I have just returned from a conference down in London where I was lucky enough to take part in a wax modelling session where we produced a model of a face. This started from the skull and built up each individual muscle. Some of the muscles you can’t see in the picture and obviously you wouldn’t be able to see any of them once a skin layer was applied but their existence beneath the surface makes the face what it is.
It is this attention to detail which often defines a line between artists. If you know what is under the surface then the contours of the skin become natural. It is the driving force behind all of the art and anatomy courses that are run.
I have always been fascinated by the ecorche figures. Those statues that show all of the musculature, the most famous being that of St Bartholomew holding his own skin. I have always thought that the knowledge of the artists to produce such works must have been immense.
At Edinburgh College of Art there is a cast ‘Smugglerius’. An ecorche in the ‘Dying Gaul’ pose. Every muscle can be seen, it is a great study guide and I have always been impressed by it.
Until last week.
Last week I discovered that whilst it was produced by Agostino Carlini, he had the help of William Hunter and a large amount of plaster of Paris.
Smugglerius was produced ‘from life’ by posing the executed criminal James Langar and casting him. The statue has always been referred to as Smugglerius but Joan Smith and Jeanne Cannizzo (Scotsman 30th January 2010) did an excellent piece of detective work which strongly suggests that the identity of the man is a thief, James Langar. Even if the identity is wrong they did identify that William Hunter skinned an executed criminal and then Carlini cast him in plaster.
This raises all sorts of moral questions as to how the bodies of the dead are treated without their permission and we need to remember that it an object that ‘speaks of the time it was done.’
The fact that every muscle can be seen is maybe not so suprising now that I am aware of its history but it got me thinking about the artist’s need to represent things as they actually are.
I have another project bubbling in the background which has me looking at the other side of the coin from convicted criminals (don’t ask – its a long story which I hope will reach fruition in about 4 years time). I’ve been looking at statues of things that have legs or arms as well as wings. It appears anatomy isn’t so important in this realm.
It has been pointed out to me (and to be fair I had realised it myself) that everything that has arms / legs and wings is actually mythical, be it dragons, Pegasus, the winged lions in St Mark’s Square or the numerous pictures of angels.
Whilst one area of art was so obsessed with the human body that they took casts from dead bodies, the other area of art was quite happy to just stick some wings on things with no thought as to how they would actually work.
I have in the back of my mind a hankering to work out what a body of an angel with actual working wings would look like but I imagine it would be the sort of thing that would occupy nightmares rather than visions.
If it is not important that the wings are functional then why are they there? Are they just a symbol that indicates the ability to fly? Now days we are happy to accept that Iron Man can fly using technology maybe back in the day we needed an indication that flight was possible without it actually being powered by the body. This doesn’t seem to hold true for Santa’s reindeer which we are quite happy to suggest fly around the world without the aid of wings.
It’s interesting as to where we are prepared to draw the line between things that need to be correct and places where it doesn’t matter.