Anyone down for some naked-body viewing this weekend? If yes, then make your way to the Exquisite Bodies exhibition hosted at London’s Wellcome Collection venue on Euston Road. Before you get your horny pants on, there are probably some things that you should know: the term exquisite is a tad misleading – the exhibition is not an artistic reproduction of the Arnies and Marilyns of the last century but a collection of gruesome wax models. Another Body Worlds you may assume? Uh … no. Exquisite Bodies is a reproduction of anatomical models used by 19th-century medical schools for education purposes. During this time, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outweighed the supply. So, because there just weren’t enough dead people lying around, medical schools used lifelike wax models for dissection purposes. The dodgy dollies were also used to demonstrate bodies ravaged by ‘social diseases’ including venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.
True to human nature: the more disgusting, the more intriguing. The wax cadavers aroused the curiosity of Victorian society, and thus became sought-after curiosities; displayed not only in dissecting rooms but also in sideshows and the curiosity cabinets of wealthy Victorian gentlemen. Visitors were able to satisfy their curiosity, for a small admission fee, by visiting displays of the macabre figures in London, Paris, Brussels and Barcelona.
Many of the dodgy dollies took the form of alluring female figures, and were known as “anatomical Venuses”. So, why women? To satisfy the urges of lonely men cutting up syphilis-infested wax models in the dead of night … the pessimist answers? Actually, the notion of the anatomical Venus (AV) was common in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Victorian anatomists used the AV as a study tool and as a teaching aid – her wax constitution allowed for prolonged study, and the pesky problem of controlling a rotting corpse during lessons was solved. 18th-century patrons sought to educate the masses with anatomical wax models exhibited in museums. Victorian ladies were granted the opportunity to visit anatomical museums unaccompanied – one of the few attractions in 19th-century London available to them – for education purposes of course. Travelling fair entrepreneurs charged members of the public a fee to view the beauty of the AV as she was ‘dissected’ by a proposed surgeon, or be repulsed by lifelike freaks of nature and studies of venereal diseases. Although the fairs were focused primarily on entertaining and money-making, there was a genuine desire to instruct all classes of the dangers of promiscuous behaviour. In patriarchal Victorian society it was only natural for a woman to be the figurehead for the consequences of human kind’s immoral conduct.
I absolutely intend to let the sicko out and peruse the Exquisite Bodies exhibition at my earliest convenience. I wish to give myself the opportunity to contemplate the role of the female form in the 19th-century; as the centrepiece of museums and travelling fairs, as a crowd-pleaser, a money-maker, a visual-aid, an apparatus of learning, and a symbol of social and moral degeneration. One would like to think that times have changed … but they haven’t really.