Art and science meet in an exploration of the human body.

Generally speaking, museums put on exhibitions so that people can learn about things they don't already know. The Wellcome Collection does almost the reverse: it prefers to start with something that is familiar - in this case, skin - and make it unfamiliar. Its latest exhibition does this thoughtfully and artfully and, in doing so, forces viewers to think anew about something they believed they already understood.

“Skin" is about scars, wrinkles, tattoos, diseases and moisturiser, but it's also about the skin as the frontier between the outside world and the inner body. It starts with the 16th-century notion that the skin is an obstruction that must be removed to reveal the "real" body hidden beneath and ends with the idea that the skin is to be celebrated, as landscape, as home, as clothing.

If that sounds cerebral, it is - the exhibition was curated by Javier Moscoso, a Spanish professor of history and philosophy of science - but it is also absorbing, enjoyable and, in places, gloriously gruesome. The only drawback, as is often the case at the Wellcome, is that the content is so dense, it all but demands a second visit to take it all in.

The Wellcome Collection is adept at knotting together contemporary and classical art with scientific study. You could say that it sees the science in art and the art in science, but it scarcely seems to recognise any such distinction between the two worlds in the first place. So a set of functional suture tools is displayed as lovingly as Tamsin van Essen's apothecary jars, beautiful and delicate objects that have been painted to represent supposedly repellent skin diseases such as psoriasis and acne.

Such crossovers are legion. At one end, we have Brian Dettmer's exquisite dissection of Gray's Anatomy, in which he uses anatomical tools to strip away pages of the medical reference book tenderly, as if they were skin, re­vealing webs of text hidden beneath like life-giving organs.
At the other end, we have some extraordinary anatomical wax models, such as the sequence of hands made in the 19th century to show the various skin problems suffered by manual labourers. So the raw and bloody hands of the painter are eroded by turpentine, while the shrivelled claw of the bricklayer is desiccated by lime. Even the housewife gets a model hand, one coarsened by grime and dirt and cheap chemicals. These are not so much diseases as life conditions.

As ever at the Wellcome, some exhibits come close to the macabre. Ghouls will be delighted that there is room for some of the most grim objects acquired by the collection's founder, Henry Wellcome - squares of tattooed human skin that once adorned 19th-century French sailors (particularly impressive is one that features a tattoo of a pig on a bicycle). And then there are items that are morally repugnant, such as the pseudo-scientific paintings from Latin America which purport to demonstrate how people with different skin pigmentation should breed if they want to whiten the skin of their offspring.

Yet there is also much that is beautiful, often despite the content, such as the arresting opening photograph by Sophie Gerrard. This is a large, black-and-white portrait of a woman's back shortly after an operation. Stitches run from bottom to neck like thick black rope or barbed wire. The skin immediately on either side is wrinkled and pinched, like cloth or tapestry. It looks like something from a Victorian freak show, but it was taken this century and, despite the horror of the wound, has a serene beauty and dignity drawn largely from the surrounding expanse of naked skin.
Most poignant of all is Desiree Dolron's timeless photograph of a seemingly dead child lying on its back, eyes closed. The child is both sexless and ageless, and the skin has a luminescent pallor that suggests it is also lifeless. Even in death, skin has something to say, reversing the cliché that beauty is only skin deep. Here, skin is deeper than mere beauty.

“Skin" is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, until 26 September

Peter Watts blogs at

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide