What can the act of anatomical drawing contribute to medical education? Highlighting the connections between artistic practice and the hands-on art of medicine, Sabina Dosani reviews Art and Anatomy: Drawings, edited by Laura Ferguson and Katie Grogan (2018).
My own memories of entering a room full of partially dissected cadavers and prosected specimens are of a macabre place, packed with corpses clumsily disfigured by clusters of awkward first-year medical students. It was a room of revulsion and of fear, both of the cadavers and of the anatomy examinations which took place there. My overriding memory of the anatomy laboratory at medical school was that it was a space where these uncomfortable feelings of disgust and repulsion were anaesthetised. The art space depicted in Art and Anatomy looks unexpectedly beguiling in comparison. Every Tuesday evening, medical students, doctors and other health professionals taking part in the NYU Master Scholars Programme in Humanistic Medicine enter the anatomy laboratory, to find it transformed into an art studio. Anatomical specimens are displayed, as if for a life drawing class: ‘art supplies are provided: graphite, pastel and color pencils; charcoal, Conté crayons and felt tip markers; and a drawing pad for each student.’ (Ferguson and Grogan 2017: 23) Skeleton Foot is one of hundreds of anatomical drawings completed by students taking Art and Anatomy, an innovative seminar series at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine and presented in this book.
Visual artist Ferguson set up the eight practical seminars that make up Art and Anatomy during her art residency at NYU medical school in 2009. Her motivation was to enable medical students and doctors to discover the beauty that she saw in the human body in her work as an artist. As physician and essayist Ofri notes in her foreword to this book, the term ‘artistic’ is far from the usual descriptors of an anatomy laboratory. Ofri offers ‘smelly and disgusting’ as more common adjectives (Ferguson and Grogan 2017: 7).
In Skeleton Foot, Saima Usmani’s drawing of a cadaveric specimen, female foot bones are decorated in a lace-like bridal mehndi pattern (Ferguson and Grogan 2017: 59). Mehndi is a temporary body art commonly used by women of the Indian subcontinent to decorate their hands and feet during celebratory rituals, especially marriage (Roome 2014: 8). Usmani’s jarring juxtaposition of a wedding and a death is as unsettling as it is aesthetically mesmerising. Big themes are addressed in her small pencil sketch. The intricate mehndi patterns are reminiscent of patterns of veins, arteries and nerves that would traverse the foot in life, as well as alluding to the lace-like structures within the bones themselves. The implied skill and steady hands of a mehndi artist suggest parallels with surgical skill and the precision and care needed for accurate dissection. Usmani’s juxtaposition also evokes the death of a woman’s single life as she walks to her new husband. In reminding us that a dissected skeleton foot belongs to a woman who lived, who had a wedding day, who enjoyed having her youthful feet painted and celebrated, it acts as a memento mori. It also makes viewers think about mobility, creativity and acts of creation. By applying mehndi to the foot bones, Skeleton Foot reminds us that feet are sacred and beautiful and yet also grotesque. Both mehndi artist and medical healer are given socially sanctioned permission to touch a woman’s foot. Usmani’s art reclaims body parts from the detached objectification that comes with traditional ‘naming-of-parts’ dissection.
Art is no longer an integral part of anatomy classes in contemporary medical education. This book provides many reasons for why it ought to be. Sketching anatomical specimens slows down the hurried process of dissecting and memorising hundreds of anatomical structures. In art, there is necessarily a period of observation before intervention, of looking, before applying pencil to paper or brush to canvas. This discipline of observing before intervening is what good medical practice ought to be, but too often is not. Learning by drawing is kinaesthetic. Kinaesthetic learners master topics best when they are involved in practical activities, rather than passively watching a demonstration or hearing a lecture. First year medical students have been found to prefer kinaesthetic learning over other learning styles (Baykan and Naçar 2007: 158). This makes sense; medicine is a practical art, with rich scientific hinterlands. Drawing anatomical specimens invites conversations about life, whereas dissection without art favours narratives of death and objectification.
Art and Anatomy has the potential to also be a useful manual for medical educationists intending to set up similar seminars, but it doesn’t quite fulfil that potential. More fulsome descriptors and directions for each session would make this possible. Perhaps the reason it does not work as an instructive manual is because Art and Anatomy is presented as an exquisitely rendered art exhibition catalogue, interspersed with occasional photographs of the anatomical artists at work. The act of looking at their works of art, of rediscovering the beauty in human physicality, seeing structures in bones, blood vessels and brains, feels radical. Human instinct, when presented with dissected flesh, is almost always to look away, rather than gaze in awe. As readers and gazers, we are invited to share in the humane perspectives that the seminar attendees discovered. Their close attention to the shadows in the skull bones, the singular topography of the head of the femur, the strength and fragility of the ribcage, becomes a shared attention and reflective discovery of the aesthetic wonder of human anatomy.
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Roome, L. 2014 Mehndi: The Timeless Art of Henna Painting. New York: St Martin’s Press.
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Dr Sabina Dosani is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical expert witness. She is a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia, using Creative and Critical Writing methodology to interrogate the language used in the medical management of recurrent miscarriage.
Laura Ferguson and Katie Grogan (eds.), Art and Anatomy: Drawings was published by the University of California Medical Humanities Press in 2018.