A Q&A by Melissa Gordon
The fear of dissection was often stronger than the fear of death itself.
—Dr. Corinna Wagner speaking about prisoners in the 1800s
Dr. Corinna Wagner is in the Department of English and the History of Art and Visual Cultures program at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Her department is affiliated with the University’s Centre for the History of Medicine. Her research focuses on the Medical Humanities and the Arts as well as the Body and Identity. Her book Pathological Bodies: Medicine and Political Culture looks at how medicine has affected culture and political and social ideas.
In her interview with Poor Yorick, she discussed the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fascination with human’s movement beneath the skin, recounted the story of James Legg, and talked about the scientific and artistic debate brought to light in “Écorché.”
PY: Can you talk a bit about what écorchés are and how they were (and are) used for the medical field as well as for artists?
CW: Écorché translates as “flayed.” In the Renaissance and then all the way through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, écorché figures were used by both artists and anatomists to get beneath the skin, to observe the muscles and tendons that give the body form and movement.
Écorchés were drawn, painted, and sculpted out of ivory, bronze, ivory, plaster, or wax. Colored wax anatomical écorché figures were the most popular, partly because they looked and felt so lifelike. They reveal, quite remarkably, how closely art and anatomy have been entwined historically. One late Renaissance anatomical text, Bernardino Genga’s Anatomia, represents celebrated classical art figures, such as the Farnese Hercules and the Borghese Gladiator, as écorchés. The Royal Academy has a flayed plaster cast, called Smugglerius, which is a representation of the famous Roman sculpture, the Dying Gaul or Dying Gladiator. This cast was made from the body of a hanged criminal (thought to be a smuggler) whose near perfect form had been spied by the famous anatomist William Hunter.
PY: The poem “Écorché” talks about the plaster cast of the Anatomical Crucifixion of James Legg that hangs in the Royal Academy. I know you are familiar with this image. Have you seen this cast in person?
CW: Yes, I have.
PY: Can I get your reaction to this écorché? I’ve only seen images on screen.
It is an uncanny object, both familiar and unfamiliar, because while it is instantly recognizable as human in form, the external identifiers of individuality, of unique personhood, are gone. It is difficult to imagine what James Legg looked like, and you realize how significant external appearance is to the way we perceive and categorize individuals. Without the hair and skin—without color, wrinkles, scars, and markers of lifestyle—it is difficult to tell how old he was (he was 73) or what he did for a living (a captain, he was a pensioner at the Chelsea Hospital for former members of the British Army).
PY: Legg was hanged and flayed in order to settle an artistic debate about the accuracy of the depiction of the crucifixion. Why are artists specifically so fascinated by écorchés?
CW: This is the story:
In 1801, three members of the Royal Academy—the sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway—asked their surgeon friend, Joseph Constantine Carpue, for a body. They wanted to prove that all those famous historical artistic depictions of the Crucifixion of Jesus were anatomically inaccurate.
Bodies were hard to come by, but later that year a fatal dispute arose in Chelsea. It ended badly: James Legg shot and killed a man named Lamb, was tried and found guilty of murder, and was then sentenced to death by hanging. Surgeon and artists retrieved the still-warm body from the gallows.
What the Legg écorché reveals is that both artists and anatomists shared a belief that the body’s interior held more than the key to understanding the human form. It was the key to understanding the human which was the very thing those artists wanted to capture and communicate in their sculptures and paintings.
PY: I understand there was debate in the 1800s around dissections of bodies. Before 1834, in England, bodies of prisoners were all that could be used. Did these prisoners know what would become of their bodies after death?
CW: Yes, they certainly did. In fact, if you read prisoners’ accounts and other correspondence, the fear of dissection was often stronger than the fear of death itself. While surgeons and anatomists were making arguments about medical advancement and trying to dispel superstitions around dissection, lawmakers exploited those superstitious fears and viewed dissection as part of the punishment. For the Crown, fear of dissection was a deterrent.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and some poverty-stricken criminals sold their bodies before their deaths to anatomists. This was the case, for instance, with convicted criminal William Signal, who was described in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account as a glove-maker and “an honest Man, and has lived in good Credit, though his unhappy Children have brought him low in the World.” Having turned to theft, Signal was found guilty of highway robbery (he stole silver shoe buckles and a silk handkerchief). But, apparently wanting to go out of this world in style, he traded his body for decent clothes on the day of his execution. As the Ordinary recorded it, Signal declared that he was “resolved to die game.”
PY: When I first approached you for this interview, you mentioned working on a book that included James Legg. Can you tell me how you are including James Legg in your current work?
CW: The James Legg story is one of many, many stories of this type, which reveal how in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a concerted attempt to make the body transparent. In this book, Transparency: Medicine and Visual Culture, I explore how artists and anatomists were motivated by a belief that not just the body, but the human, could never be accurately represented or fully understood without understanding the pulsating life of nerves, muscles, bones, and blood beneath the skin’s surface.
Although the maxim to “know thyself” was associated with dissection in the Renaissance, by the eighteenth century, this phrase appeared consistently in both professional and popular medical contexts, from the title pages of medical atlases to public advertisements for anatomical exhibitions. Of all the senses most associated with knowing thyself, sight became the unequivocal ruler in the Enlightenment. New ways of looking produced new ways of representing.
So, representations of the body, and its interior, began to appear increasingly in engravings and paintings as wax models and as écorchés. Increasingly, members of the public had access to these images at exhibitions and museums, in books and other forms of print. They could view dissected body parts and wax anatomical models at places like Dr. Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum. These types of places were the Victorian forerunners to Gunther von Hagen’s Body World shows, which have attracted crowds of people all over the globe since 1995.
PY: Science and arts can in fact blend together. So many times their synergy benefits both fields; both are seeking answers. What are your thoughts on how art can benefit the scientific/medical field?
CW: Historically, art, literature, philosophy, and science have been intimately linked. In fact, in previous centuries physicians were often also poets and artists. There are wonderful medical treatises on diet, hygiene, and environmental health written in poetic form, such as John Armstrong’s 2000-line poem of 1744, The Art of Preserving Health.
Why the relationship between medicine and the arts should be any less so now doesn’t make sense to me. We all live in our bodies, and we will all face medical questions in our lifetimes. I also think that the perception that medicine and the arts are two separate cultures has been in many ways exaggerated. On the simplest level, it stands to reason that artists, writers, and thinkers would address issues about the body, explore questions raised by medical technologies, and represent experiences of disease and death. Art can “translate” science, but more than that, art provides another way of addressing the same big questions and issues that scientists often do.
To find out more information about Dr. Wagner, please visit: http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/english/staff/wagner/.