminals or members of particular ethnic groups.

Section three differs from the previous two, in terms of both format and contents. Whereas the first two sections assemble and display works of art, explaining the circumstances, connections and evolutions pertaining to them, the third section presents eight artists with some of their works, along with extended interpretations. The selected artists are John Isaacs, Katharine Dowson, Marc Quinn, Beth B., Christine Borland, Gerhard Lang, Tony Oursler and Bill Viola. These artists reflect, in various ways, on older methods of depicting the body as an anatomic fact or as the house of a soul. They do so in reaction to the modernist neglect of the human body and vis-à-vis the trends toward disembodiment by way of cybertechniques and virtuality.

For readers of Leonardo, this precious volume is of interest as an account of Renaissance painting, 19th century photography and contemporary installations in pursuit of a visualization of the human body—without explicitly calling it "visualization." Implicitly, these works tell us a lot about it. [End Page 455]

Frieder Nake
Informatik, University of Bremen, P.O. Box 330 440, D-28334 Bremen, Germany. E-mail: <>.


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