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.

“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.

Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.

First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.

Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.

A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.

Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.

Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…

Although reimagined, the main character is based on the real historical figure of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), daughter of famous Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (about whom I’ve written before).

As Bessoni writes:

It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.

But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711

At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.

You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.

This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.

After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).

And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?

Rachel by Stefano Bessoni is available (in Italian) here.

My wunderkammer

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n.31 – “MIRABILIA”

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My wunderkammer

I love to stay awake: the big city finally surrenders to exhaustion, and I can almost perceive the dreams of my neighbours coming out of the houses until they form a huge blanket, in iridescent colours and patterns, unfolding over the silent roofs.
When the night is about to turn into morning, I happen to pause in front of my cabinets of wonders.

There are human and animal skulls, red Gorgons and starfishes, taxidermic specimens preserved in liquids, ancient texts of pathological anatomy, prints and engravings representing human cruelty over the centuries (the big repressed impulse that we wish was only the remnant of our beastly past, and which has never left us instead). And then pornographic photographs of the 1920s, old medical tools, and a whole series of objects concerning the intersection between the sacred and the macabre (historiated skullcaps, shinbones turned into musical instruments, death masks, funerary art, mourning portraits, and so on).

My collection talks to me, with its peculiar voice which is in fact a multitude of voices. And it is a phase, a tool for the research that has always absorbed me.

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Although I own this collection, I don’t think of myself as a collector. I am not compulsive.
What I love in the objects I collect is the fact that they are packed with history, with life. I happened to know collectors of corkscrews, irons, majolicas, coffee cans; those who do not share their passion are overwhelmed by boredom within five minutes.
On the other hand, I have learnt that nobody is indifferent to a cabinet of wonders. Reactions can range from disgust (much more rarely than it is commonly believed) to childlike amazement, from scientific interest to moral outrage in front of some habits that today we find questionable: consider the cilice of the beginning of the Twentieth century, the tiny Chinese shoes for bandaged feet, the souvenir postcard, hand-coloured and dated 1907, which shows a proud English colonialist holding the head of an executed pirate. Children, for their part, go crazy for stuffed animals and bones.

Colonialist postcard (fronte)

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Every collection is a sort of map that reflects and describes the collector’s personality, his taste, his small obsessions.
Stefano Bessoni is most probably the one who taught me – without words, of course – that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our own obsessions, but we should instead cultivate them with enthusiasm. And his incredible wunderkammer is a clear objectification of his imagination, a physical offshoot of his inner world: it possesses a wonderful and strict disorder that makes it similar to the dusty booty of a Victorian explorer, a mix of Livingstone and Darwin, where one’s gaze gets lost among a thousand confused details.
My collection is of course different, because it is mine. One of my obsessions is people’s relationship with death, with the barriers and the symbols we have invented – every time and in every place – to put up with the anguish it causes. What are stuffed or mummified animals but an attempt to stop time and defeat decay? In these objects, the wonder for the world and natural shapes is mixed with a secret fear of
panta rei.

And this dread of eternal decay, which would deprive our existence of meaning, is visible behind the impulse to analyse, classify, make maps and, in the end, control the whole cosmos; to investigate our body in order to defeat disease and old age; to invent any kind of deity in order to be assured that the abovementioned decay is not really definitive. And eroticism, hosted by a section of my cabinets, is maybe the most intense symbolic representation of the instincts related to death.

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Sometimes, when all is quiet, my wunderkammer looks like a psychic spacecraft. Enigmatic conglomerate of temporary forms, clots of pains and lives returned to dust, amazed gaze, mystery of things.

We spend our whole life practicing impermanence. Let’s assume tomorrow I lose my entire collection in a fire: I would shed a few tears, of course, but I wouldn’t scream or damn my fate. If I did, I would prove I have not understood the lesson that the wunderkammer softly whispers to me every night.

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