UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


Seminar: Mechthild Fend - Images Made by Contagion: On Dermatological Wax Moulages

Start: Feb 07, 2018 04:00 PM

Location: UCL Chadwick building, room 2.18


7th Feb 2018, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


UCL Chadwick building, room 2.18, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


My paper will address the collection of dermatological wax moulages at the Hôpital Saint Louis in Paris, arguably the largest remaining collection of its kind and still on display in its purpose-built late nineteenth-century setting. The moulages, made on the basis of imprints taken from diseased bodies and showing severe affections in an extremely lifelike manner, were successful tools of dermatological study while also prompting affective responses.

The paper will raise the question what kind of images (in the broadest sense of the term) wax moulages actually are, and discuss both the materiality of wax and the technique of casting. Known since ancient times, casts experienced an astounding revival during the nineteenth century. Benefitting from a general trust in indexical media (including photography), they became part and parcel of a number of scholarly and scientific practices from art history and archaeology to medicine, as they were used, among others, for the reproduction of architectural monuments or the documentation of pathological phenomena. But even though relying on their mechanical production for claiming reliability dermatological moulages sit uncomfortably within the paradigm of ‘mechanical objectivity’ (Daston and Galison), as they are excessive on both ends. A body experiencing extreme sensations of touch (itch and pain) and producing flowering phenomena on its surface, is reproduced with a procedure that carried connotations of magical image production and resulted in a wax object whose extreme lifelikeness is potentially revolting or vulgar. Among the disquieting aspects of dermatological moulages is the potential of contagion – infection by touch. The heyday of dermatological moulages (the second half of the nineteenth century) coincided with the spread of theories of contagion in medical aetiology, and one wonders how and whether these insights impacted on the patient, those making and those looking at the moulages – images that were after all literally made by contagion.

About the speaker

Mechthild Fend is Reader at the UCL History of Art Department. She specialises in eighteenth– and nineteenth-century French art and visual culture. Major research interests are the relations between body and image, artistic anatomy, medical imagery and, more broadly speaking, the shifting historic relations between art and science. Her first book Grenzen der Männlichkeit (2003; translated into French as Les limites de la Masculinite, La Decouverte, 2011) was concerned with androgynous masculinities in the area of the French Revolution. For the past decade, her research has focused on the history and representation of skin, and she has published widely on flesh tones, skin colour, and the visual history of dermatology. Her book Fleshing out Surfaces. Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1650-1850, was published by Manchester University Press in December 2016.

Further publications include ‘Bodily and Pictorial Surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1790-1860’, in Art History 28, 2005; ‘Emblems of Durability. Tattoos, Preserves and Photographs’, in Performance Research 14, No. 4, 2009; ‘Portraying Skin Disease’ in Kevin Siena and Jonathan Reinarz (eds), A Medical History of Skin (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), and ‘Flesh-tones, Skin-Color and the Eighteenth-Century Color Print’, in Felix Ensslin and Charlotte Klink (eds), Aesthetics of the Flesh (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), and ‘Drawing the Cadaver Ad Vivum. Gérard de Lairesse’s Illustrations for Govard Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis’. in Ad Vivum, Tom Balfe, Joanna Woodall und Claus Zittel (eds), forthcoming Leiden: Brill, spring 2018.

STS research seminars

The purpose of this series is to provide colleagues with an opportunity to present their latest research results and discuss them within a collegial atmosphere. 

STS research seminars are open to scholars from any academic field. These normally are research intensive, specialised events, of interest specifically to scholars in the discipline. More upcoming talks in the STS research seminar series are listed in the STS calendar (link).