"Stripped Bare: Dissecting Wax, Print, and Paper Bodies in Antebellum America" by Juliet Sperling

 

"Stripped Bare: Dissecting Wax, Print, and Paper Bodies in Antebellum America" by Juliet Sperling

“Stripped Bare: Dissecting Wax, Print, and Paper Bodies in Antebellum America”
Juliet Sperling

The visual culture of 1840s Philadelphia was teeming with dissected bodies: sliced open, disassembled, and peeled apart layer by layer. As a popular anatomy craze swept the United States, crowds of thousands swarmed to public dissection lectures that featured life-size papier- mâché manikins. In emerging medical museums, visitors watched more delicate demonstrations on the lifelike wax forms of imported Anatomical Venuses. At home, curious viewers rehearsed their own procedures with “dissected plate” anatomy books, illustrated with intricately layered flaps that opened to reveal the body’s hidden depths. Movement dominated these new visions of the body—a soulless animation that living forms could never sustain, marked by excavations, expansions, and penetrations.

This paper explores how these seemingly discrete aesthetic experiences converged on the stage of an emerging mass visual culture. I argue that movement—witnessed, remembered, and reenacted—was the crucial common feature that allowed audiences to suture otherwise disconnected perceptual experiences. In order to reconstruct these imaginative processes, I examine the intersection of two types of mass engagement with movable images of the human form: first, America’s first public exhibitions of lecture manikins and Anatomical Venuses, life-size demountable beauties with medical knowledge hidden beneath their wax flesh; and second, anatomy books with movable “dissected plate” illustrations, printed and distributed widely in the United States beginning in 1846. By tracing how visual knowledge was transmitted between separate media encounters, I identify an important shift in understanding bodily surfaces as increasingly unreliable sites of empirical knowledge.

https://upenn.academia.edu/JulietSperling 

Categories: 
  • Debating Visual Knowledge