UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


"All art is quite useless." Or not...

15 March 2011

Art, Anatomy and Representations: teaching STS in the Strang Print Room. Dr Chiara Ambrosio & Dr Brendan Clarke

By Nathan Asher

Wednesday 2nd March, 11-1pm Strang Print Room

Plate 1 of Sir Charles Bell's The Anatomy of the brain explained in series of plates

Having been previously oblivious to the existence of the Strang Print Room, I was pleasantly surprised to find this light, calm space transformed into an intimate exhibition. Over the course of two immensely enjoyable hours, Chiara and Brendan, brimming with enthusiasm and refreshingly keen to hear our observations and opinions, conducted an interactive tour of pieces ranging from stunning watercolours to carefully preserved sketchbooks.

The focus of this on-going project is the artist/anatomist Sir Charles Bell, whose watercolours are a window into a time when anatomical representation relied heavily on the talented individual, but also when the line between the technical and aesthetic was, intriguingly, much less sharp than it is today. We followed these themes through further works by Lister, Albinus, and Tonks.

This experience is by no means limited to those of us whose notions of squeamishness have long been disabused by hours in the dissecting room. Bell and company have infused their images with a distinctive sense of purpose – in some, a desire to capture the minutiae of human anatomy in a cameo of the beauty of detail; in others, the urgency with which the structures must be etched as a surgical snapshot – nothing here invokes a sense of gore.

Overall, this was an exercise in precisely why art is not at all useless. This collection of images turns out to be not only art for art’s sake, but also a real education in how we think about representative practices. With the added promise for next time of
“sculptures that you can touch and everything”, who could resist?

Image: Plate 1 of Sir Charles Bell's The Anatomy of the brain explained in series of plates - courtesy of the Wellcome Collection/ Wellcome Library