As being human goes, one cannot escape viruses and infections; not even GP’s! It was unfortunate that my creative partner in crime had to sit this trip out due to a sickness, which meant I was to go ahead solo without Eleanor, and expand on our collaborative research into visual and literary explorations of anatomy and medical sciences. I am no stranger to Edinburgh and its richness of arts culture and anatomical history; home to one of the oldest medical schools in the English-speaking world and famous for its succession of master surgeons and physicians that stretch back to the 18th century. In fact, journeying on the train bound for the city on an early crisp Friday morning, I was listening to Mary Roach’s ‘Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers’ (Chapter 2: Crimes of Anatomy: Body snatching and other so) commentating on the notorious history of Burke and Hare whom in 1892, sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Doctor Robert Knox as dissection material for his anatomy lectures. It was a strange coincidence that my first call of the day was the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh University School of Biosciences, which housed the skeleton of the ‘body snatcher’ (termed inaccurately as in fact, Burke and Hare weren’t body snatchers, but serial killers) and various other items related to the West Port murders, including life and death masks of both Burke and Hare and items from Dr Knox’s collection.
The anatomical museum as it stands today resides in the single upper storey of what used to be the three storey museum hall founded and developed by the Monro dynasty, flourished under Sir William Turner, Professor of Anatomy from 1867 to 1903, and was at the heart of the new Medical School. Turner had broad interests in evolution and comparative anatomy and built up the impressive collections displayed. On entering the museum, I sensed a profundity of this history immediately. All my senses were radars for the environment; the sound of crackled radiators, the smell of old bookcases, the sight of stained wooden shelving and crookedly hanging skeletons. I say to myself “if Eleanor were here, she’d have the beginning of a poem in full swing!”.
The first of these skeletons that meet my glance is ‘Skeleton of Bowed Joseph’, a cobbler who lived in Cowgate in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, ‘deformed by rickets’ and the leader of the famous “Meal Riots” in Edinburgh in the 1770s. On reading ‘his’ story on a crudely mounted cardboard label, I realised I was to come across many more of these stories; narrative recollections that Eleanor is accustomed to working with. And I remember how all human remains, like the ones I’m about to engage with, have accounts to tell of life and death, and even as a life lived as a museum exhibit!
I loose myself in the process of drawing: of reflecting. With every scratch of the pencil, I contemplate the preserved specimens’ form, aesthetic, environment; lives lived, moments of death, but most profoundly, their preserved state; held in limbo, between death and decay. Even the age old teaching models embody this liminal state, held in limbo between educationally obsolete and aesthetically curious.
Time passes too rapidly to honour the whole collection with my drawing attention. Before I’m aware, two hours have passed and I’m being escorted to the anatomy lab for my arranged visit. Meandering my way up several flights of stairs, engaged in conversation with the laboratory technician, my attention is distracted by the giant paintings of enlarged internal organs that hang on the interior walls. Positioned out of direct glance, these paintings are clearly for decorative purposes, for historical reverence ; I wonder about the artist, and the period they were created. So bold and primed.
The anatomy lab, as I had predicted, was equally steeped in history. I am invited to observe student assessments of the cranium, with Dr Gordon Findlater residing at the far end of the lab and Dr Fanney Kristmundsdottir closer in my view. Not surprisingly, the first thing that strikes me, as it does with each visit I make to anatomy labs, is the scene of the dead teaching the living: the inanimate teaching the animate. It’s always struck me as a profound concept, so much so that I often entertain the imagined experience of the specimens and skeletons embodying a living, moving, breathing presence. In the context of our collaborative interests in visual and literary teaching, Eleanor and I are drawn to the use of visuals and language in the teaching and learning of anatomy, and today was no exception as I witnessed the use of mnemonics to navigate the landmarks of the cranium. They are widely promoted in anatomy education to help the students retain the principles of specific anatomical structures, like the heart valve auscultation sites “All Prostitutes Take Money”: Aortic, Pulmonary, Tricuspid, Mitral. On hearing this, my imagination is awash with images of 19th century female prostitutes, wearing ripped stockings and stained petticoats, snatching tupence out of the hands of inebriated men with tatty clothes and sock braces! How that would help me remember the 4 heart valve auscultation valves remains to be seen.
On leaving the lab, Gordon directs my attention to a trap door above our heads, pointing and asking “what do you think this was used for?” I didn’t have the answer but I was sure that a story was to follow. Gordon shared a tale from back when the lab was in its infancy, and the resident artist whose job was to produce paintings of anatomical organs and systems to assist in teaching, would summonsed the freshly dissected to be hoisted up into their studio, where they would be posed for observational painting. And these paintings still hang in the lab and its surrounding departments today. The very paintings I mentioned earlier, which of course, deepened and enriched my receipt of them as I gaze at their magnificence with wonder. Their size alone astounds me, but also their longevity and lives lived in the school. Such legacy to the artists who endured the sensory challenges of spending extended time in close encounters with decomposing flesh, and to the centuries of students who mastered (and will continue to master) knowledge of the body’s mechanics through a form of visual language.
Sipping a well-earned tea in Dr Kristmundsdottir’s office and delving into light conversation about the ebb and flow of anatomy education, I am completely encircled by anatomical atlases and encyclopaedias, medical journals and publications. A portrait of an anatomist if ever I’d seen one! It’s a visual reminder of just how important literature and medical illustrations sit side by side, and are essential material for the teaching and learning of the human body.
(Visit to Surgeons Hall rescheduled for another trip to Ediburgh, Eleanor in tow)
Next stop, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to exercise my visual muscles…
I visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to experience the works of the iconic French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) entitled Louise Bourgeois, A Woman Without Secrets. Bourgeois remains firmly in my top 3 favourite artists, who’s work continues to inspire my art and life. Once again, I reflect on Eleanor’s absence, sensing that she too would profit from experiencing the work of Bourgeois in all its abstract figurative, psychological glory. I hadn’t previously contemplated the significance of literary threads that run through her sculptural and print works, of which there is an abundance of mythological references. Cell XIV (Portrait) (2000), from a series of cells bourgeois began making in 1989, houses a metal table on which a red fabric sculpture sits on a small pedestal; a trio of screaming heads, fused together that are reminiscent of Cerberus in Greek mythology where each head represents birth, youth and old age. Another example is Marmelles (1991), a sculpture that resembles a cluster of female breasts and takes the French word for such as its title. In this piece, she makes reference to the legendary character of Don Juan, whose story has been retold in literature since the 17th century; a predatory figure that bourgeois reprises as saying “Marmelles points out that Don Juan’s need to sleep with many women meant an inability to love.” Both these pieces are exemplar of what I feel is a seamless fusion between literary worlds and visual languages; she uses sculpture as her tool, and mythology as her material.
More explicit yet, is her print and textile works that juxtapose images and text together. In What is the Shape of this Problem (1999), we learn how Bourgeois used both art and writing to combat anxiety; the images are created with repetitive marks that relate to the emotional charge involved in human relationships, and the writing as a means of self-analysis, which reveal her interest in psychoanalytical theory.
“I love language…you can stand anything if you write it down…words put in connection, can open up new relations…a new view of things.” (Louise Bourgeois, 2010)
Poetic words, phrases and drawings are delicately and skilfully embroidered into cloth. The text sometimes addresses the viewer with a challenge or an exhortation: didactic, ironic and sometimes moralising statements. I also learn that Bourgeois kept three types of diaries: a written, a spoken (into a tape recorder), and a drawing diary. On learning this, I reflect deeper on Bourgeois’, and indeed any visual artists’ drive to use tools from both visual and literary sets. These thoughts take me 360 degrees, right back to the significance of language. For Bourgeois, the body and mind (figure and emotion) were her passions, preoccupations, ingredients of art, life, love and loss, and she equipped herself with a range of intuitive languages to articulate these, which would offer her relief from the emotional trauma of her ‘self’. This is perhaps why I find her work so compelling and emotionally arousing. Her work speaks with a raw, unmediated truth with universal languages of the body, mind and soul. A visual language that widens the fissures of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual body and mind. A unique visual language that I aspire to achieve in my own critical arts practice.
I leave her exhibition feeling equally comforted and alone.
Next stop, Glasgow in May to extend this collaborative exploration. Another Scottish city renowed for its rich anatomy and medical history.