The anatomy lesson | Ian Potter Museum of Art

The anatomy lesson

31 Aug 2012 — 19 Jan 2013

Guest curator: Jenny Long

The anatomy lesson includes a wonderful range of images and objects sourced from the university’s many distinctive collections. Seventeenth-century anatomical texts and prints from the Special Collections at the Baillieu Library are juxtaposed with paintings and drawings from the University of Melbourne Art Collection and the Victorian College of the Arts Collection. The exhibition is laid out in the form of a giant atlas of the human body, with the feet pointing west and the brain contained within the annex gallery to the east.

Anatomia is an ancient personification of division who carried a mirror and a knife, dangerous accessories that point to two of the many lessons of anatomy to be found in this exhibition. In the case of Anatomia these are the lessons of reflection and dissection.

Images of dissection crowd the pages of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century anatomical texts included in this exhibition, from the convivial cadavers of William Cowper to the elegant idealized bones of Albinus. Dissection is also a much beloved metaphor of contemporary artists like Sally Smart who, in her 1994 work, Anatomy lesson, pulled apart and opened up that other famous image of art and medicine, The anatomy lesson of Nicholas Tulp by Rembrandt.

The anatomy lesson also includes traditional drawing and figures studies by National Gallery School students in Melbourne. These historical works emphasize the play of muscles and tendons under the skin and the weight and texture of charcoal and pencil. Life drawing is a lesson in volumes and surfaces, and at its best it’s also evidence of intense reflection.

Reflection in the form of self-knowledge is a lesson found in much of the contemporary work in this exhibition. Siobhan Murphy’s dance video work looks at the way the body reveals underlying emotion through tiny gestures. Artist Ruth Hutchinson looks at us through eyes of folded paper and surprises us with her heart and lungs of knitted silk and optic fibre. Hutchinson specializes in a particular kind of restrained, often beautiful art that is scientific in appearance yet frequently contains a lesson that is unsettling and intimate.

Artists and anatomists share a long history of imagining the body, using their knowledge of what can be ‘seen’ to reveal and understand what is ‘unseen’—the life that lies beneath the surface. The anatomy lesson celebrates this shared history as one of three exhibitions that have been envisioned and organized under the overall title A body of knowledge, which marks 150 years since the foundation of the Melbourne Medical SchoolOther exhibitions include The art of teaching: models and methods, held in the Baillieu Library, and The art of teaching: the clinical schools, held at the Medical History Museum (Brownless Biomedical Library).