Exhibitions: Hung, drawn and quartered

Since the Renaissance, artists have cut up the dead to learn how to draw the living. A new show at the Royal College of Art surveys the spine-tingling tradition of anatomy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We'd normally assume that the opposite of a nude painting is a picture of someone wearing clothes. But it now turns out that the real contrast is with anatomical drawing, as is made clear by a show called "The Quick and the Dead" at the Royal College of Art, a survey of the anatomical tradition from the Renaissance until recent times. I've never seen an exhibition so consistently hostile to the spirit of the nude, though there's plenty of nakedness on display. These drawings, engravings and watercolours (together with a few modern photographs) always oppose sensuality, grace and portraiture, to name just three of the attributes of the nude genre.

The human body is not celebrated - rather the reverse, for no sane person can give artistic love to a body that they were prepared to dissect. Social relations do not exist at all, since living circumstances are irrelevant to anatomical study, as of course is the human personality. "The Quick and the Dead" is a cold exhibition, and one leaves the gallery with little feeling that its works of art give comfort and strength to the soul. The exercise is, in a precise sense, soulless. And yet it is an artistic exhibition. The show could not have been selected by a medical historian, fine scholars though many of that profession are. No, it's the work of the Professor of Drawing at the RCA, Deanna Petherbridge, and she has installed her numerous exhibits with an artist's eye.

The precise, uningratiating works in darkened rooms echo the subject of the show, for artists often drew from dissected bodies by candlelight, in places where they could not be discovered. The impression of an occult activity is nearly as strong as the message that art was serving knowledge. For a number of appropriate reasons the exhibition begins with Leonardo, whose art was macabre at the best of times. As always, we see how he felt both reverence and fear when examining nature and the human body. The scientist in his character overcame the fear, but still there is a sort of appalled curiosity in his drawings of ligaments and organs. These small sheets, helped in their effect by Leonardo's beautiful, pensive and private handwriting, are the best things in the show.

While the recent art is the worst, Cindy Sherman is so deft a showperson that she seldom goes wrong with her presentations. However, the print from her series Sex Pictures of 1992 lacks Sherman's first quality, which is that her self-portraiture is that of a gifted actress. Here's a body, or chopped-up plastic replicas of parts of a body, and the lavishly presented photograph doesn't work. Perhaps it's too vague. Anatomical art thrives on precision in an atmosphere of secrecy. Kiki Smith, Robert Gober and Max Aguilera-Hellweg are simply not good enough as artists to hold our attention. Anyway, what is their real relation to anatomical drawing?

Although there are people still alive (and kicking) who were made to study anatomy at art school 40 or 50 years ago, they do not appear in this exhibition. Perhaps they would not wish to do so, even if they had kept their student drawings. The more recent works selected by Petherbridge belong to the post-Sixties catch-all genre of "body art". She was mistaken in trying to bring her show up to date. Anatomical drawing is dead or it is nothing. The half-life of dismembered dolls and so on is no substitute for a real corpse. This said, I am grateful to Petherbridge for her well- researched catalogue, the first substantial publication on the subject in English.

I have no aesthetic feelings, except negative ones, about the picture of women with their stomachs cut open to reveal a foetus or a more developed child. Many other visitors will feel that some things belong to science and other things belong to art. Considered as art, the preferable drawings are those by artists of great natural talent who overcame or ignored the constrictions of anatomy. Among them are Raphael, Gericault, Durer - whose splendid Death Riding is not really anatomical at all - and Pollaiuolo. A dissection scene rather optimistically attributed to Nicholas Hilliard is an important historical document - but who wants such a thing, when with luck you can consider nude painting nearly every day of your life, and actually do it? All you need is paper, something to make your mark on that paper, a warm room and a friend.

Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, SW7 (0171 590 4444), to 24 Nov; then touring in 1998.