With the landmark publication of De humani corporis fabrica in 1543, Vesalius may have forever linked human anatomy, at least pictorially, with the aesthetics of the sixteenth-century woodcut—its perfect draftsmanship, edifying gore, and rather ham-handed theatricality. His muscle men are skinned and alone in the hills of Veneto, among wild cypress and the cobbles of a Roman ruin, dead but athletic, striking monkish poses (think Bellini’s Saint Francis in Ecstasy: arms slack, palms open, lips parted) while their faces are doleful if not pared down to sinewy goobers. This motif begat the Renwal brand “Visible Man” hobby kits of the late 1950s, and these histrionics begat the commercial spectacle of Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition series, the all-cavorting, all-franchising Cirque du Soleil of cadavers. But none of these carcasses, whether rendered with black-ink crosshatches or impregnated with silicon rubber, will draw flies. None stink. Such methods cannot really depict the pallor, inflammation, seepage, crustiness, and putrescence of actual pathology. For that we must turn to color lithography—its hazy touches of grease crayon, deli-meat marbling, and spongiform textures, its ability to purple bruises and make mucus look convincingly wet.
Although The Sick Rose includes photographs of a leper’s crutches, prosthetic noses, and a “medicated balsamic chest protector,” it is for the most part a treasury of the most handsome and curious lithographic prints found in nineteenth-century clinical textbooks. It is the suppurating crème of medical illustration. Serious stuff but also gross, and perhaps more like sideshow banner art or Ripley’s Believe It or Not! than Richard Barnett’s scholarly (and wonderful) text might admit. No freakshow barker, he serves up fascinating synopses of the cardinal diseases of the period, each chapter dotted with grisly factoids—even acknowledging the role of state power, imperialism, and abjection in the manufacture of these images. What he will not do is wallow (as I do) in the almost-implausible grotesqueries that prefigure schlock cinema and the septic fiction of William Burroughs: an infarcted flypaper chitterling; an eyeball birthing a smaller, pinker eyeball; a nacreous apricot of fibrin dug from the heart; what looks like a weepy anus growing on a kneecap; scab-faced babushkas; ukiyo-e barnacle encrustations; a pemphigus teenage Freddy Krueger, hairless among a twist of linens; and so forth. Returning to Vesalius, who describes various human innards as ray fish, pumpkin vine, and milk curd, it does seem here that the flamboyance of diseased tissue follows a sort of culinary path—from raw to caramelized, then the scorching and blisters of a roast, onward to char and dehydration, then moist infusions and maybe fermentation and cheesing.
But should we gawk and poke fun? Should we dine at the circus of the body in extremis? In my estimation, the book itself is giving us mixed signals. Again Barnett, ever the historian, cultivates a certain reverence for the subject matter, and rightly so, but the effect lifts as we come to yet another wagging tongue or more golden-age palp dredged up from the outworld fisherman’s basket inside us.
—ANDREW BOURNE is literature editor for BOMB Daily.