Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Figures du corps – une leçon d’anatomie aux Beaux-arts at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris

21 october 2008 – 4 january 2009
Galeries du quai
13, quai Malaquais, 75506 Paris
Telephone: 01 47 03 50 00

here and cover, February 2009: Installation shots of the exhibition under view, courtesy of the Ecole des beaux-arts de Paris, 2008
Installation shots of the exhibition under view, courtesy of the Ecole des beaux-arts de Paris, 2008

Figures du corps was a rare insight into the archive of one of the most significant art schools in the world.  The anatomy collection of École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris is an extraordinary resource and archive which the curator Philippe Comar has brought together in a fascinating and surprising way.  This collection’s origins are in the 17th and 18th century Académie that predates the present école.  This exhibition maps the relationship between body, both human and animal, and art education from the Renaissance until the first half of the Twentieth century.

The presentation was thematic and rigourously chronological.  Each time frame is organised as a table of documents under glass with objects placed upon them.    Documents from the earliest section include drawings by Leonardo and an anatomical reference book by Durer.  Progressively, photographs like those of Charcot  or the glass photographic slides used in Richer’s anatomical classes become more numerous.  The objects reflect a similar diversity from Houdin’s early écorché, to animal skeletons and casts famously used as models by the animal sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye.

The show could be viewed on two levels.  The objects and documents are, in themselves,  absorbing purely as works of art; there were Mascagni’s and Gautier-Dagoty’s extraordinary anatomical colour etchings and a series of studies of a dissected horse by Géricault for example.  However the exhibition really came into focus when the objects were viewed as artefacts, objects of knowledge serving as a series of schema representing successive and distinct academic.  Up until the early 19th century these viewpoints reflect the development from Renaissance humanism to the scientific inquiry of the enlightenment. The academies of science and art shared similar concerns for veracity in representation.  However, as the exhibition moves to the upper gallery, the body as a site of objective knowledge begins to become blurred.  Animal bodies feature more as skeletons, mummified corpses or plaster casts made from freshly deceased examples in the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes where Bayre dissected and drew from life.  Taxonomies of ethnicity in the form of Dumoutier’s face plaster masks or photographic studies of women from different continents in the journal Humanité Féminine,  reveal clearly that the academic art school system was at the very least a parallel to the dominant ideological concerns of the time.  These are less than innocent artefacts as they are also being used for the establishment of colonial ethnic arborescences and catalogues of exoticism.  Even more surprising parallels happen when the photograph begins to rival and then displace drawing as the dominant form of documentation in the exhibition.  Charcot’s images of hysteria,  famously discussed by Georges Didi-Huberman, and Duchenne’s photographs of his experiments on the effects of electric currents on muscles reveal an increasing preoccupation with medical pathologies.

The ambiguity of this becomes evident in the period after the Great  War.  The anatomy professors Henry Meiger and Paul Richer begin a practice of making studies of what Meiger describes as the ‘representation of deformity and illness’ .  This comes in complete contrast to the pre – First World War practice of studying the morphologies of athletes at sports competitions held during the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle. Undoubtedly the response to the infirm from professors like Meiger was one of compassion following the post-war trauma that he described as the  ‘lamentable procession of our wounded’.  The period before the Second World War thus offers a chilling proximity of images of the classical ideal of the athlete, in stark contrast to these formal pathologies cataloguing the ‘corps malade’.

By the 1930s the academic system, with its fiction of a classical ideal, was precariously positioned in relationship to fascism.  With the German occupation of Paris and Arno Breker’s exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in 1942 the classical ideal was being put to work in the service of Nazi ideology while their ‘scientists’ had already catalogued the ‘degenerate’ in preparation for the horror of the genocide that was to come.

Like photography, archives produce text, interpretation and ideology. Nowhere more apparent than in the academic art school system, is the correspondence between dominant ideologies  with what many see as the harmless mechanisms of aesthetic systems.  Surprising and palpable throughout this exhibition, is the chilling wind that blows through its taxonomies.  The representation of  Darwinian ‘natural’ selection is so easily derailed in the service of supremacist regimes.  Catalogues of difference and diversity become the unwitting blueprints for totalised and monolithic perspectives.  By the 1920s the conditions for the holocaust can be sensed as an insidious product of its artefacts.

The presence of photography in over half of the chronological breadth of this show is interesting and significant particularly for how art schools can be thought of today.  The anatomical collection is invariably a genealogy of a succession of anatomy professors.  What is interesting is that as the exhibition moves toward the present, there is an awareness of who these people were, what they contributed and how radical their viewpoints could be.  By the mid 19th c century at least, photography was being not only embraced but being harnessed to the production of new forms within the institution of the art school. Mathias Duval’s interest in the movement of the human and animal body led him to develop the first zoetrope, which is the ancestor of cinema, thus bringing the anatomy class into a direct relationship with the history of the moving image.  Under Paul Richer the life model was extensively photographed alongside being drawn, painted and sculpted.  Richer assembled over a thousand glass slides that were projected during his life classes and lectures.  There is a sense in the anatomy class that the photograph was considered to be a graphic medium that was at least a parallel to drawing. At the time, at least this belief was arguably held more by art school institutions than by an informed public.  Interestingly it was via the anatomy class and its professors that mechanical photographic reproduction found its way into the academic system.   This was arguably one of the factors instrumental in challenging its dogmas and canons, releasing drawing from the constraints of artificial rigour and veracity.

What this exhibition reveals is that the academy was never merely a monolithic guardian of a classical system and the stalking horse for salon polemic. The richness of the resources brought together here bear witness to the achievement of  the current anatomy professor at the  Beaux-arts,  Philippe Comar, in curating this show.  It also points up the lack  of scholarship on this subject and the underestimated cultural resource of art school archives.