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Beautiful Ugliness

Govard Bidloo and the Turn to Anatomical Realism

Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams by Govard Bidloo and Gerard de Lairesse Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams by Govard Bidloo and Gerard de Lairesse

With Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo, anatomical representation entered a new era. Some plates retained iconographical elements, but most were devoid of landscape, metaphor, and classicism. With high artistry, Bidloo flaunted his commitment to empirical observation and naturalistic depiction by showing what other anatomies omitted: the prosthetics of dissection (ropes, props, nails, chains) and the mutilation and ugliness of the dissected body. In producing such images, the anatomist claimed the power to appropriate, and cut into, dead human beings—and demonstrated a masterful clinical detachment, a privileged indifference to the horrors of the anatomy room



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Beautiful Ugliness: Bidloo
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Casting the Artist Aside: the anatomy of John Bell

Engravings of the bones, muscles, and joints by John Bell

Scottish anatomist John Bell (1763-1820) condemned artists and their "vitious practice of drawing from imagination." There was, he insisted, a "continual struggle between the anatomist and the painter, one striving for elegance of form, the other insisting upon accuracy of representation." He solved the problem by drawing, etching and engraving his own illustrations. These challenged nearly every convention of anatomical representation. His dissected bodies and parts lack sumptuous texture and graceful line, and are unleavened by any palliative beauty. Their remarkable ugliness underscored his unyielding allegiance to tough-minded empirical observation.