lunes, 25 de marzo de 2013

An Ode to an Anatomical Venus: Waxing Poetic on the Uncanny Allure of 18th Century Dissectible Women

"Anatomical Venus," wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
An essay from collector, photographer, artist, and friend of the Atlas Obscura, Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy about her love of the Wax Anatomical Venus.
Much of my artwork, scholarship, and work with the Morbid Anatomy Blog and Library revolves around the luxuriously bizarre Anatomical Venus, a kind of female wax anatomical model popularized in the 18th century. Over the past six years, I have made it my goal to find — and photograph! — as many of these amazing pieces as possible, and to learn as much as I can about these lovely ladies, with a special eye towards understanding the historical moment in which they rose to prominence as the ideal way to illuminate the anatomy of woman for a popular audience. I was recently invited to contribute an article on this topic to the "Enchantment" special issue of WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly. Below is an excerpt from this piece, "Ode to an Anatomical Venus," and some of my photographs of these wax women. 
The "Venerina" or "Little Venus" anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Described on the museum website thusly: "The agony of a young woman is represented in her last instant of life as she abandons herself to death voluptuously and completely naked. The thorax and abdomen can be opened, allowing the various parts to be disassembled so as to simulate the act of anatomic dissection."
Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Venus, created around 1790, is the central object of my artistic and scholarly contemplation. She is, in my opinion, the perfect object; one whose luxuriously bizarre existence challenges belief. It — or, better she — was conceived of as a means to teach human anatomy without the need for constant dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught, and subject to quick decay. The Venus also tacitly communicated the relationship between the human body and a divinely created cosmos, between art and science, between nature and mankind as understood in its day.  
Detail of the ”Venerina" (Little Venus) anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy
Referred to also as "The Demountable Venus," this life-sized, dissectible wax woman — who can still be viewed in her original Venetian glass and rosewood case at La Specola Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence, Italy, as well as in a number of other European museums — is adorned with glass eyes and human hair and can be dismembered into dozens of parts revealing, at the final remove, a beatific fetus curled in her womb. Her sisters — also anatomical models made under the artistic leadership of Susini, and referred to by such names as "The Slashed Beauty" and "The Dissected Graces" can be visited at a handful of European museums. Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a gentle smile or an ecstatic downcast gaze; one idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten velvet cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection; another is crowned with a golden tiara, while yet another has a silk ribbon tied in a bow tied around a dangling entrail. 

Anatomical model by Clemente Susini representing "deep lymphatic vessels in a female subject," human hair, wax, 1794, Museum of the History of the University, Pavia, Italy
Since their creation in late-18th century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. Today, they also confound, troubling the edges of our neat categorical divides: life and death, science and art, body and soul, effigy and pedagogy, spectacle and education, kitsch and art. They are corporeal martyrs, anatomical odalisques, the uncanny incarnate. These wax models are the pinnacle of "artificial anatomies," a tradition of three-dimensional, anatomical teaching tools stretching back to the turn of the 18th century. The genre came into being around 1700 when Gaetano Giulio Zummo, known as Zumbo, accepted the commission of French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues to create a likeness of an important medical dissection that was beginning to decompose. Zumbo was a Sicilian abbot who delighted in the creation of wax miniature series “Theatres of Death” boasting names such as "The Plague" and "The Vanity of Human Greatness," and featuring exactingly rendered dead and tortured bodies. The product of Desnoues' and Zumbo's collaboration was the first wax anatomical teaching model, and established the tradition of an artistic/medical partnership in the creation of such tools.

"Slashed Beauty" Wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy;  Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
The Venus and her sisters were intended, from their very conception, not only to instruct, but also to delight and elicit the wonder of a popular audience and, beginning with their public debut in the 1790s, they did just that, attracting throngs of both local Tuscans and visitors on the Grand Tour circuit. Their popularity was so great that they ultimately inspired a series of knockoffs — first a series of similar models by the same workshop for Napoleon and Joseph II of Vienna and, later, in series of models, often advertised as "Florentine" or "Parisian" or even automated breathing Venuses that toured Europe, attracting masses of visitors to the popular anatomical displays found in Europe well into the 20th century. The uncanny allure of these somnambulant, neither-dead-nor-alive women was not lost on surrealist artists such as Paul Delvaux — who cited his visits to the Spitzner Collection (as seen in his painting "Le Musee Spitzner" of 1943), with its famous breathing Venus as a life and art-changing moment — and Marcel Duchamp, whose enigmatic peepshow Étant donnés seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the paradoxes embodied by such figures. 

"The Slashed Beauty"Wax model with human hair in rosewood and Venetian Glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790), "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy
At the time these models were conceived of and created, the anatomy of woman was of great interest, in both the medical and social arenas; the residue of these concerns, as argued by scholar Ludmilla Jordanova in Sexual Visions, can be found in the Anatomical Venus and other anatomical waxes of the era. The anatomy of woman was understood at this time to be the exception to the canonical body of the male: problematic, erratic, and troubling. It was also understood to be intimately tied to the female temperament, which was thought to be sensible (ie, sensitive), nervous, passionate, childlike, passive, and prone to such nervous disorders as hysteria — literally, "wandering womb." Men, in contrast, were understood to be muscular, vigorous, and reasonable. This difference is reflected in the models from the workshop of Susini. Each of his Venuses features a fetus — the raison d’être of woman, after all! — at the last stage of anatomical striptease. And, while male figures can be represented standing or reclining — and more often than not were portrayed completely skinned, demonstrating, say, human musculature — all the female figures are reclining and with their hyper-perfect skin intact, except for the places where the anatomical elements are exposed. The female figure, then, always remains beautiful and, one could argue, sexually desirable, and it is the line between her classic, serene beauty and the abjectness of her innards that adds to her special frisson.  

"Anatomical Venus" Wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
This frisson seemed to be a formula for popular success, so it is no surprise that Susini’s Venus and her sisters were not the first to employ it. Indeed, in 1719, Desnoues, the French surgeon who partnered with Zumbo in the creation of the first anatomical model, exhibited to the public a wax dissectible anatomized woman featuring a newborn child with the umbilical cord still attached. Fourteen years later, the Paris-trained anatomist, surgeon, and modeler Abraham Chovet exhibited in London ‘‘. . . the representation of a woman big with child chained upon a table; supposed to be opened alive. In the face there is a lively display of the agonies of a dying person, the whole body heaving and the hands clinched, the action suitable to the character of the subject.’’ This ingenious piece demonstrated the circulation of the blood during pregnancy via an network of blown glass tubes coursing with blood-red claret. 
You can read the entire "Ode to an Anatomical Venus" piece by clicking here
This piece could simply not exist without the wonderful work of scholars Roberta Ballestriero, Alessandro Riva, Lucia Dacome, Kathryn Hoffmann, Ludmilla Jordanova, Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Anna Maerker, Rebecca Messbarger, and Roberta Panzanelli. A much more detailed bibliography and list of citations can be found in the article itself. I am entirely indebted to their work in all of my research on this topic.
"Anatomical Venuses" Wax models with human hair in rosewood and Venetian glass cases; Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence, 1781-1786 The Josephinum, Vienna, Austria

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domingo, 24 de marzo de 2013

Celebrating Eostara, the Vernal Equinox

The spring equinox is one of the four great solar festivals of the year. Day and night are equal, poised and balanced, but about to tip over on the side of light. The spring equinox is sacred to dawn, youth, the morning star and the east. The Saxon goddess, Eostre (from whose name we get the direction East and the holiday Easter) is a dawn goddess, like Aurora and Eos. Just as the dawn is the time of new light, so the vernal equinox is the time of new life.

The New Year

In many traditions, this is the start of the new year. The Roman year began on the ides of March (15th). The astrological year begins on the equinox when the moon moves into the first sign of the Zodiac, Aries, the Ram. The Greek God Ares is equivalent to the Roman Mars for whom the month of March is named. Between the 12th century and 1752, March 25th was the day the year changed in England and Ireland. March 25, 1212 was the day after March 24, 1211.
I like to celebrate the festival of Nawruz, Persian New Year, which falls on the spring equinox. We fix a special dinner of seven food dishes that begin with ‘S.’ Since we don't know the Arabic names for food, we use English words and eat salad, salami, soup, squash, etc. The table is decorated with a mirror, a bowl of water with one freshly-picked green leaf floating in it, a candleabra containing a candle for every child in the house, a copy of the Koran (or other sacred text), rose water, sweets, fruit, a fish, yogurt and colored eggs.

The Coming of the Spring

Although we saw the first promise of spring at Candlemas in the swelling buds, there were still nights of frost and darkness ahead. Now spring is manifest. Demeter is reunited with her daughter, Kore (the essence of spring), who has been in the Underworld for six months and the earth once again teems with life. The month of March contains holidays dedicated to all the great mother goddesses: Astarte, Isis, Aprhrodite, Cybele and the Virgin Mary. The goddess shows herself in the blossoms, the leaves on the trees, the sprouting of the crops, the mating of birds, the birth of young animals. In the agricultural cycle, it is time for planting. We are assured that life will continue.
Gilbert Murray in Five Stages of Greek Religion writes about the passion behind the Greek celebration of Easter:
Anyone who has been in Greece at Easter time, especially among the more remote peasants, must have been struck by the emotion of suspense and excitement, with which they wait for the announcement, “Christos aneste,” “Christ is risen!” and the response “Alethos aneste,” “He has really risen!” [An old peasant woman] explained her anxiety: “If Christ does not rise tomorrow we shall have no harvest this year.” We are evidently in the presence of an emotion and a fear which, beneath its Christian colouring and, so to speak, transfiguration, is in its essence — a relic from a very remote pre-Christian past.

Resurrection from the Dead

Murray then goes on to recount the myths of the Year Gods — Attis, Adonis, Osiris and Dionysus — who like Christ die and are reborn each year. These gods are always the son of a God and a mortal woman. The son is a savior who saves his people in some way, sometimes through sacrifice. He is the vegetation, dying each year (at harvest) to be reborn in the spring.
In ancient Rome, the 10-day rite in honor of Attis, son of the great goddess Cybele, began on March 15th. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a sepulchre in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. Two days later, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was saved. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment.
Sound familiar? Easter is the Christian version of the same myth. Even the name Easter is stolen. It comes from the Saxon dawn-goddess Eostre, whose festival was celebrated on spring equinox. The date of Easter is still determined by the old moon cycle. It is always the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
On Good Friday, Christ is crucified, a willing sacrifice. Altars are stripped, candles extinguished to represent the darkness of the grave. But on Easter, light springs from darkness, Christ rises from the tomb. If you’ve never attended an Easter vigil, I highly recommend it. (I usually go to a Russian or Greek Orthodox church, so I don’t know what the ceremony is like in other Christian churches.) Shortly before midnight all the lights are extinguished and the thronged church is dark and silent. Everyone is holding an unlit candle. The priest lights the Paschal candle, which has been ritually blessed and inscribed with the year. He then lights the candles of those nearby, who light the candles of their neighbors, until the church is ablaze with light and filled with song.
According to my Catholic missal, one of the prayers used during this part of the service (which is called the Service of the Light) goes like this:
We pray you, therefore, O Lord, that this candle, consecrated in honor of your name, may continue endlessly to scatter the darkness of this night. May it be received as a sweet fragrance and mingle with the lights of heaven. May the morning star find its flame burning, that Star which knows no setting, which came back from limbo. Christ is like the morning Star because he descended into Death (the Underworld) and emerged again, like Attis, like Kore, like Inanna and Ishtar.

Eggs and Seeds

Eggs are one of the symbols of this festival since they represent new life and potential. Folklore tells us (combining two themes of the season) (and Donna Henes has demonstrated in public egg-balancing ceremonies in New York City) that eggs balance on their ends most easily at equinox. Z Budapest in Grandmother of Time says that eggs were dyed red (the color of life) on the Festival of Astarte (Mar 17). The beautifully decorated eggs from the Ukraine (pysanky) are covered with magical symbols for protection, fertility, wisdom, strength and other qualities. They are given as gifts and used as charms.
Seeds are like eggs. While eggs contain the promise of new animal life, seeds hold the potential of a new plant. In ancient Italy in the spring, women planted gardens of Adonis. They filled urns with grain seeds, kept the in the dark and watered them every two days. This custom persists in Sicily. Women plant seeds of grains — lentils, fennel, lettuce or flowers — in baskets and pots. When they sprout, the stalks are tied with red ribbons and the gardens are placed on graves on Good Friday. They symbolize the triumph of life over death.


Blend ideas from the many traditions described above to create your own ceremony to honor the spring. Decorate with budding twigs, flowers, willow catkins, sprouting bulbs. Red and green are the colors of this festival. Red represents blood, the blood of sacrifice and life. Green symbolizes the growth of the plants. Honor various spring deities with their flowers: Narcisus and Hyacinth with those blooms, the red anemone for Adonis, violets for Attis, roses and lilies for the goddesses.
This is the traditional time for a great spring feast and the decoration of the table is as important as the food. There are many traditions from which to choose: Nawruz, Passover, Easter, St Joseph's Day, Maimuna — all are variations on the theme of the spring feast, in which every item is symbolic.
Helen Farias in her seasonal newsletter, Octava, points out that certain foods are associated with springtime festivals: cheese, butter, eggs, pancakes, wheaten cakes, hot cross buns. Since this is a time when young animals are being born, milk is now available for making cheese and butter. In Poland, according to Dorothy Spicer in The Book of Festivals, a little lamb made of butter or sugar is placed in the center of the Easter table, which is laden with food and decorated with eggs, red paper cut-outs and festoons of green. Eggs symbolize new life, of course, and wheaten cakes, grain. In Italy, colored eggs are baked in braided loaves of bread on Easter, combining the two symbols. Hot cross buns, a traditional Easter food, may be very ancient. A wheaten cake marked with a cross was found in Herculaneum, preserved since 79, and may have been used in the spring rites.

Decorating Eggs

This is one of my favorites ways to celebrate spring. I’ve decorated eggs with nail polish, with food coloring and vinegar, with commercial egg dyes and with natural dyes. Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Yeardescribes many natural substances that dye eggs. One of my favorites is boiling a single onion skin with a few eggs to get a soft orange. A handful of onion skins produces rust, a half teaspoon of turmeric gives a sunny yellow and beet juice and vinegar make pink. If you boil eggs with vinegar and several of the outer leaves of cabbage and allow them to cool overnight, the eggs will be a bright robin's egg blue, but they must be handled carefully since the dye comes off easily.
A few years ago, I finally purchased the appropriate tool, a kitska (I got mine in the art supply department of our local university bookstore), and started making pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs). You place a bit of beeswax in the funnel of the kitska, then melt it over a candle flame and draw on the eggshell. It helps to have a lathe to hold the egg if you want absolutely even lines. Begin with a white egg and put wax on all the areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg yellow and cover all the areas with wax which you want to remain yellow, and so forth through orange, red and a dark color (brown, purple or black). When the egg is done, place it in a low temperature over for a few minutes to melt the wax, which is then rubbed off to reveal the intricate designs and glowing colors of your egg. I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the candle, and the trance-like quality of the whole process.
This is a great project for doing with a group. In the Ukraine, only women created these special eggs and they did so at night, when the children were asleep. If you want to use the eggs as talismans, they should be raw and whole (not blown out). Decorate them with symbols of the qualities you wish for yourself and your family and friends in the coming year. For example, draw sprouting leaves on an egg and bury it in your garden to help stimulate your plants.

Blessing and Planting Seeds

Several years ago, my family celebrated with a very simple but effective ritual, based on the ceremony suggested by Nancy Brady Cunningham inFeeding the Spirit. Each person chose a seed or bulb that was meaningful to them. We blessed the seeds with a prayer from Campanelli: Now is the dark half of the year passing Now do the days grow light and the Earth grows warm I summon the spirit of these seeds Which have slept in darkness Awaken, stir and swell Soon you will be planted in the earth To grow and bring froth new fruit Blessed be! We sat quietly and visualized our plants in full bloom. Then we invoked each of the four elements necessary for the plants’ growth. We placed the seed in a pot of soil and patted down the earth, poured water on it, breathed on it to represent air and held the pot over a candle (or up to the sun, if outside) to represent the element fire (the warmth of the sun).
Add another layer of meaning to this ceremony by choosing seeds which represent the things you want tog row during the new year- — wisdom, understanding, patience, etc. Visualize those qualities coming into full bloom 
in your life as you plant your seeds. Blessed Be!!

SourcesBudapest, Zsuzsanna E, The Grandmother of Time, Harper & Row 1989
Campanelli, Pauline, The Wheel of the Year, Llewellyn 1989
Cunningham, Nancy Brady, Feeding the Spirit, Resource Publications 1988 [I believe this is out of print]
Farias, Helen, Octava no longer exists but some of Helen’s writings on seasonal holidays can be found in back issues of The Beltane Papers.
Murray, Gilbert, Five Stages of Greek Religion, Doubleday 1955

viernes, 22 de marzo de 2013

EJ Bellocq and the Storyville prostitutes

EJ Bellocq and the Storyville prostitutes

E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with scratched out face. 

 e j bellocq storyville new orleans prostitute lee friedlander moma vintage photography women naked nude face scratched out negative defaced disturbing 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with mask 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute

E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with scratched out face

E.J.Bellocq photograph of Storyville prostitute with face scratched outStoryville was the legendary red-light district of New Orleans, which famously legalized prostitution between 1898-1917. After its abolition in 1918, the buildings were almost entirely torn down, from the expensive high-class mansions to the cheap “cribs”. Today, little remains of this once “unofficial American capital of vice”, where madams had the status of local celebrities and the first notes of jazz were played.

Some of the only visual evidence that exists from Storyville are these haunting images of prostitutes, taken  in the first two decades of the 20th century by an obscure photographer named E. J. Bellocq. These photographs were a secret side project of Bellocq, who made his living photographing far more banal things like landmarks and ships for local companies. Hidden in a sofa until after Bellocq’s death, the glass negatives we thrust into the consciousness of the art world in 1970, when they were acquired by artist Lee Friedlander, who reprinted the Storyville images as part of an exhibition at MoMA in New York.

E.J.Bellocq photograph of Storyville prostitute with face scratched outPerhaps the most unsettling element of these pictures are the mysteriously scratched out faces of many of the prostitutes. Although some have speculated that this was the work of E J Bellocq’s brother, a Jesuit priest who inherited the negatives, experiments by Lee Friedlander proved that the scratching had to have taken place during the processing of the negatives; hence, E J Bellocq must have been the de-facer.
Why scratch out the faces? 

In other photographs, many of the women wear masks, presumably to hide their identity; could this be the motivation? And was this at the request of his models? Despite making a living selling their bodies, did some of the Storyville prostitutes draw the line at surrendering their image? Or, did the masking and scratching come from Bellocq? 

E.J.Bellocq photograph of Storyville prostitute with face scratched outPerhaps it was more about an extreme fetishisation of the body, completely divorced from an identity or humanity? To the best of anyone’s knowledge, these photographs were never circulated or sold for profit by Bellocq. They were his private encounters; could the taking of each pictures be considered a sort of sex act in itself? His unsettling images open up more questions than they answer.

One last interesting fact: Bellocq was often described as “insane, hunchbacked, grotesque, dwarfish, or hydrocephalic”. His physical aberration is perhaps what allowed him to move freely as a social outsider within this world of social outsiders. Could his gesture of scratching the face be a reaction to the experience of his own corporeal experience? Bellocq’s photographs, as well as his treatment and relationship to the body, have had a major influence on many contemporary photographers: for example, check out the grotesque and stylized photographic tableaux of Joel-Peter Witkin here and here, who was strongly influenced by Bellocq and his legend.

E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with scratched out face 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with full body stocking. 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute 

E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute
E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute with striped stockings 

 E.J. Bellocq's photograph of Storyville prostitute

Real Hero

jueves, 21 de marzo de 2013

Pipe Dream

Images via

viernes, 8 de marzo de 2013

The 16-Inch Waist Of Émilie Marie Bouchaud

In the late 19th century, "tightlacing" among women was in vogue. Émilie Marie Bouchaud or "Polaire" was famous for her tiny, corseted waist, which was reported to have a circumference no greater than 16 inches and at one time measured 14.

The algerian-born singer and actress's striking appearance, both on and off stage, contributed to her celebrity. For her 1910 supposed "debut" in New York she provocatively allowed herself to be billed in the advance publicity as "the ugliest woman in the world" and departing on a transatlantic liner she was apparently accompanied by a "black slave"returning to America in 1913, she brought a diamond-collared pet pig, Mimi, and wore a diamond nose ring. Talk of her figure and her lavish overdressing in fur coats and dazzling jewels preceded her appearances wherever she went.

French poet Jean Lorrain said of her:
"The tiny slip of a woman that you know, with the waist slender to the point of pain, of screaming out loud, of breaking in two, in a spasmically tight bodice, the prettiest slimness ...What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-mill and what a belly-dancer! Yellow skirt tucked high, gloved in open-work stockings, Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly, mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls...trembling like a stuck wasp, miaows, faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud."

 The old tradition of corset-training is alive and well today, although is seen more of an oddity nowadays as opposed to a fashion or extreme version of the norm.

Currently the smallest waist belongs to Cathie Jung (USA, b. 1937), who stands at 1.72 m (5 ft 8 in) and has a corseted waist measuring 38.1 cm (15 in).