Thesis Info

From the Subject of Anatomy to the Anatomy of the Subject
Raphael Cuir
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
Thesis Supervisor
Yves Hersant
Supervisor e-mail
Yves.Hersant AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Histoire / histoire de l'art
Languages Familiar to Author
english / italian
URL where full thesis can be found
anatomy - science - contemporary art -Renaissance - humanism - finalism - cartesianism
Abstract: 200-400 words
Beginning with the first modern printed treatise on anatomy (the Commentaria by Berengario da Carpi [1521], and most notably with the Fabrica by Vesalius [1543], which established the anatomical plate model for three centuries), the rhetoric of self demonstration was one of the main features of anatomical representation until the eighteenth century. In view of the characteristics now attributed to scientific images, this rhetoric (the animation of skeletons and écorchés) might seem paradoxical; but the anatomists and artists of the sixteenth century did not see it that way. The question of why anatomical figures were represented as living bodies is one whose philosophical response lies in the anatomists’ Humanist culture. This response developed at the very heart of the intellectual framework that also structured the art theory founded by Alberti. This theory was itself influenced by Galen and Aristotle’s natural philosophy: the essential source of the three-strand finalism - scientific, aesthetic, and theological - that weaves finalist anatomical rhetoric. With the self demonstration of the écorchés, anatomy positions itself from the start as a reflexive practice – a knowledge that is first and foremost a relationship with oneself. The involvement of the subject proves essential to the rhetoric of finalist anatomy and, consequently, to its interpretation. It forms a chiasmus in which reflection on the subject of anatomy becomes reflection on the anatomy of the subject. It implies an interrogation of the relation between anatomy and the (concurrent) development of the notion of subjectivity. The well-established relationship between anatomy and “ know thyself ” corroborates the hypothesis of fundamental links between the advent of modern subjectivity and the revival of the science of the body. It prompts the following question, based on the work of Michel Foucault : has anatomy not become, since the sixteenth century, one of the “ models proposed for establishing and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object ” (Histoire de la sexualité, L’usage des plaisirs, Paris, Gallimard, 1984) ? In other words, has anatomical knowledge not contributed to the development of the modern subject, to the construction of his self-awareness ? Has it not established itself as a means of “ subjectivization ” ? The answer to this question is implicit when we announce the pursuit of this reflection with the analysis of self-portraits of an anatomical nature. The first portrait of the artist as an écorché is that of Michelangelo in Saint Bartholomew’s skin (The Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel). The links established by Edgar Wind between this self-portrait and “ know thyself ” enable us to go deeper into the relation between the work and the analysis of consciousness (according to the sixteenth-century meaning of the word “ analysis ”), i.e. to the anatomy of consciousness. After Michelangelo, there were no further examples of the artist’s self-portrait as an écorché until the twentieth century, in what would seem to be a history of discontinuities. The cannons of World War I were booming when the Dada movement was born in 1916 ; it was quick to affirm a conception of the artist as an écorché figure. In the years after 1910, the artist’s organism (re)entered his work, never to leave it completely. On the contrary, since the late twentieth century, the artist’s relation to anatomy – and more particularly to his own organism – have moved into the foreground. This phenomenon is becoming more pronounced at a time when science is increasingly tending to close the body up again; if the body is opened now, it is notably in order to incorporate other things or people (implants and transplants). More generally, the evolution of many branches of science (medicine and surgery, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, genetics…) calls for a redefinition of the human being, of the classical relationships between subject and object. If the opening of bodies during the Renaissance had an impact on the constitution of modern subjectivity, the order is reversed today; it is no longer anatomy that instrumentalizes art to transmit its knowledge and ethic, but art that, by manipulating anatomy, has become (in recent works by artists such as Orlan, Bernar Venet, Gilles Barbier, Marc Quinn, Véronika Bromova, John Isaacs, and Jessica Vaturi…) a privileged way of subjecting oneself, a means by which a subject (while remaining the subject), becomes the object for himself. He thereby accomplishes the “ experience of himself ” that allows him to (re)define, and even to reinvent himself, to create new forms of subjectivities.