University of Tasmania
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Beautiful, dead, dissected : the dismembered female body in artistic representation

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:40 authored by Holmstrom, NG
This thesis examines artistic representations of the dissected and dismembered female body that emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, arguing that the eroticised female autopsy subject became a new topos for artistic investigation at this time. It also addresses the continuing influence of this theme in the work of artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Structured around an analysis of the art-historical, socio-cultural and scientific influences that motivated the artistic engagement with the anatomised female corpse, it suggests that artists including Gabriel von Max, Enrique Simonet and Johann Hasselhorst, depicted female autopsies in ways that departed radically from the conventions governing artistic representations of post-mortem dissections in previous centuries. These earlier works were primarily focussed on the dissection of male cadavers and were celebratory of anatomy as an exclusively male endeavour, highlighting its educational value and its importance to the understanding of medicine. The contrast between these works and nineteenth-century female autopsy artworks is striking. Here the focus is on the implied transgressive relationship between the clothed male anatomist and the young, beautiful and exposed female corpse. Building on research by Elisabeth Bronfen, Ludmilla Jordanova and Bram Dijkstra among others, this thesis argues that these artworks were largely expressive of male fears and fantasies around female sexuality. It proposes further that the same social concerns that inspired the emergence of the motif of the femme fatale at this time also inspired artistic engagements with the eroticised female autopsy subject, which can be considered as another example of the trope. This thesis also contributes to a dialogue about the nexus between art and medicine through its examination of medical illustrations and its analysis of representations of female reproduction and pathology by artists including Jan van Rymsdyk and Jacques Gautier D'Agoty. The ongoing influence of the trope of the eroticised female corpse is demonstrated in the latter part of the thesis where artistic engagements with the dissected female body in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz and Hans Bellmer are discussed, concluding with an analysis of a selection of works by female artists Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman, who have challenged conventional constructions of female sexuality in their reinterpretation of the topos of the anatomised female body. While primarily concerned with an art-historical consideration of artistic representations of the female body, this thesis adds to a feminist conversation, particularly addressed by Linda Nochlin and Laura Mulvey, about the traditional fragmentation of the female body and the fetishisation of its various parts by men. It also contributes to a broader discourse that examines past social and cultural engagements with death to inform discussions around contemporary Western attitudes to dying and death.


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  • Unpublished

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Copyright 2017 the author

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