Flesh and Dream: Anatomy of Surrealism

A few days ago I was invited to speak at the Rome Tatttoo Museum for Creative Mornings, a cultural event held every month around the world; it is a free and informal breakfast combined with a conference on a set theme, the same for all 196 cities in which the initiative takes place. January’s theme was SURREAL, and I therefore decided to talk about the relationship between anatomy and surrealism. Here is the revised transcription of my speech.

Brussels, 1932.
Near the railway station the annual Foire du Midi is held, gahtering in the capital all the traveling carnivals that tour Belgium.


Our protagonist is this man, just over thirty years old, who’s wandering around the fair and looking at the various attractions until his gaze is captured by a poster advertising Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical museum.

Dr. Spitzner is not even a real doctor, rather an anatomist who tried to set up a museum in Paris; he did not succeed, and started traveling with the carnival. His collection, behind a pedagogical façade (the museum is supposed to inform the public about the risks related to venereal diseases or alcohol abuse), is designed above all to arouse the audience’s mobrid curiosity and voyeurism.


The first thing that attracts the attention of our man is a beautiful wax sculpture of a sleeping woman: a mechanism makes her raise and lower her chest, as if she were breathing. The man pays the ticket and enters the sideshow. But past the red velvet curtains, a vision of wonder and horror appears before his eyes. Pathological waxes show the ravages of syphilis, monstrous bodies like those of the Tocci siamese twins are represented along scenes of surgical operations. Women appear to be operated by “phantom” hands, without arms or bodies. The same sleeping Venus seen at the entrance is dismantled under the eyes of the public, organ after organ, in a sort of spectacular dissection.

The man is upset, and the vision of the Spitzner museum will forever change his life.
In fact, our protagonist is called Paul Delvaux, a painter who until then has only painted post-impressionist (yet quite unimpressive!) bucolic landscapes.

After his visit to the Spitzner museum, however, his art will take a completely different path.
His paintings will turn into dreamlike visions, in which almost all the elements seem to refer to that original trauma or, better, to that original epiphany. The strange non-places which the figures inhabit seem to be suspended halfway between De Chirico‘s metaphysical landscapes and the fake neoclassical sceneries used in fairgrounds; his paintings are populated with sleeping venuses and female nudes, showing a cold and hieratic eroticism, and dozens of skeletons; the train station will become another of Delvaux’s obsessions.

Regarding that experience Delvaux will declare, many years later:

That disturbing, even a little morbid atmosphere, the unusual exhibition of anatomical waxes in a place meant for  joy, noise, lights, joviality […] All this has left deep traces in my life for a very long time. The discovery of the Spitzner museum made me veer completely in my conception of painting.

(cited in H. Palouzié e C. Ducourau, De la collection Fontana à la collection Spitzner, In Situ [En ligne], n.31, 2017)

But why was Delvaux so touched by the vision of the inside of the human body?
In Bananas (1971), Woody Allen wakes up after taking a blow on the head, and upon touching the wound he looks at his fingers and exclaims: “Blood! That should be on inside”. I believe this to bethe most concise definition of anatomy as a Freudian repression/denial.


What is inside the body should remain off-scene (obscene). We should never see it, because otherwise it would mean that something went wrong. The inside of our body is a misunderstood territory and a real taboo – we will later attempt to see why.
So of course, there is a certain fascination for the obscene, especially for a man like Delvaux who came from a rigid and puritan family; a mixture of erotic impulses and death.


But there’s more: those waxes have a quality that goes beyond reality. What Delvaux experienced is the surrealism of anatomy.
In fact, whenever we enter an anatomical museum, we’re accessing a totally alien, unsettling, absurd dimension.

It is therefore not surprising that the Surrealists, to whom Delvaux was close, exploited anatomy to destabilize their audience: surrealists were constantly searching for this type of elements, and experiences, which could free the unconscious.
Surrealism also had a fascination for death, right from its very beginnings. One example is the Poisson soluble, Breton‘s syllogy which accompanied the Manifesto (the idea of a “soluble fish” can make us smile, but is in truth desperately dramatic), another is the famous creative game of the “exquisite corpse“.
The Surrealist Manifesto stated it very clearly: “Surrealism will introduce you to Death, which is a secret society”.

So Max Ernst in his collage wroks for Une semaine de bonté often used scraps of anatomical illustrations; Roland Topor cut and peeled his characters with Sadeian cruelty, hinting at the menacing monsters of the unconscious lurking under our skin; Réné Magritte covered his two lovers’ faces with a cloth, as if they were already corpses on the autopsy table, thus giving the couple a funereal aspect.

But Hans Bellmer above all put anatomy at the core of his lucid expressive universe, first with his series of photos of his handcrafted ball-joint dolls, with which he reinvented the female body; and later in his etchings, where the various anatomical details merge and blur into new configurations of flesh and dream. All of Bellmer’s art is obsessively and fetishly aimed at discovering the algorithm that makes the female body so seductive (the “algebra of desire”, according to its own definition).

In the series of lithographs entitled Rose ouverte la nuit, in which a girl lifts the skin of her abdomen to unveil her internal organs, Bellmer is directly referring to the iconography of terracotta/wax anatomical models, and to ancient medical illustrations.

This idea that the human body is a territory to explore and map, is directly derived from the dawn of the anatomical discipline. The first one who cut this secret space open for study purposes, at least in a truly programmatic way, was Vesalius. I have often written about him, and to understand the extent of his revolution you might want to check out this article.

Yet even after Vesalio the feelings of guilt attached to the act of dissection did not diminish – opening a human body was still seen as a desecration.
According to various scholars, this sense of guilt is behind the “vivification” of the écorchés, the flayed cadavers represented in anatomical plates, which were shown in plastic poses as if they were alive and perfectly well – an iconography partly borrowed from that of the Catholic saints, always eager to exhibit the mutilations they suffered during martyrdom.

In the anatomical plates of the 17th and 18th centuries, this tendency becomes so visionary as to become involuntarily fantasy-like (see R. Caillois, Au cœur du fantastique, 1965).
A striking example is the following illustration (from the Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano by Valverde, 1556) showing a dissected cadaver which in turn is dissecting another one: surrealism ante litteram, and a quite extraordinary macabre fantasy.

At the time scholars were quite aware of the aesthetic problem: two of the greatest anatomists of the late 17th century, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, became bitter enemies precisely because they disagreed on which kind of aesthetics was more suitable for the anatomical discipline.


Bidloo, in his treatises, had ordered the illustrations to be as realistic as possible. Dissection was shown in a very graphic way, with depictions of tied bodies and fixing pins. This was no idealized view at all, as realism was pushed to the extreme in a plate which even included a fly landing on the corpse.

On the other hand, Ruysch’s sensibility was typical of wunderkammern, and as he embellished his animal preparations with compositions of shells and corals, he did so also with human preparations, to make them more pleasing to the eye.

His anatomical preparations were artistic, sometimes openly allegorical; his now-lost dioramas were quite famous in this regard, as they were made entirely from organic materials (kidney stones used as rocks, arteries and dried veins as trees, fetal skeletons drying their tears on handkerchiefs made from meninges, etc.).

Often the preserved parts were embellished with laces and embroidery made by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel, who from an early age helped her father in his dissections (she can be seen standing on the right with a skeleton in her hand in Van Neck‘s Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch).

We could say that Ruysch was both an anatomist and a showman (therefore, a forerunner of that Dr. Spitzner whose museum so impressed Delvaux), who exploited his own art in a spectacular way in order to gain success in European courts. And in a sense he won his dispute with Bidloo, because the surreal quality of anatomical illustrations remained almost unchallenged until the advent of positivism.

Going back to the 1900s, however, things start to radically change from the middle of the century. Two global conflicts have undermined trust in mankind and in history; traditional society begins breaking down, technology enters the people’s homes and work becomes more and more mechanized. Thus a sense of loss of idenity, which also involves the body, begins to emerge.


If in the 1930s Fritz Kahn (above) could still look at anatomy with an engineering gaze, as if it were a perfect machine, in the second half of the century everything was wavering. The body becomes mutant, indefinite, fluid,  as is the case in Xia Xiaowan‘s glass paintings, which change depending on the perspective, making the subject’s anatomy uncertain.

Starting from the 60s and the 70s, the search for identity implies a reappropriation of the body as a canvas on which to express one’s own individuality: it is the advent of body art and of the customization of the body (plastic surgery, tattoos, piercing).
The body becomes victim of hybridizations between the organic and the mechanical, oscillating between dystopian visions of flesh and metal fused together – as in Tetsuo or Cronenberg’s films – and cyberpunk prophecies, up to the tragic dehumanization of a fully mechanized society depicted by Tetsuya Ishida.

In spite of millenarians, however, the world does not end in the year 2000 nor in the much feared year 2012. Society continues to change, and hybridization is a concept that has entered the collective unconscious; an artist like Nunzio Paci can now use it in a non-dystopian perspective, guided by ecological concerns. He is able to intersect human anatomy with the animal and plant kingdom in order to demonstrate our intimate communion and continuity with nature; just like Kate McDowell does in her ceramics works.

The anatomical and scientific imagery becomes disturbing, on the other hand, in the paintings of Spanish artist Dino Valls, whose characters appear to be victims of esoteric experiments, continually subjected to invasive examinations, while their tear-stained eyes suggest a tragic, ancestral and repeated dimension.

Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin used the body – both the imperfect and different body, and the anatomized body, literally cut into pieces – to represent the beauty of the soul in an aesthetic way. A Catholic fervent, Witkin is truly convinced that “everything is illuminated”, and his research has a mystical quality. Looking for the divine even in what scares us or horrifies us, his aim is to expose our substantial identity with God. This might be the meaning of one of his most controversial works, The Kiss, in which the two halves of a severed head are positioned as if kissing each other: love is to recognize the divine in the other, and every kiss is nothing but God loving himself. (Here you can find my interview with Witkin – Italian only.)

Valerio Carrubba‘s works are more strictly surrealistic, and particularly interesting because they bring the pictorial medium closer to its anatomical content: the artist creates different versions of the same picture one above the other, adding layers of paint as if they were epidermal layers, only the last of which remains visible.

Anatomy’s still-subversive power is testified by its widespread use within the current of pop surrealism, often creating a contrast between childish and lacquered images and the anatomical unveiling.

Also our friend Stefano Bessoni makes frequent reference to anatomy, in particular in one of his latest works which is dedicated to the figure of Rachel, the aforementioned daughter of Ruysch.

Much in the same satirical and rebellious vein is the work of graffiti artist Nychos, who anatomizes, cuts into pieces and exposes the entrails of some of the most sacred icons of popular culture.
Jessica Harrison reserves a similar treatment to granma’s china, and Fernando Vicente uses the idea of vanitas to spoof the sensual imagery of pin-up models.

And the woman’s body, the most subject to aesthetic imperatives and social pressures, is the focus of Sally Hewett‘s work, revolving around those anatomical details that are usually considered unsightly – surgical scars, cellulite, stretch marks – in order to reaffirm the beauty of imperfection.

Autopsy, the act of “looking with one’s own eyes”, is the first step in empirical knowledge.
But looking at one’s own body involves a painful and difficult awareness: it also means acknowledging its mortality. In fact, the famous maxim inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself“, was essentially a memento mori (as evidenced by the mosaic from the Convent of San Gregorio on the Appian Way). It meant “know who you are, understand your limits, remember your finitude”.

This is perhaps the reason why blood “should be on the inside”, and why our inner landscape of organs, adipose masses and vascularized tissues still seems so unfamiliar, so disgusting, so surreal. We do not want to think about it because it reminds us of our unfortunate reality of limited, mortal animals.

But our very identity can not exist without this body, though fleeting and fallible; and our denial of anatomy, in turn, is exactly the reason why artists will continue to explore its imagery.
Because the best art is subversive, one that – as in Banksy’s famous definition – should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfotable.

3 comments to Flesh and Dream: Anatomy of Surrealism

  1. Stefani says:

    Mi sarei aspettato che citassi anche Gunther von Agens… ma forse era troppo scontato. Splendido articolo. Complimenti.

  2. Livio says:

    Capolavoro! Tutto, sociologia, arte, religione…, si incastrano perfettamente e ai massimi livelli! Sempre meglio.

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