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Exhibition Explores Anatomy of Gender

December 13, 2005 | by Judy Moore

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new exhibition at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art will show how anatomical studies from early modern medicine drew upon preconceived notions of gender based on artistic conventions, despite their presumed scientific objectivity.

The winter 2006 exhibition “The Anatomy of Gender: Arts of the Body in Early Modern Europe,” on view in the museum’s Alsdorf Gallery Jan. 3 to March 12, explores how anatomical illustrations from the 16th through 18th centuries represented gender and sexual differences.

“Male and female anatomical differences seem to be self-evident, neutral truths of biology,” said Lyle Massey, assistant professor of art history at Northwestern and the exhibition’s curator. “Yet when the tenets of early modern medicine began to emerge in the West, male and female bodies were subjected to diverse social, religious and cultural characterizations that were anything but neutral.”

Beginning with the 1543 publication of Andreas Vesalius’ groundbreaking treatise on the human body, “De humani corporis fabrica,” iconography from classical antiquity and medieval Christianity informed the portrayal of sexual differences in anatomical studies.

“In adopting these iconographies, early Modern anatomists reinforced cultural tendencies to describe biological differences in terms of pre-existing social identities,” Massey said.

According to Massey, the ideal male figure in these drawings is the ‘écorché,’ a representation of the human body in which the skin is removed to reveal the location and interplay of the muscles underneath. “By focusing on muscular anatomy, the “écorché” attributes the principles of motion and action to a masculine body and temperament,” Massey said. Female anatomical drawings, on the other hand, focused on the reproductive organs. “Female figures displayed their anatomized pelvic cavities to the spectator’s view in poses that were often quite erotic. These female figures underscore the idea that passivity and reception of the gaze are essential feminine attributes.”

The exhibition will include a variety of two- and three-dimensional anatomical images, from flap sheet anatomies and prints to small-scale ivory sculptures with removable organs. An illustrated brochure with essays by Massey and Northwestern University art history graduate students will accompany the exhibition. A companion Web site with additional images and essays will be available online at <anatomyofgender.northwestern.edu>.

In addition, Massey has organized an international panel of art historians, cultural theorists and science historians for a daylong symposium to discuss the impact of anatomical images across disciplines and other issues raised by the exhibition “The Anatomy of Gender: Arts of the Body in Early Modern Europe.” The “Anatomy of Gender” symposium will be held at the Block Museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28. It is organized under the auspices of the Northwestern University department of art history and the Myers Foundations.

The Block Museum is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive, on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.  For more information, call (847) 491-4000 or visit the Block Museum Web site at www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.

Topics: Campus Life