Long before Body Worlds shocked people with its theatrically preserved people or Damien Hirst even thought to dunk a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, scientists were erring into the realm of art with their attempts at preserving life for anatomical study. The specimens in particular that emerged as a way to show the inner workings of the human body, such as the late 18th century “anatomical venus” models of the sculptor Clemente Susini — beautiful young ladies with their hair tossed back and their pale skin pulled open to show the organs within — mixed death and anatomy with an uncanny beauty. One anatomist took this to an unprecedented extreme. Honoré Fragonard transformed the human body into an object of strange art, flaying open the skin and preserving it to show the hidden veins and organs, but at the same time giving it a dramatic pose that captured the absent life.
While many of the hundreds of these “écorchés” have vanished, several of Fragonard’s models are still on display at the Musée Fragonard at the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort just outside of Paris, the oldest veterinary school in the world. I visited the museum shortly after attending talks on anatomical models in an edition of the EXPLORA “History and Cultural Representations of Human Remains” conference series at the Academy of Medicine in Paris. While anatomy as art is something that has faded into novelty — we no longer have as great a need to preserve human specimens to understand and study the body — these objects (as they have become objects, no longer quite human) are still stored away in small, often overlooked museums like the Musée Fragonard.
Rafael Mandressi of the Centre Alexandre-Koyré opened up on the conference with a brief overview of the development of anatomical models, each stage of advanced preservation merging anatomical presentation with contemporary views on art, like Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch. His early 18th century “scenes” of skeletal fetuses arranged as still lifes with natural history objects like corral and shells were not unlike what his daughter Rachel Ruysch would do with her still life flowers in painting. In the late 18th century Italian nobleman and scientist Raimondo di Sangro developed his “anatomical machines,” preserved in the Sansevero Chapel in Naples, where veins and arteries hover above the skeletons of two people with the same artfulness he gave his reconstruction of the Cappella Sansevero church.
Of these “artists of the body,” though, none achieved quite such a sculptural beauty as Fragonard. Not surprisingly, his colleagues at the veterinary school in the 1700s got a little uneasy with the anatomist and his multiplying flayed cadavers that were being mysteriously transformed into death-defying works of artistic vitality. He never exactly disclosed how, or why, he made the models, but one popular theory is that he dunked the bodies in alcohol that was swirled with herbs and some pepper, injecting with wax or tallow the veins, arteries, and bronchial tubes before posing it all to dry and later hand-painting the final model in fleshy tones.
His cousin was actually the Roccoco painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, best known for his lively works of subtle eroticism like “The Swing,” and while they obviously worked with very different media, one could say the anatomist Fragonard achieved an equivalently subversive liveliness with his works, as exemplified by his “The Horseman of the Apocalypse.” It’s a man astride a galloping horse, based on a print by Albrecht Dürer and originally encircled by a small horde of human fetuses riding atop sheep and horse fetuses. There’s also the wide-eyed, snarl-lipped “The Man with a Mandible,” based on the Biblical story of Samson fighting the Philistines with a donkey’s jaw bone that has as much ferocity as Giovanni Bologna‘s sculpture of the same scene.
Honoré Fragonard was eventually declared insane by his colleagues and dismissed from the school, but his unusual mix of science and art continued with private, high-end collectors of dark oddities through to the French Revolution, when that client base met its own macabre fate. Yet the fact these anatomical sculptures still exist, and still are shocking in their blatant celebration of what’s beneath the skin is remarkable. If you visit the Musée Fragonard, walk to the back room, give the door a hard push and enter, you will likely be left alone to ponder this unsettling sculptural preservation of the body, art bleeding grotesquely into science at a time of anatomical discovery.
The Musée Fragonard is located at the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort (7 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, Maisons-Alfort, France).