The art of medicine

24 August 2016

Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future as a way to understand what it means to be human. In this post, Muriel Bailly explores the connections between medicine and art, discussing how their relationship can lead to a richer understanding of both.

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All too often, we hear that medicine is the stuff of science while art belongs to the humanities; that the two are different, if not opposite. Only a few months ago, the then-Secretary of Education Nicky Morgan encouraged young students to focus on science, as art subjects lead to unemployment. But would scientists and artists themselves agree with this common distinction between their disciplines?

L0011869 Arm illustration, from Anatomie du Gladiateur. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Arm illustration. Anatomie du gladiateur Salvage, J.G. Published: 1812 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Arm illustration, from anatomie du gladiateur.

The Greek word techne relates to both scientific technologies and the arts. The former represents objective and empirical exploration, while the latter is concerned with exploration driven by intuitions and aesthetics. In fact, in Ancient Greece, while Aristotle and Galen conducted dissections to better understand the human body, Pericles and Phidias developed the classical canon for its representation. Both art and medicine explore the human body, the mystery of life; both interrogate death and what lies beyond.

Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are among the first that come to mind when considering the relationship between art and medicine. The structure and behaviour of the human body was at the centre of da Vinci’s work throughout his career. Francis Wells, heart surgeon and author of The Heart of Leonardo, often talked about the powerful impact he experienced when coming across the artist’s illustrations for the first time: “I remember thinking that they were far better than anything we had in modern textbooks of anatomy […] They were beautiful, accurate, absorbing – and there was a liveliness to them that you just don’t find in modern anatomical drawings.”

M0010882 Fig. 40 Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist from McMurrich Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Figure 40 from An. A. fol. 9v Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist (1452-1519) McMurrich, James Playfair Published: 1903 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Leonardo da Vinci, the anatomist.

In the 18th century, the boundary between art and science was especially blurry due to a renewed fascination for anatomy. This led to grave robbery scandals in Scotland (Burke and Hare) and England (Bishop, William and May). Famous French anatomist Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty produced numerous breath-taking anatomical illustrations during this period, some of which you can admire in our Medicine Man gallery and the Reading Room.

John Hunter, a leading scientist and surgeon of the 18th century counted many artists as friends, including Johan Zoffany and Joshua Reynolds. Hunter was particularly interested in artists’ use of colour to learn how to inject pigments into his own wet specimens in order to return a very vivid, lifelike appearance to them. One of the most striking examples of what Hunter called “anatomical art” is the specimen called Face of a Child displayed at the Hunterian Museum in London.

L0023739 J.F. Gautier d'Agoty, Myologie complette en coleur... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Facial muscles. Myologie complette en couleur et grandeur naturelle... Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty Published: 1746 - 1748 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Facial muscles, Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty.

The relationship between art and medicine goes far beyond the accurate representation of the human body: artists and doctors are invested in the mission of understanding the human condition. Artists particularly have the ability to make emotions palpable and visible.

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Doctors, meanwhile, have the arduous task of interpreting the signs, reading what is otherwise invisible to others, to enlighten us on our condition.

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Both art and medicine have the potential to reveal secrets about ourselves. These often involve milestone moments in human life, from birth to death and everything in between. Barbara Hepworth, renowned for her sculptures, produced a large series of medical drawings in the 1940s showing surgeons at work. You can see some of these drawings in our Library collection.

Hepworth was struck by the similarities she saw between her art practice and the craftsmanship of the surgeons. Many of these drawings focus on the rhythmic movement of their hands; the solemn atmosphere of the drawings reflects the intensity of the moment when the patient’s life is in those very hands.

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Today, the connections between art and medicine seem to be clearer. Since the Human Genome Project in 2003, medicine has made huge leaps forward in understanding human nature. The answers (and questions) raised by genomic research are often addressed in contemporary artists’ work. Our Medicine Now gallery presents a few examples.

Bud by Rob Kessler is a glass vessel holding genetically modified soy beans. By presenting these in a vessel that resembles both a trophy and a time bomb, the artist is playing on the mixed reaction to genetically modified organisms, e.g. the potential benefits of ending starvation against the risk on human health.

Mauro Perucchetti’s Jelly Baby 3 is an iconic object from our collection. The jelly baby is a metaphor for human clones, highlighting the possible standardisation and ‘mass production’ of human beings. Finally Heidi Kerrison’s Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning provides a glimpse of the horrific sensation of living in a world where everyone is physically and genetically identical.

Until the mystery of what makes us human in revealed (can it ever be?), artists and scientists will continue in their quest for knowledge, promising us an exciting array of future collaborations.

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Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.