Sometime between 1780 and 1782, the Italian artist Clemente Susini created the first Anatomical Venus: A life-sized, nude, wax woman, with human hair brushed down over her shoulders, a pearl necklace clasped around her neck, and her lips permanently parted. Students of anatomy could unhook the hinge along her torso and swing the skin-colored door out to reveal seven articulated layers of plasticine organs. Here was an alternative to dissecting corpses. Instead of decaying flesh, a beautiful facsimile of a woman with pieces you could remove, threaded muscle around bone, and a stone-sized fetus tucked into the bottom layer.
This first Anatomical Venus beget others, all crafted to look as if they were sleeping, nowhere near the painful edge of death. The artists wanted to distance these models from the visceral reality of dissection. Ever so slightly, the Venus’s knees were bent, their backs arched. Allusions toward the erotic. Pert breasts were built to be folded out, revealing muscle and bone. Hairs were coiled around fingers and tied back with yellow ribbon. One Venus’s lips curled up into a small smile. Another’s gaze cast downward, an approximation of modesty. Still another wore a tiara. The exteriors of these mannequins belied the gruesome-esque “lessons” built beneath their perfect, porcelain-toned wax skin.
As an anatomical illustrator from that time, Arnaud-Éloi Gautier D’Agoty, put it: “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics, but how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?”
Read More – Slashed Beauty: On Female Masks in The Skin I Live In, Eyes Without a Face, and Under the Skin – Bright Wall/Dark Room