Corpus Christi – thoughts on early medical illustration, dissection and visual art

We all have hobbies, right?  Little bit of arts and crafts perhaps, going to the gym, cookery, those sort of things.  I personally enjoy long walks with my Alsatian Rusty, running… and reading about the many ways the human body has been mutilated in the name of science.  Strictly historically speaking.

Trust me, I am an artist.

All I can say in my defence is that it started with anatomy.  As a painter occupied with the obsolete and the ostentatious, I was preordained to find illustrated atlases of the human body fascinating.  The hyper detailed drawings of internal organs next to skeletons posed like marble statues of ancient Rome; what a delightful combination of the macabre and the medical!  I tried to envisage what it must have been like, in the early days of scientific surgery and the golden age of dissection, to depict a body like this – to maintain a clinical gaze in the most intimate of situations.

The history of dissecting cadavers is a murky one, entangled in the stories of the resurrection men, unscrupulous surgeons, stolen bodies and desecrated graves.  Having lived in Edinburgh, I could not avoid the ghoulish tale of William Burke and William Hare, a pair of friends turned murderers, who found a way to cash in on the lucrative body trade.  They were caught and punished, Burke ending up at the business end of a long rope with a sudden stop.  To add insult to injury, he was then publically dissected and his articulated skeleton was put on displayed at the Anatomy Museum at the University of Edinburgh where it remains to this day, alongside leather wallets made from his skin.  Interestingly, but not entirely surprisingly, Dr. Robert Knox who had paid for the victims suspiciously fresh corpses was vilified, but otherwise free to move on with his life.

Dr. Knox’s involvement in the corpse trade was by no means unusual: for him and his contemporaries, stolen remains were an unsavoury, but a necessary part of studying the human anatomy.  Before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies available to dissection were scarce, limited to those of executed criminals.  However, through a bizarre loophole in the law, stealing bodies was not illegal as long as the resurrectionist would not take the deceased’s clothing or grave goods.  Being poor highly increased your changes at ending up on the surgeons slab, but the wealthy did not entirely escape this gruesome faith either.  The fear of dissection was so great that graves were topped with heavy stone slabs, anti-robbing “cages” made of thick iron or simply guarded for a fortnight or so following a burial.  Alas, through sheer perseverance and widespread bribing of the officials responsible of safeguarding the sanctity of burials, the practice of bodysnatching continued until the 1832 Anatomy Act.  The new law allowed the unclaimed bodies of the poor or those who had died in public institutions such as poorhouses, asylums or hospitals to be dissected by medical students; a model adopted from France where the staff at the public teaching hospitals were free to study anyone who had perished under their care.

The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures
From the anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures, by William Hunter.

If like me, you enjoy browsing through books on Georgian and early-Victorian era medical illustration, take a minute to contemplate on the contributions of those anonymous dead who are immortalised in these beautifully morbid images.  A corpse of a small child stands next to no chance to have been acquired through any other than unscrupulous means as were the bodies of pregnant women, the simple reason being that visibly pregnant women were not hanged for the sake of public decency.  The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures by the famous anatomist William Hunter is a truly exquisite collaboration between a scientist and an artist, aided by the craftsmen who produced it in print, but there is little doubt that the women cut up and featured as anatomical specimen were anything but stolen from their graves.

As a painter, this is a legacy that I too must acknowledge if I choose to make work inspired by early anatomical illustration.  Choosing to talk about the underside of this age of medical history does not mean I am opposed to dissection of cadavers in any way.   I am simply presenting this argument as it directly inspired me to create the latest piece in my “Toussaints” series called “Corpus Christi”; a small mixed media piece, mere 19×27.5cm in size, consisting of a 1930’s lithograph of Jesus Christ layered with drawn anatomical motives in white ink and varnish.  “Corpus Christi”, literally the body of Christ, felt like the only name to give to a piece combining vintage style medical illustration and religious iconography.

Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja 2019, mixed media on paper

While working on this piece I came across a quote from Richard Barnet’s delightful Sick Rose (or Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration), describing the body disenchanted through the advances in modern medicine, surgery in particular:

“No timeless mysteries, only temporary ignorance, no vital force or soul, only an endless dance of enzymes and substrates.”

(Thames and Hudson, 2014, pg. 22)

As I have previously explained in relation to my usage of Christian imagery, disenchantment is indeed a good word to use when it comes to my personal relationship with God.  I am not a believer and although raised attending church I have no faith.  I hypothesise that once my life comes to an end there are no pearly gates for me; no salvation nor hell.  Simply, nothingness.  Denying the prospect of an afterlife does make me fear death – on the contrary.  Naturally, this world view influences my work.  By choosing to juxtapose the spiritual with the corporal in “Corpus Christi”, I aim to evoke the “vanitas” paintings of the past and the long tradition of “Memento Mori” imagery.  Dust to dust, and so forth.  For me, remembering death is a part of accepting death and making peace with it – seeing death as natural as life itself.


Beyond “Corpus Christi”, I have been drawing a lot lately, continuing my “Double Exposure” project.  (More about that in a bit.)  If you fancy reading more about the history of medical illustration or surgery, I warmly recommend the writings of aforementioned Richard Barnet.  Or check out the “Iconic Corpse”-series by Caitlin Daugherty on youtube if you are simply feeling a bit morbid – the one about Hayden’s head is particularly… well, funny.

Until next time.

Tiina x

P.S.  I could not fit this in anywhere on this blog, but check this out.  I would take anything coming out of Diego Rivera with a pinch of salt, but WOW.

Dude.

No.

23rd Time Lucky

Here’s something that is bringing me joy this week: a brand new combine harvester sketchbook!

This one is the 23rd of its kind.

I bought my first sketchbook relatively late, back in August 2010 when I began studying painting at the Edinburgh College of Art.  I had always drawn, but in a very goal oriented manner; sketching or any type of visual record keeping felt pointless if not simply antiquated.  The head of first year students strongly disagreed, however.  He wasted no time pointing out to us, a nervous herd of freshly baked art students huddled in one of the imposing Edwardian painting studios, how we were all missing one of the most important tools of our future trade: a sketchbook.  “An artist should carry one at all times”, he proclaimed.  Many people rushed to the college shop to buy one that afternoon, including yours truly.  From their large selection of different types of sketchbooks, notebooks and pocket-journals, I picked a simple A4 sketchbook, portrait format, with 80 natural white pages bound in black cloth, and I have never looked back.

If you do the quick math, the average time I have spent with each book since that August long ago is around four months.  In reality I have devoted anything from three weeks to almost a year to a single sketchbook, depending on the type of project I am working on.  At times I draw solely to work out a composition or to try out a new idea, but more often than not, the pages of my books are filled with idle doodles and random notes.  Sketching is something that has taught me the value of drawing for leisure and shaped my identity as a painter.  Like a mother, I am proud of these volumes and I guard them jealously.  They are more important to me than any piece I have painted which is why I am far more uncomfortable about sharing them with the world beyond a few carefully chosen and decisively cropped highlights I post online every now and then.

Throughout the years I have tried out a few different brands, always returning to Seawhite of Brighton for their durability and great value for money.  This company made the Edinburgh College of Art-stamped sketchbooks sold at my university art shop and thus ended up being my go-to-sketchbook manufacturer.  I am not being compensated to advertise them to you – I wish I was, but I am not.  It is simply what I prefer.  On the flip side, the only brand I avoid is Canson, not because I would not like the quality of their wears, but because their A4 format is slightly stumpier than the one I am used to and I like my sketchbooks to be uniform in size.

Each book I have has a unique cover, drawn with white acrylic markers, those white gel pens or Tippex.  Well, each but the very first, that one I rushed to buy in the beginning of my fine arts course.  That particular sketchbook was stolen from my studio in ECA, which is why I started customising the covers in the first place – to make it easier to spot if someone was trying to walk away with my book.  After all, every student was encouraged to have a sketchbook and most of them were exactly alike.  All my covers carry a monogram and most are graced by a wee toy owl…, because why not.  The rest depends on my mood on the day I crack on a new book and the stuff I happen to be working on.  For example, one of my past book covers features a flying Volvo simply because I was painting portraits of my dad’s cars at the time.  The 23rd cover is in turn purely decorative and, at least in my opinion, one of my better ones.  Covered in stylised flowers in full bloom, it has the perfect motif for a spring sketchbook.

Tiina x

Two Brides – on photography and figurative painting

I have a longstanding habit of painting double portraits.  There is something calming about a balanced pair, in both concept and composition.  Spaced out harmoniously on canvas, two individual subjects depicted as a complimentary coupling – if there ever was a trope in painting that gets repeated over and over again, this one is mine.  My latest canvas, Two Brides, is a perfect example of my obsession with twinned subject matter, special only as it features people rather than static objects.

The other reason Two Brides stands out from my previous double portraiture is its basis in photography.  Generally, I would prefer to paint physical objects and still lives.  This is my comfort zone, if you will.  Unlike traditional portraiture with a sitter or an artist’s model, I am free to focus only on the surface of the subject being painted, without the need to acknowledge the feelings and needs of another sentient person.  An object does not move, nor does it complain about the lack of loo breaks.  The benefit of painting from photographs is in their fixed nature.  An image is the perfect model, unmoving and always perfectly composed, but the benefits of photography are far wider:  Simply by possessing the right snap, a painter is transported to a carnival in Venice, depths of the seven seas… even space – all in the comfort of the artist’s studio.  On the flip side, however, why take the effort in painting a photograph when you already have access to an image, in essence, a finished piece of art?

Photorealist movement aside, using photographs as a visual aid when it comes to figurative painting is a highly contested matter.  I know painters who openly look down on others who paint with the aid of photos and I too have reservations on work that relies solely on copying another image without any further curatorial input.  Especially as a student, the prevalence of these types of attitudes kept me from considering photography as a tool, even when it would have aided my research beyond regular drawing or sketching.  The only times I felt painting from a photograph was appropriate, for me, were cases when I had no access to the types of objects I wished to depict.  My Volvo-pieces from 2011-2012 are a great example of this type of work – the cars in question have long rolled into the big car park in the sky and only exist in my memory… as well as selection of snaps in my family album.  It took years and a bit of confidence to admit how I research my paintings does not need to reflect someone else’s view on what good painting should be.

The fact of the matter remains that photography is widely used as an aid when creating visual art, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.  Painting does not exist in a vacuum and should not be confined to early 19th century sketching methods for the sake of purity that never existed in the first place.  From Vermeer and his usage of camera obscura to the angst ridden art student I used to be, photography is a valuable tool that allows us to capture fleeting situations and moods like no other creative medium.  I would personally argue the usage of photographs has made figurative painting more inclusive and easier to approach.  Not every aspiring painter can access live-model classes and galleries packed full of classical plasters waiting to be studied – this being the way you should be learning figuration in the minds of absolute traditionalists.  Photography, in short, offers many their first contact in drawing a likeness and should not be dismissed due to its availability to all demographics.  Copying the works of the old masters is a long established tradition in art education and replicating a photograph in paint can be just as enlightening when it comes to learning colour-matching and composition.

Peter-Doig-Lapeyrose-Wall-010
Lapeyrose Wall by Peter Doig, 2014, (private collection) via the Guardian

Figurative artists who prefer photography over sketching create work just as creative and painterly as those who do not.  I am choosing to illustrate this point further, not with my own work or that of my friends, but by encouraging you to study the works of Peter Doig, a Scottish painter who utilises photography in his creative process.  I visited his retrospect in the National Gallery in Edinburgh more than five times in 2014 and the show had a profound impact in my view of figurative painting and colouration at the time.  I felt tight of breath standing in front of those wall-sized canvasses, bewildered by the wonder of Doigs brushstrokes.  Few would argue his work is anything but engaging, original and impactful simply because his research includes photography alongside drawing.

I hesitated for a moment before choosing to add snaps of my own research material for this particular blog.  Two Brides is directly based on a set of wedding photographs from the early 1930’s.  There is no way around that.  I made a sketch or two from these images, but the final composition was simply crudely photoshopped together to act as my guide when painting.  Combining elements from two photographs into a single double portrait is not difficult by hand, but utilising a bit of tech in this case made the process a lot faster.  Does this make me less creative or worse off as an artist?  In my own mind, the answer is irrelevant as long as the painting I am creating can be viewed as more than a collage of images taken long ago.

All I can say is that I cannot wait for this one to be finished.

Ta, Tiina x

 Niña Verde – portrait of Santa Muerte

The story of my latest painting started out with a book: Santa Muerte – the History, Rituals and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death by Tracey Rollin.  As mentioned on my previous post, I collect lithographs of Catholic saints and I was curious about this “Skinny Lady”: a relative newcomer among the heavenly host.  Not actually venerated nor even approved by the Catholic authorities, Santa Muerte is a female folk saint from Mexico.  She is the personification of death and the protector of those living in the fringes of society.  The followers of her cult believe by embracing death they will better appreciate life.

Santa Muerte is depicted as a skeleton not afraid to flaunt her femininity.  She can wear plain black robes in full grim-reaper style, but more often than not, she is presented in elaborate dresses, long wigs and ornate headpieces.  The different parts of Santa Muerte’s persona are divided by colour and her outfits tend to reflect a particular aspect the owner of her figurine wishes to gain favour from, i.e. red for sex and passion, gold for wealth and so on.  For aesthetic reasons alone, I chose to paint the emerald glad Niña Verde.  According to Tracey Rollin (Santa Muerte, 2017), Niña Verde is the green aspect of Santa Muerte and her most popular function is to deflect and otherwise solve legal problems.  Less concerned about escaping justice than making art, I wanted to play with the dress-up element of this particular folk-saint and chose to depict her in the nicest garment I personally own: my wedding dress.

It has been quite some time since I started and finished a figurative piece without a reference point of a physical object and painting “Niña Verde” from my imagination alone was like using muscles I did not remember I had.  Quite frankly, like the day after taking on running, I cannot quite tell whether I will have the perseverance to keep at it.  For better or for worse, working without a real model for this piece turned out to be helpful.  To return to the sports metaphors, if I may, painting from imagination is like riding a bike; you never really forget how it is done.

Surprisingly, it was the background in this portrait that gave me most trouble.  First altered from dark slate-ish grey to salmon pink, I finally settled with a teal-to-navy gradient that I was happy with.  It is not unusual for me to adjust these types of details when putting a painting together, but changing a background tree times in one small piece has to be a new record.

 Niña Verde – portrait of Santa Muerte by Tiina Lilja

I personally see parallels between this piece and my past Barbie-works.  A female saint of death is just as good of an excuse to paint an over-the-top feminine portrait as a Barbie-doll would be.  Besides, I have plans to give objects a break and return to more traditional portraiture.  In able to do that, I needed to practise my costume painting skills.  The reason I originally started shifting towards object painting was my interest in replicating different materials and textures; painting glass, silicone and aluminium being my favourites.  These new pictures I am currently sketching out on canvas will feature a plethora of different types of textiles and hopefully, some fur too.

But that is a subject of another blog.

Until next time,

Tiina x

Silence is Golden

Bonne année à tous!

This piece I am about to introduce was finished in late-2018 and it is the latest artwork in my La Toussaints-series.  Named “Silence is Golden” as a nod towards the images origin, this mixed media piece is an adaptation of a lithograph bought from my local brocante– where these types of pictures come a dime a dozen.

My lithograph was a copy of an engraving “The Silence” (ca. 1675-1693) by Nicolas de Poilly, who in turn was paraphrasing “The Sleep of the Child” by Charles Le Brun.  It is a cosy domestic scene featuring the holy family: Joseph, Mary and a plump baby Jesus, with John the Baptist.  Mary, who is seated at the centre of the composition, is holding her sleeping child while gently scolding the young John the Baptist for attempting to wake the Christ up from his slumber.  The inscription at the bottom of the print reads “Sileat omnis terra a facie eius”, (loosely following Habakkuk 2:20) and can be translated as “Be silent, O all the earth tremble before him.” (Image and Incarnation: The Early Modern Doctrine of the Pictorial Image, edited by Walter Melion & Lee Palmer Wandel, 2015)  My copy of the print likely dates to the turn of the 20th century if not a little earlier.  Despite of past restoration attempts in or around the 1930’s, it was in poor condition: damaged by the sun and insufficient framing.

My fascination of Catholic art goes hand in hand with my art education.  Like any keen student of art history, I quickly became familiar with the lore and symbolism of different saints, due to the nature of historic art that survives in Europe.  I was brought up in the fold of the Church of Finland, as an evangelic Lutheran, but I have no personal faith.  As a young atheist and a budding painter, I could not relate to religious art, but I admired the grandiosity of it.  I can appreciate the likes of Morgan Beatus (a stupendously illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelations, circa 940-45), in awe of human imagination stemming from Christian piety and not feel the slightest sense of guilt or doubt about my own religious identity.  In that light, collecting fiercely Catholic lithographs and incorporating them in my own visual art feels only natural.

My style of creating new art out of the old is all about layering; adding elements with a distinctly different hand from the original artist and creating interest through contrast.  I am a lover of the decorative arts and these mixed media pieces allow me to explore the more maximalist side of my practise.  In “Silence is Golden” I chose to simplify the design of the original composition by removing the background altogether and replacing it with a straightforward pattern mirroring the colours of the print.  A separate geometric element inlayed with a selection of coloured washes in oil paint serves a decorative purpose as well as a vehicle to highlight the relationships between the prints subjects, beginning from the line of sight of the Virgin Mary.  Where my painted additions are substantial to the way this print will be viewed in the future, I don’t see myself as the sole author of this piece, rather than a curator of it.

Changing fashions have left these previously beloved images of devotion crumbling in their mouldy frames, sold for the price of live-love-laugh stickers.  Worn by the passage of time, unloved or simply forgotten, they remind me of my grandmother with her framed embroidery of a guardian angel, perhaps this is why I find them so irresistible.  By adding my own mark into a copy of a print or a painting I stand alongside the artists that created these images, on a direct line from the likes of de Poilly and Le Brun.  It is a very comforting thought.

Silence is golden by Tiina Lilja 2018, mixed media on paper

All the while I am actually recycling art.

For that, I feel downright saintly.

Tiina x

La Toussaints

Bonjour – and happy All Saints Day!

Nearly anyway as I am just a few days late with the ghouls and tales from the crypt… but who does’t need a bit of Hallowed Night in their lives everyday, all day?!

To commemorate the end of Spooktobre – here’s what I am currently working on:

Anyway, Happy Halloween, belatedly.

Tiina x