it ends with the dance of death.

It ends with the dance of death

If we can say that human life begins at the origin, we can equally say that it ends with the dance of death.

In the chapter dedicated to the skeleton in Este cuerpo es humano · This Body is Human, Grassa Toro writes:

“There are two kinds of skeletons: living skeletons and dead ones. A dead skeleton is always laughing and when we try to stand it up, it looks as if it wants to dance. But that’s not true. It's just that it has nothing to lean on and it becomes disjointed. Dead skeletons have been used throughout history as a way to scare us, to paint paintings, to remind us that vanity is disconcerting, and to give us an idea what a live skeleton looks like, because we never see a live skeleton.”

While collecting material to make the images for the book and to write this post, I found it interesting to see how despite the underlying taboos of talking about death, so many cultures share a pictorial identity of representing it. It seems poking fun at our mortality is a very common way of facing it.

This idea of personifying death as a dancing skeleton is found throughout history, in most cultures and eras.

The image below is attributed to the Persian physician, astronomer and thinker Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina, 980-1037). His written work included the books: The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing.  Source: Anatomía Rehabilitación y medicina física

 

Coloured plate of a human skeleton, included in one of Avicenna’s books.

The formal idea of the death dance or the Danse Macabre, dates back to the Late middle ages as an artistic genre of allegory of the on the universality of death. I came across this website which has a wonderful source of images from the period, such as the one below. Unfortunately, the site does not include the information about each piece, so I have no reference as to the artist, title or date.

 

If anyone has the information to this image, please email me at karishma.chugani@gmail.com

 

The Three Living and the Three Dead is a moral story from the 14th century in which three figures, often aristocratic and flaunting their vitality, meet three corpses who remind them about the inevitability of death. The numerous variations of this story and their accompanying illustrations provide a stark contrast between the beauty of the living and the worm-eaten corpses of the deceased. Moral messages about the importance of living a virtuous life on Earth are typical amongst Psalters and Book of Hours. Source: British Library.

 

This image illustrates a version of Ars Morendi (The Art of Dying), a series of related texts from 1415 and 1450 which act as instruction manuals to the protocols of dying well.

 

Marseille - BM - ms. 0089, f. 063. Ars moriendi. France, late 15th century

 

The Bardo Thödol (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ), Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386) is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place.

 

Colour plate from Bardo Thödol (Tibetan book of death)

 

The next image is included in a book of anatomical studies by John Banister, a member of the Company of Barber Surgeons, who were licensed by Henry VIII in 1540 to anatomise the bodies of four criminals a year.
Banister joined the Company in 1572 and soon became their Lecturer in Anatomy. He has been called ‘the turnkey who released anatomy [in England] from its mediaeval bondage into the daylight of the Renaissance’ (Buckland-Wright 1985). Source: University of Glasgow.

 

Painting commissioned by John Banister Ca 1580, table 3

 

In Japan, the artist Kawanabe Kyosai painted scrolls such as this one, which depicts a skeleton seated and playing shamisen while other skeletons, some with bamboo swords at their sides, others with towels bound around their foreheads, are enjoying music and dancing. Source: The British Museum.

 

Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 - 1889) - Skeletons dancing - Painting on silk, hanging scroll

 

Also from Japan, between 1603-1868, during the Edo period, medical illustrations depicting the human skeleton seemed to have a minimalism and humour to them.

 

Medical illustration of the human skeleton, Japan. Artist unknown.

 

Memento mori (Latin: "remember that you have to die") is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. This image belongs to a collection from the Southern German School of painting from the 18th century.

 

Artist unknown.

 

Jumping straight from there to more contemporary references, Marcel Dzama’s video installation Death Disco Dance is a wonderful version of the above mentioned pieces.
The video is accompanied by a series of drawings, studies and three-dimensional paper-theatre models.

https://vimeo.com/35887434

 

The video is accompanied by a series of drawings, studies and three-dimensional paper-theatre models.

 

These final images are the my own laughs and giggles at death; the illustrations for the chapters about cranium and the skeleton in the book This Body is Human.

 

 

Song of the day

Around the World - Daft Punk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JPa3BNi6l4


The human body begins at the origin,

The human body begins at the origin.

This Body is Human · Este cuerpo es humano, written by Grassa Toro and translated by Claudio Cambon, begins like this:

“Penis, penis, penis, penis, penis, penis, penis and scrotum, testicles, prostate and seminal vesicles: the male genital organs.

Vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina and outer labia, inner labia, clitoris, vulvar vestibule, vulvar vestibule glands, hymen, mons pubis, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries: the female genital organs.

Feet are not called feet because we use them to dance, but genital organs are called that because they generate the raw material used to create new life. ”

Unlike most anatomical atlases I had come across growing up, this text celebrates the sexual organs, describing them without any trace of shame or modesty. Instead of being safely tucked away in the back of the book as an afterthought, or hidden within the many chapters describing various body parts, organs and systems; in this book, the sexual organs are showcased in the very first pages.
In order to illustrate them with the same sense of celebration, I felt the need to undo a lot of the cultural conditioning I had been fed through the years, and so I began to look at ancient atlases for some source of wisdom and orientation.

I was thrilled to find many sources of exquisite references depicting the sexual organs.
In ancient medical illustrations, such as the ones below (both undated and unsigned, probably dating form the 18th century in India), images of female sexual organs tend to reflect fertility and male sexual organs tend to reflect virility. Source: Islamic Medical Manuscripts

 

The image on the left shows a pregnant woman. Her abdomen and chest are opened to reveal the internal organs and foetus. Around her are two hearts, the lungs, and something unidentified.
The image on the right shows a male figure with his abdomen and chest opened to reveal the internal organs. He holds a second set of genitalia and a horn. Around him are the liver and gallbladder.

 

The image below is from a text called Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary, written by Ahmed Ibn al-Jazzar in Tunisia at the end of the ninth-century. He was the son and nephew of physicians, and set up his own practice where he examined patients, and had his servant administer the medicines. He was also a prolific writer, with medicine being the main topic.The book’s title is misleading since it offers an in-depth guide to healthcare. It covers various diseases and problems, and supplied treatments. Among the topics covered were sexual diseases and their cures. Source: The medievalist

 
This image accompanies a chapter covering men’s sexual problems: It follows al-Jazzar’s theory that having a proper balance in the testicles was the key factor in male sexual health.

 

I found these pregnancy illustrations are from a copy of Ishinhō, the oldest existing medical book in Japan. Originally written by Yasuyori Tanba in 982 A.D., the 30-volume work describes a variety of diseases and their treatment. Much of the knowledge presented in the book originated from China. Source: Pink Tentacle

 

The illustrations shown here are from a copy of the book that dates to about 1860.

 

This woodcut illustration with hand colouring shows the figure of a pregnant woman. I was fascinated at how the body resembled that of a frog ready for dissection.

 

The image belongs to Fasciculus Medicinae, first printed in 1491 in Latin.

As well as delving into ancient manuscripts, I also turned to more realistic medical diagrams of human anatomy such as the ones below.

The image on the left is antique human anatomy lithograph in colour by LyraNebulaPrints. On the right, Human penis; forms dimensions & angles. Dickinson & Legman (1943-1947)

 

I was surprised to find this print of plant anatomy, whose lines and structure resembles the lines and shapes of the female vagina.

 

Grew, Nehemiah, 1641-1712. The anatomy of plants - Biodiversity Heritage Library

 

I turned to some of my favourite artists such as Egon Schiele, Louis Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. And through the process, discovered artists I was unfamiliar with such as Jamie McCartney, whose project The Great Wall of Vagina impressed me. Other work I discovered were the vagina portraits of Ida Applebroog, and embroideries by various artists including Hanna Melin and Gareth Brookes.

 

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Woman with Black Stockings, 1913. Gouache, watercolour and pencil, 48.3 x 31.8 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagy, London

 

There are so many images that I could have posted of Louise Bourgeois, I chose this one because I found it powerful and appropriate to the subject of my post.

 

Caption image 11: Louise Bourgeois. The Cross-Eyed Woman Giving Birth, 2005

 

Kiki Smith, Vagina (ink on paper). Source: artnet

 

Ida Applebroog, one of a collection of over 100 drawings of her vagina. The Source: BlouinArtInfo

 

Illustration by Hanna Melin for the Guardian

 

Embroidery of the female reproductive system. Artist unknown

 

My list of inspirations is ever-growing, especially now that the book is published, and I have more time to continue my research the human body which has become a fascination for me. At the moment, this has lead me to reading some wonderful books and graphic novels on the subject. Here is a brief visual list:

L’Origine du Monde is Liv Stromquist grapgic novel entirely dedicated to the female sexual organs. It includes historical documents, medical references, myths and stereotypes. It is not only a great reference source, but also an extremely sensitive and hilarious piece of work.

 

I have already cited Katy Couprie in a previous post, and I'll happy repeat it here. Her book, Dictionnaire Fou du Corps is one of my favourite books about the human body.

 

Chapter V from Dictionnaire Fou du Corps, Katy Couprie

 

I was very surprised to find Black Project in a bookshop over the holidays. Who would have thought someone would be capable to embroider an entire graphic novel. As well as being fascinated by the technique, Gareth Brookes shares an intimate and ambiguous story which moved me.

 

 

I am currently reading two new graphic novels that I received as gifts. The first is Une Histoire de Sexe, by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn. The second is Libres, manifesto pour s'affranchir des diktats sexuels, by Diglee and Ovidie. You can read a review of the book here.

 

 

After all this talk of the images that inspired my work on the sexual organs in the book, I wanted to close this post with some of my own images. If you wish to order a copy of the book, which is now printed and published, you can do so at here.

 

Song of the day

Hedwig & the Angry Inch - The origin of Love