Dissecting The Morbid Beauty Of 18th Century Anatomical Figures
What do you think of when you think of the word “morbid?”
Do you see mall teens, regal in their goth apparel? Or is it a scene of witches that dances through your mind, the images of green skin over cauldron pots which dangle from the roof of your mother’s house every Halloween? Do you see the grim reaper? That is to say, do you see something untouchable?
Joanna Ebenstein has been called morbid all her life, and yet everything about her subverts the term. I make the mistake of calling her macabre, which she challenged immediately.
Not macabre. Not any other word you can find in your thesaurus. Simply morbid.
It was this very specific identification which inspired Ebenstein to open Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, alongside co-founder Tracy Hurly Martin. Half library, half inexplicable, the museum has been known to feature everything from adorable memento moris, to items highlighting the dying art of mourning, Victorian stage magic, and “torture theatre,” to figures whose rapturous gazes and layered history have inspired Ebenstein to write the book The Anatomical Venus.
The Anatomical Venus looks at changing views of death, religion, and the human body through its namesake, the wax figure also known as the Anatomical Venus, which was created in the late 18th century for the purpose of studying anatomy without the messiness of dissection. To see her in person is to be immediately awed by her lifelike appearance. She doesn’t pose like a darling of Madame Tussauds—she reclines. Her opened chest cavity invites you to dip a hand inside and observe the liver, the stomach, the surprisingly still heart. She is, simply put, a relic of another time.
We caught up with Ebenstein halfway across the globe (she was in Amsterdam, working on one of her many pop-ups) to talk bodies, and the duality of death and beauty.
What draws you to the macabre, and what do you think we can learn from it?
I challenge the word the macabre. I think the principals of the Anatomical Venus are what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the fact that there was a time when it was seen appropriate to create something like the Anatomical Venus, which was equal parts education and entertainment. My background is in cultural history, and I’m very interested in how the past deals with the dead body and how the narrative of the dead body looks so bizarre to us.
“I’m interested in images of the tension between the subjects of death and beauty.”
The Morbid Anatomy Museum definitely is interested in death. I personally don’t find the things we do macabre. To me, I feel like this thing that doesn’t quite correlate are what we think of as two opposite ideas. I’m not interested in death per se, and I’m not interested in horrific images of death. I’m interested in images of the tension between the subjects of death and beauty.
I was very surprised, reading through this book, to see so many of these figures being described as a “Venus,” or “Beauty,” and being made to look very erotic.
When you look in churches in Italy, you see so many saints in similar expressions, that kind of head thrown back in ecstasy, and no one was criticizing this. At the same time that these Venuses were on display, you had other museums ordering copies—they were popular. So most people didn’t see them as inappropriate at the time.
What do you think is responsible for us seeing them as erotic today?
When the Venus was created, there was still this idea that the human body was not just a machine. There were other interpretations of the ecstatic where it could be about a mystical experience, about unifying yourself with the greater world, with the greater universe, about losing the boundaries of your ego. I believe that most people today—and most people back then as well, unless you were a saint or a visionary—the closest they get to that feeling of mystical ecstasy is spiritual ecstasy. I do think that there is a sort of relationship between the two, but I don’t think people looked at those back then and saw an erotic ecstasy.
“Is she really dead? Her eyes are open, she’s looking at you.”
Why do you think there is such a focus on the female figures?
There is this great book by Ludmilla Jordanova called Sexual Visions. The argument that she makes is that in the 18th century when these Venuses were first created, men were seen as kind of normal in anatomy. The body of a woman was seen as “other,” and the things that made her other were the things that differentiated her from the male body—the ability to give birth, the breasts that could feed the child, and then also the nervous system. Women at the time were seen as more “sensitive,” so they were thought at the time to have a more robust nervous system. So women were defined by this sort of temperament they had, by this greater sensitivity to the world, by their womb, and by their breasts.
The Anatomical Venus also looks extremely peaceful. It’s a very beautiful death in comparison to an actual cadaver.
Is she really dead? Her eyes are open, she’s looking at you, so it’s distancing anatomy from death. She doesn’t look to be in pain. There was an earlier female model shown before the Anatomical Venus, and the way it is described is that she is chained down on a table as if she were in so much pain, being dissected. So it depends on the person making the model as well—this person believed that, because they were alive, they would be in pain. But the Venus is depicted as a beautiful woman who is calm, placid, as though you are just interrupting her lying on the couch.
At the same time, there were these sort of horrific stories circulating at the time of men, such as Carl Tanzler, who was so enamored with a former patient of his that he preserved her dead body in wax and lived with her. There is this idea of wax being a way to preserve beauty.
I think that that even goes back to the church. The churches, which first created these figures, were all about preserving anatomy. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Italy or Spain, but a lot of Catholic countries still have these sorts of women in boxes. Not entirely like the Venus—they are clothed often, but they’re representing something else.
The body has a central importance in Catholicism, so I think that this idea of preserving the body [runs] really, really deep. In the secular world, it’s a way of dealing with loss and death. But in the medical world and in the Catholic world it’s about magic, really. Relics, the remains of saints, are seen as having power, and if you have them you attract pilgrims—it’s like a big business.
I know that we as a society today are so obsessed with preserving the body, and youth and beauty, but I had never considered the relationship between that and religion.
I find it interesting too, and it wasn’t where I was intending to go when I started the project. When I initially read about the Anatomical Venus, I read a lot of articles and then I thought, let me just go to Italy so that I can understand what’s going on. And when I went to these churches I really began to think about it. I thought of its relationship with medicine. Medicine at the time that Venus was created was sort of seen as arbitrating our relationship with life and death. And if religion no longer holds that answer for you, you find that science does, for most people. If we’re wondering why something is the way it is and the nature of life and death, most people turn to science.
I find a lot of similarities between the Venus and certain figures in the church, which makes sense since that’s how so many artists were trained, but there is an overlap in meaning as well. So many people are afraid of death and need a meaning system that explains it for us in a way that we accept. At the same time, we don’t see death anymore and so it has become “othered.” People at the time these pieces were made saw death all the time. They butchered their own animals, when people died they were laid out in the home. So much of death seems so strange to us now because it has become so outsourced and exotic. And there’s no other time in history that that even could be the case in time. We are unique in thinking that there is something to be done about it. I think that people at heart think that we’ll fix the death problem someday. I don’t really believe that, but I think that all these advances we have made in medicine have made people believe that.
Right. Because how many articles have you seen about people living into their 100s? The first thing they’re asked about is how they got to live to such an old age.
And people love it!
Part of why I called this project Morbid Anatomy was because I had been called morbid my entire life because I was interested in things dealing with death. And at the time I thought, yeah, I guess I really am morbid. And then I thought well, why? Do I really think that it’s morbid to think about death? If everyone is going to die and everyone who’s ever lived has died, it’s the one thing other than being born that unites us all. And I think there’s something really absurd and childish in thinking it’s not going to happen as though it’ll go away. And saying that you can’t talk about it outside of horror movies or being a goth is morbid in itself. There’s a group of us that hopes to challenge this idea. It’s really nice to see.
Check out The Anatomical Venus, on sale now.
Stay tuned to Milk for more morbid things. We’re disturbed!