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The Art of Medicine: Mapping the Body in 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination

From ancient etchings to electron microscopes, or what aspirin has to do with visualizing consciousness.

Since time immemorial, humanity has been turning its gaze outward, ordering the heavens, and inward, mapping the mind, in an effort to better understand who we are and where we belong. The human body itself has always been a fascinating frontier of inquiry as we’ve bridged art and science to visualize the living fabric of our shared existence. The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination (public library) offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a breathtaking selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. Contextualized by medical historian Julie Anderson and science writers Emm Barnes and Emma Shackleton, these magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Organ Man, with Arteries, the Stomach and Internal Organs, artist unknown, from The Apocalypse, c. 1420–1430
ink and watercolor
Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London
Nude Female Anatomical Figure, artist unknown, from Arzneibuch, 1524–c. 1550
color wash and ink
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London
Charles Williams (1798–c.1830), 25 June 1813
etching with watercolor
Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London
El hombre como palacio industrial (Man as a Palace of Industry), Fritz Kahn 1888–1968, 1930
color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London

(For a related treat, see this 2009 student animation based on Kahn’s iconic infographic.)

Artist Anthony Gormley writes in the foreword:

The body is the root of all our experience, through it all our impressions of the world come and from it all we have to share with the world is expressed. A collection such as Wellcome’s is an extraordinary resource for thinking about the body, both as a thing, a metaphor, and the place where we all live and on which our consciousness depends.

We live in and with the body, yet as many of the images here show, we need to constantly re-imagine it. Wellcome’s collection, open to the convergence of the forensic and the imaginative, allows for the mind of the curious to recognize the body as a time machine headed on an ultimately entropic journey.”

Aspirin Crystals, Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, 2006
color enhanced scanning electron micrograph
color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph
Image courtesy of Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, Wellcome Images, London
Quinidine Crystals, Spike Walker, 2006
polarised light micrograph
Image courtesy of Spike Walker, Wellcome Images, London
Day 711, The Daily Stream of Consciousness, Bobby Baker, 2008
watercolour and pencil
etching with watercolor
Image courtesy of Bobby Baker, Wellcome Images, London

(You might recall Baker’s Drawing Mental Illness, superb in its entirety, from pickings past.)

Equal parts fascinating and fanciful, The Art of Medicine is a magnificent almanac of the body’s timeless mystery and its visual vocabulary.

Published February 3, 2012




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