French sculptor Auguste Rodin would frequently find his models out in the streets of Paris, drawn to hands and bodies gnarled by the often grueling nature of 19th century life and labor. A surgeon at Stanford University, Dr. James Chang, has recently taken advantage of this fact to discover in the artist’s sculptures an anatomical history of medical conditions impacting hands then and now.
Opened earlier this month, Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center is a collaboration across the university’s arts and sciences faculty: the Cantor Arts Center, Dr. Chang and his students, the Division of Clinical Anatomy, and the Lane Medical Library. The art museum, with one of the greatest Rodin collections in the world, has its own Rodin Sculpture Garden, and it’s there as an undergraduate that Dr. Chang, Chief of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine, was first intrigued by the hands of Rodin’s sculptures.
He now leads an interdisciplinary seminar at Stanford called “Surgical Anatomy of the Hand: from Rodin to Reconstruction,” from which the Inside Rodin’s Hand exhibition evolved. “I wanted to participate in this exhibition for the same reason I introduced Rodin into my seminar: to get students in the humanities excited about the sciences, and to get doctors to step out of the hospital to appreciate art,” Chang stated. “I have found that artists and surgeons appreciate human anatomy with equal passion.”
For ten of Rodin’s sculptures, a “perceived condition” was designated. Using high tech 3D scanning of the bronzes with medical renderings of what the bones and muscles would be like underneath, hands like the 1887 “Flying Figure” was deemed a possible example of a thumb reattachment, and “Study for Pierre de Weissant” thought to show symptoms of Apert hand, a condition where fingers fuse together.
Chang told Popular Science it’s a “mental puzzle” as to “why these Rodin hands had these different medical conditions.” Over at Wired, Cantor Arts Center Curator of European Art Bernard Barryte said it’s not sure Rodin even knew about the hand conditions, which likely resulted from rough work conditions of the time, although he also might not have cared. He “modeled interesting hands when he saw them, building up a sort of library or archive of appendages that he could use as the need arose.”
Of course, these aren’t definite diagnoses; that would require much more knowledge of the person, along with how much artistic license Rodin took with the form. The exhibition is more a way of engaging medical students with art, and those in the art world with medicine. As Chang says in a video for the exhibition, “I don’t really divide the art from the anatomy, because for me anatomy is art, and art is anatomy.” And anatomy and art have long been linked, with one propelling the other as anatomists turned to artists for studies of dissections and corpeal structure, and artists engaged with anatomy as an expression of humanity.
Rodin once said he “always had an intense passion for the expression of the human hands,” the way there “are times when they succumb to destiny” and “times when they seize the void and, moulding it as a snowball is moulded, hurl it in the face of Fate.” Another Stanford doctor, Michael Marmor, an ophthalmologist, has researched artists such as Monet and Degas and their eye diseases, in 2007 interpreting how they may have seen the world based on the deterioration of detail in their art. By dissecting the medical histories behind art, whether it’s a healed 19th century hand fracture immortalized in bronze or the retinal failures of an Impressionist, there is a chance to bring these two worlds of study together for another perspective on visual culture.
Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery is at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way Stanford, California) through August 3.