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Dissecting the erotic : art and sexuality in mid-Victorian medical anatomy McInnis, Meredith

Abstract

In the mid-nineteenth century, anatomical illustration in England underwent a crisis of representation. Moral authorities were growing increasingly concerned with the proliferation of images of the naked body and the effects they might have on public “decency.” The anatomical profession was sensitive to this hostile climate to nude representations. In the years immediately preceding the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 that defined the category of “pornography,” anatomical illustration was being purged of sexual connotations as part of an attempt to consolidate medicine as a respectable “profession.” In the eyes of this new professional body, there was no space for sexual associations in anatomical texts. Artistic medical anatomy’s rejection was driven by its links to problematic erotic traditions. Specifically, anatomy’s proximity to pseudo-medical pornography, the same-sex eroticism of the Hellenic tradition, and the problem of the male and female nude in “high art” were at issue. In representing the naked body artistically, anatomists brought their illustrations into dangerous proximity with these traditions. By systematically putting the work of one Victorian anatomist, Joseph Maclise, into dialogue with these erotic traditions, it becomes clear that medicine was not isolated from the broader sexual culture. This study demonstrates that viewing publics and viewing practices are historically specific and are brought into being by the interaction of visual phenomena by emphasizing the fluidity between representational fields of art, medicine and sexuality. The effort to excise the sexual meanings contained in anatomy ultimately led to the emergence of a new diagrammatic style of anatomical drawing that became the orthodox style of medical illustration, and that persists to this day.

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