Inside out

Art - Lisa Jardine on the horrifying beauty of the anatomised body

"Spectacular Bodies", currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, is not an exhibition for the squeamish, nor for those of a nervous disposition. Here is an exhibition that sets out to unsettle and trouble us, to jar us into looking beneath the consoling familiarity of the outside of the body and at the disturbing, disordered moral void of its internal organs. Its purpose is not headline-grabbing sensationalism, but rather to shock us into thinking afresh about the close and intense historical relationship between the science of anatomy and those figural, aesthetic representations of the human body that we call "art".

The exhibition's project is to explore the ways in which, since the Renaissance, the job of understanding the human condition via the body has been shared between science and art. The curators, Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, have succeeded brilliantly in catching and holding our attention, compelling us to give serious thought to the permeable boundary between medicine and art. They have succeeded in getting right under our skin.

Kemp and Wallace have raided the medical museums of Europe and crammed the Hayward Gallery with realistic two- and three-dimensional representations, laid on canvas, drawn, etched or modelled in wax, of the human body anatomised - its outer surfaces peeled back to reveal the viscera beneath, lovingly reproduced as objects of horrifying beauty. Indeed, although the subject matter is gruesome, beauty is very much part of these utilitarian medical creations, most of which were designed as teaching aids.

In the 18th century in particular, artist and surgeon collaborated to make sure that the anatom-ised body retained its huma-nity, thereby raising moral questions alongside the medical. The exquisite wax figures of female bodies with their viscera exposed are probably the most disturbing elements of this exhibition. Clemente Susini's Reclining Female Figure, laid on her back on a rumpled sheet, in bedroom pose, is unsettlingly erotic. Her legs, modelled in luminous and seductively smooth flesh-coloured wax, are elegantly angled, her head is thrown back, her long, plaited hair decorously arranged over her shoulders. But her belly has been slashed open, her inner organs laid out in magnificent wax detail for our examination. Andre-Pierre Pinson's Anatomy of a Seated Woman similarly combines the anatomically instructive with the familiar postures and sensibility of late 18th-century art. Pinson's pretty, dark-haired, naked young woman, her private parts concealed beneath coyly arranged drapery, takes up the pose of a nymph resisting the amorous attentions of a god or satyr. Seen from behind, she leans away from some unwanted attention and gestures to protect herself, a familiar figure of female modesty. But from the front, her outer flesh is cut away from the breastbone to the hips, her coloured-wax heart, lungs and intestines exposed.

This commitment to the aesthetic of the body alongside its analytical dissection is less unusual than we might think. From the 15th to the 19th century, the detailed lessons of dissection were an equally important part of the training of both the artist and the physician. In Cornelis Troost's large-scale painting The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Willem Roell, the bewigged surgeon fixes the onlooker's gaze as he points to the flayed knee joint of the corpse in front of him, instructing us on its mechanisms. To his left sits a well-dressed man, his gloved hand firmly grasping a cane. He, too, is animated by the exposed knee joint. The message is clear: the man with the bad knee expects the surgeon's hands-on exploration of anatomy to help cure his own complaint.

In a contrasting painting by Francois Salle, The Anatomy Lesson at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the professor of fine art points out the muscles in the wrist of a male model to a roomful of attentive young men. On the wall are large, coloured medical engravings of the human body, its parts and organs labelled for reference. Illuminated as the focus of the painting is a life-sized plaster figure of a flayed man - the technical term is an ecorche, a cadaver from which all the skin has been removed for closer study of the organisation of the muscles beneath. This figure has been transformed from anatomy specimen into potential art object by being placed in death, for plaster copying, in the pose of an antique discus-thrower. Such "artistic" ecorches were, we are told, something of a feature of the art academy classroom throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is when we encounter the astutely chosen pieces of 20th-century art which form an integral part of this exhibition that we begin to take to heart the lessons learnt from Kemp and Wallace's carefully organised exhibits. Works by prominent contemporary artists, including Christine Borland, Marc Quinn, Bill Viola, Tony Oursler and Katharine Dowson, are distributed throughout the gallery, to be encountered at unpredictable moments as we follow the argument from anatomical drawings to catalogues of facial expressions, from the Royal Academy's anatomy classes to Charcot's public demonstrations of hysteria.

Dowson's Pia Mater, a giant backbone of illuminated blown glass, suspended in a darkened stairwell, becomes a vivid meditation on the human condition, on our physical fragility, beauty and mortality. In a similar way, so does Bill Viola's Science of the Heart. This installation juxtaposes a reassuringly tidy sickbed with huge, close-up video images of open-heart surgery, complete with amplified heartbeat, which judderingly becomes audible as the exposed heart is jolted into action. In another context, Viola's piece might smack of voguish sensationalism. Here, it belongs securely to a tradition that asks us to go beneath the comforting, contained morality of an aesthetically organised human experience, down to its precarious, fractured, fragile organic substance.

The exhibition provides the context: the aesthetic reassures and draws us towards an organic reality that we confront reluctantly, and with dismay. Yet here, as the surgeon knows, is the bottom line of mortality and, perhaps, also of morality. Standing in the darkness under the heart's insistent beat, we can recognise in Viola's installation the repeated struggle to make a collection of organs, fluids and mechanical operations cohere into meaning as "humanity", to locate the soul within the human body.

"Spectacular Bodies: the art and science of the human body from Leonardo to now" is at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7960 4242) until 14 January

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Her latest book, Global Interests: Renaissance art between east and west, is published by Reaktion Books (£25)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis