An interview with David Bainbridge, author of Stripped Bare: The Art of Animal Anatomy
Why The Art of Animal Anatomy?
Although my day job is teaching anatomy to veterinary students, it has taken me until my seventh book to write about it. All my other books have been about how very strange and unusual human biology is when compared to animals, but this time I thought I’d try something different. Animal structure has been a central artistic element since early humans were painting on cave walls, and I wanted to write a book that reflects how much it has permeated our artistic culture. To do this, the format had to be right – everything else I’ve written has been very text-heavy, but Stripped Bare had to let the images speak for themselves. I did have to weave it into a narrative, but just as important is the quality of the reproductions. Enormous effort and skill went into them, so we wanted to do them justice.
Has the artistic side of science always interested you?
I’ve always found that some of the most interesting aspects of science are when it interacts with language, culture and the arts. Right back when I was slogging through my science subjects to get into vet school, I was also lucky enough to be able to take a two-year course in Art History. I suppose that’s where I learnt the language – knowing my Cubists from my Fauvists, and so on – but also understood for the first time the very real ways that changes in the visual arts reflect, and are reflected by, changes in thought and society. It didn’t take long for me to realise that animal anatomy is not only depicted for its own practical sake, but has also become an eerie, visceral motif to which artists have returned again and again. It has the power to both shock and inspire, and often that’s just too good for artists to ignore.
So how important is it to be familiar with anatomy and art history to enjoy the book?
Not at all, I would say. I assumed nothing of the reader, other than an intelligent inquisitiveness. Comparative anatomy is so much more interesting than seeing the striking ways in which a human, a flamingo and a trout differ, and are similar. It’s a story which almost writes itself. In the book, I tried to highlight what I think are fascinating snippets of the science, but anatomy is a huge topic, and I couldn’t assume any prior knowledge of it. I guess I assumed slightly more foreknowledge of art history, but still not much. A general sense of the flow of the centuries and movements is beneficial, but that’s all. And if readers are teased into finding out more about Futurism or Hyperrealism, then that’s great.
Who is the most important character in the book?
It would have to be Carlo Ruini, an anatomist from Bologna who wrote the remarkable 1598 Anatomia del Cavallo (Anatomy of the Horse), what I like to think of as the Principia Mathematica of comparative anatomy. Before the Anatomia anatomical writings just looked ancient – rare, error-strewn, unscientific, fragmentary, and worst of all, often unillustrated. In contrast, for all its four centuries of existence, Ruini’s book looks recognisably modern: structured, enquiring and detailed. For example, Ruini discovered the one-way nature of the valves of the heart, an important component of later discoveries of the circulation of the blood. The anatomical precision in the book is amazing, especially as it seems to have sprung into existence as if from from nowhere, but most striking is its artistic beauty. There are hundreds of meticulous wood-block engravings, capturing not just the science of the animals’ structure, but also the emotional visual impact of gnarled bones, contorted intestines and convoluted brains. Most of all, the animals retain a remarkable dignity, despite their progressive ‘disrobing’ – they stand proud, or even sometimes trot gaily through renaissance landscapes.
And which artist brings you the most pleasure?
It would have to be Georgia O’Keeffe. In many ways she’s at the other end of the spectrum. Ruini’s book was a practical, scientific book, whereas O’Keeffe uses animal bones solely as elements, often central elements, in her compositions. Just like her paintings of libidinous flowers, her depictions of animal bones allowed her to explain her own feelings about her adopted environment in the American Southwest. Bleached skulls become the central band in the American red, white and blue, while a crumbling pelvis on the desert floor becomes a grand, eroded rock arch framing the distant sierra. I believe that the use of the dusty white skull as a symbol of the desert states (think of an Eagles album cover!) can be traced directly back to O’Keeffe’s decision to place them centre-stage in her compositions.
Has the art of animal anatomy run its course, do you think?
Not at all. If anything, there’s more happening now than ever before. Over recent decades it has become clear that biology is bewilderingly complex and detailed, and one of the major challenges we face is explaining and depicting the new superabundance of information in a comprehensible way. As soon as a neuroscientist generates a scan of the internal nervous pathways of the brain, they have to make artistic – yes, artistic – decisions, if they are to intelligibly represent the tangled and cascading neural superhighways they’ve discovered. Modern, computer-generated diagrams of animal structure and biology are usually beautiful, and always striking. Animal anatomy has even made its way into modern street art. One of the most inspiring images in the book is of a dog’s skull, spay-painted freehand apparently, by the artist SHOK1, onto a building-site hoarding in Walthamstow, North London. It’s one of the most anatomically accurate depictions in the book, a true memento mori for the modern age. The pace of anatomical art is hastening, not slowing – I’m sure there is much more to come.