Many studies of anatomy and the beauty of the human body are all about symmetry and proportions, a sort of endless steamrolling of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” through art history. Yet that barely explores the incredible diversity of human forms. It’s the “variant body” that artist Riva Lehrer examines in teaching anatomy at the Art Institute of Chicago and in her series of portraits responding to her own disability, as well as to anyone who lives in a body that feels outside what’s perceived as “normal.”
Lehrer gave a talk called “Jarred: Self Portrait in Formaldehyde” at the October 5 Festival of Medical History and the Arts at the New York Academy of Medicine. It focused on her art and interest in bringing a form of narrative portraiture into medical museums, where disability and abnormalities are often distanced from the actual humans supplying the specimens. “I’m not interested in shutting down these museum displays,” she said in her talk. “I’m interested in pulling people into as deep an understanding of body variance as possible.”
She contrasted a couple of slides of human specimens at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia with the people she’s worked with on portraiture. For example, there’s Mat Fraser, who was born with phocomelia, a rare disorder involving malformed limbs. When he tried to get into acting, Fraser found that “the only roles he was offered were as monsters and beggars, or begging monsters.” So he developed his own material, taking the 1940s freak-show act of a performer who went by “Sealo the Seal Boy” and did standard things like shaving on stage as if it were a feat of magic, and reinterpreting it at Coney Island. These real, human stories of people who live with disability are rarely shown in medical museums, where the jarred fetuses or scraps of bodies in formaldehyde are labeled with the diagnosis and nothing else. “My studio practice is an attempt to reverse narrative stripping in the lives of my subjects,” she said. “Think of it as repatriation through portraiture.”
Lehrer told her own story of visiting the Mütter Museum and walking through its rows of anatomical specimens, only to find herself “suddenly standing in front of [her] own body.” She was looking at a whole shelf of examples of spina bifida, a split spine condition with which she was born. “I realized I was looking at the slipstream of my own alternate history,” she said. And she noted that she’s now in an alternate history all her own, since before the 1950s most everyone with spina bifida died early. “As a first generation survivor,” Lehrer said, her “body is a marker in time”; if she had been born earlier, or in another place (there’s still sometimes debate over even treating infants with spina bifida), she “might have ended up as a teaching tool.”
In fact, that’s how medical museums started: as hands-on teaching collections for medical professionals to touch these remains in order to better understand the living. “But things change when a collection becomes public,” she said. “Now, no one touches the specimens. You are allowed to see them without it being necessary to understand them.” She noted that the question of how to keep a visitor from “sealing themselves off under emotional layers of glass” is one that could be addressed by adding a text or video narrative, or even bringing art and performance into the museum space, rather than just having a label on a jar.
Still, it’s one thing to show the narratives of disability and another to show its beauty without it becoming a backhanded, “beauty from the inside” thing. Lehrer’s portraits are genuinely beautiful, with her detailed graphite, acrylic, and charcoal works and obvious deep knowledge of anatomy pulled into mixed-media portraiture that doesn’t just tell a complex story, but also contains that variance. “Disability can make you move in unexpected dances,” she said. That movement comes through in her work.
“When others think that our bodies only represent pain, that pain is the only truth,” Lehrer said. A new kind of representation could find a place in the structure of these museums, and in anatomy classes at other art institutions. “Keeping biography with the body matters. It matters to doctors deciding what to do. It matters when a genetics counselor talks to prospective parents. It matters when a politician makes a law. Above all, it matters to that disabled person, standing in front of a glass case full of jars.”