<ul><li>Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson </li></ul><ul><li>Lawrence Weschler </li></ul><ul><li>Emeritus Artistic Director for th...
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in...5

Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson


Published on

Emeritus Artistic Director of The Chicago Humanities Festival, Lawrence Weschler, discusses one of Rembrandt's most famed paintings, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp", and provides a brief history of anatomical art. Rembrandt's contribution, by way of this painting, embodies several different interpretations that go beyond the scope of what is seen at first glance. Additionally, Rembrant's composition, decisions, and mastery add a unique context to the piece.

In Weschler's comprehensive analysis of this work, connections between various ideas start to emerge. We discover the significance behind the laws of the era, the role our hands play in defining us, the marvel of life in light of another's death, and find influences from the painting in more modern images, like that of Che Guevara after his death in 1967. These thoughts and the dawn of the secular revolution are also examined, alongside the portrayal of Christ that Rembrandt's piece often evokes.

  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total Views
On Slideshare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide
  • This image, one of the most iconically identifiable in the entire Western canon…
  • Ms Ju Duoqi, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Pickled Cabbage
  • The year is 1632
  • The artist Rambrandt, but not the one we usually think of, not this fellow here Rembrandt 1660
  • Rather: Self portrait 1629 In 1632, he is 26 years old (b. 1606, will die in 1669) He has just arrived in Amsterdam and with this commission, as it were, is laying out his shingle. He is open for business.
  • He has come from Leiden, with its famous anatomical theater, 1612 (Crispin van de Passen) First recorded public anatomical dissection in 1315 Bologna
  • Growing tradition of artists using anatomical guides Guilio Cesare Casseri, 1552-1616
  • Also casseri: equal opportunity back-peeler
  • Jehan Cousin, c 1522-1593 Note the goofy finger
  • Likewise a tradition of guilds of doctors being portrayed at anatomical lessons: Aert Pieterz, Anatomy Lesson Of Sebastian Egbertsz, 1603 Note what Harry Berger refers to as the general fictiousness of the genre (each actually portrayed separately reconstituted as if at a single event)
  • Thomas de Keyser, The Officers of the Surgical Guild, 1619
  • M J van Miervelt ’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Willem van der Meer, 1617 Berger on “competitive posing” Note more traditional anatomical dissection begins with belly (since it is putrifying much more quickly)…
  • As for that matter here as well, back in Leiden
  • Till we arrive at this one. Much more dramatic. the poses more active, or as Harry Berger insists, “as if active”: now competing who can seem like he is posing the least, who is best at seeming not to pose. Again, I’m dubious. Dr. Nicolas Tulp, dean of Amsterdam anatomists And two pyramids of gazers: Outer group gazing out; Inner group gazing into the heart of the image, at something else, but at what? (The guy on far right an outlyer, an afterthought, as if he showed up late, the point agan being that they were all done separately, based on a group commission, he might have been an afterthought)
  • And in the middle of it all, a corpse. January 1632 the body of Adrian Adrianszoon, alias Aris Kindt, petty thief, Executed at age 28, hours earlier, “for grave assault and battery that had endangered the life of a man whose cloak he was endeavoring to steal” One interpretation: Men of property and standing smugly attending a theater…of what happens to someone who would upend the cult of property A throwback, too, to the earlier tradition of flaying and quartering those sentenced to death (mortifying the body in the presence of the still present soul) Mieke Bal: “the social theater of mastery” Naaah…
  • Dissected, at any rate, In January (keep the corpse cool) before a paying audience at the Waaggebuow in Amsterdam (that being what the outer three are looking at—at us, in the audience)
  • Outer group looking out at us in the audience
  • WG Sebald (Rings of Saturn): It is odd that Dr Tulp ’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it…
  • … to focus on the anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram ” (…)
  • Except, even though Sebald is not alone in making this assertion, clearly nobody is looking at the book (very much an academic book writer ’s thing to imagine), but oh well. Still, continuing with Sebald: {they} focus on the anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of human being, such as envisaged by …
  • Rene Descartes (1596-1650) Sebald: (…) the enthusiastic amateur anatomist Rene Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw. In his philosophical investigations {Discourse on Method 1637}, which form one of the principal chapters of the history of subjection, Descartes {will } teach that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault either repaired or discarded ”
  • Thomas Browne (1605-1682) Studying medicine in Leiden in 1630s Years later, describing a great fog that shrouded both London and Holland, “like the white mist that rises from within a body opened presently after death and which, during our lifetime, clouds our brain when asleep or dreaming”
  • Meanwhile,Sebald claims to notice something else as well: “ Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from an anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact center of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced with an unfortunate blunder. Rather I believe that there was a deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Carteisian rigidity. He alone sees the greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes.”
  • Nice, though wrong about the supposed misrepresentation of the hand. Rembrandt has it right.
  • Sebald IS right though about hands constituting the very centerpoint of the painting ’s meaning…
  • Even more so now that we realize the other hand was painted in afterwards (had been chopped off as part of the ritual of the execution of this thief): note grey discoloration.
  • Hands hardly being neutral sign—long an object of theological marvel: the genius of a Creator who could fashion such an ingenious contraption—and especially so in the language of painting, certainly ever since Michelangelo ’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel (1511)
  • Note the skull like brainlike cranium from out of which Michelangelo ’s god seems to be extending his hand, complete with hippocampus there at the bottom
  • Come to think of it, note the startlingly brainlike cranial enclosure of light in Rembrandt ’s painting
  • Anyway: WS Heckscher has suggested that Tulp “wishing to appear as Vesalius redividus of his age, had Rembrandt portray him as the sixteenth century anatomist is shown in the 1543 first edition of his masterpiece De humani corporis fabrica (on the Fabric of the Human Body)
  • Andreas Vesalius 1514-1564, shown here in the author ’s photo facing the frontispiece of his first edition, exactly as if a luxury fabric salesman—would you like a bolt of this drapery?
  • It comes in deep crimson
  • Digression: It has been noted, elsewhere, by the poet RA Villanueva, how similar Jan van Calcer ’s 1543 frontispiece to that edition, is to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the Sistine Chapel, famously completed just two years earlier, in 1541.
  • Including Michelangelo ’s own flayed skin in the corner
  • But let ’s return to the Rembrandt image, and to what the central group actually are looking at. Tulp is displaying how with the flexores digitorum muscles of the lower arm, which he is singling out with his forceps…
  • … you can curl your fingers like this…
  • And the three gazers are dumbfounded, stilled in astonishment
  • This guy has one eye gazing at professor ’s hand, the other at the dissected arm, like a movie
  • Are they marvelling at god ’s creation, or at Tulp’s (ie man’s) ingenuity at having figured it all out? We are at any rate on the cusp of the secular (Spinoza: born 1632)
  • Gazing, at any rate, upon the marvel of manipulability. Eye and Vision. The fundaments of painting itself
  • And beyond that: Astonishment at the miraculous complexity of life rather than horror at the inevitable facticity of death This is far from being a morbid picture, it is a celebration of life, and of the insistence on life, and knowing
  • As is the case with other famous seemingly morbid images Sara Terry, Dr Ewa Klonowski, Hands in the Grave, 2002 Bosnia
  • Or Gilles Peress ’s slightly earlier version of Death and the Professor (Pieta like) Dr William Haglund, 1996 These are images about life and the living—not death
  • Martin Rowson Guardian cartoon after Milosevic ’s death, March 2006 1632 incidentally the very midpoint of the horrific Thirty Years War in neighboring Germany, which will end in 1648, which by way of Hugo Grotius of Delft --On Just Wars(1625)--will lead to the body of law that grounds the international tribunals today Speaking of Delft: 1632: birth of Vermeer in Delft.
  • Returning to the Rembrandt: Note how similar the man leaning over the corpse looks to the corpse. Vanitas (you too will die someday), but not simply vanitas.
  • Rather, now that we look at it again, the corpse bears a conspicuous likeness, especially with that loincloth, to standard iconography of that other man, famously executed as if a common thief, crucified, flanked by thieves, and then taken down from the cross, as in images like
  • Mantegna, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1490
  • He died for our sins, and he will rise again.
  • This in turn leads a to a final digression, or mind excursion
  • By way of my own main master, the anatomist of vision at whose feet I like to think I studied at the outset of my own career: John Berger,
  • Who, in 1967, at the time of the killing of Che Guevarra… said we all know what this picture is based on, the image, as if hotwired in their brains, that taught the general where to stand and the photographer where to place his vantage
  • But it only works because at the time of his death, Guevara looked like this, and not, say,
  • Like this Guess who: Che, disguised as an Argentinian businessman for his passport photo, on his way to the Congo, 1965
  • It is because he looked like this that you go from
  • this
  • By way of this
  • Through here
  • To here
  • And eventually here
  • And naturally, given the tenor or our own age: here. (My favorite chant from the Jon Stewart Rally: “Three Word Phrase”) And to be clear, I am not talking through this entire excursus about the ideological or political value, or lack thereof, of Che ’s worldview, but rather how images prepare the ground for other images…
  • Anyway, in sum, returning to Rembrandt, With this image we are at The nexus of religion, medicine and law Diet diet / regimen regime /proper constitution/ the body and the body politic (Hobbes too b1588, and hence 44 in 1632, is thinking about all this: Leviathan 1651) … and in Amsterdam, a 26 year old painter is bringing them all together, masterfully…
  • … and rendering them into art.
  • Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson

    1. 1. <ul><li>Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson </li></ul><ul><li>Lawrence Weschler </li></ul><ul><li>Emeritus Artistic Director for the Festival </li></ul>