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    Medical Illustration Professor David Williams in the Essay The Most Dangerous Beauty

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    On March 12, 1938, Adolf Hitler enters Vienna in a limousine, prepared to announce his annexation of Austria in what becomes known as the Anschluss. He arrives a few years after the Jewish diaspora, in which Jews were expelled from Ukraine and flooded Vienna, where they became hapless victims of violence and religious persecution. On the morning of Hitler’s arrival, Eduard Pernkopf, an Austrian professor at the Anatomy Institute in Vienna, preaches to the German masses his allegiance to Hitler and advocates an extermination of contaminated Jewish elements from the country. His speech sparks war within the institute and troves of Jewish students are wounded and murdered in the ensuing frenzy of bloodlust. Their bodies, along with those of other victims, are carefully preserved and it is “from the legend of these human limbs” that Pernkopf’s temple—his prized anatomy book—-rises (Paterniti 739).

    In his essay, “The Most Dangerous Beauty,” Michael Paterniti recounts the story of medical illustration professor David Williams. Williams is fascinated by Pernkopf’s Anatomy, a medical book that illustrates the meticulous dissection of every organ and blood vessel in the body. The diagrams are painted accurately and even gracefully with respect to form, color, and composition. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Williams finds beauty in the Book and yet, he incurs vitriol for admiring it. He encounters a Jewish woman at Cambridge, who openly condemns the Book as “nothing but a “dirty crime scene” (746).

    Williams is perplexed by her indignation, but when he discovers the probable history of the Book, the ghastly process of its conception, he feels disconcerted and begins to reconsider his once-profuse admiration. Yet, even after he discovers the truth, he still finds beauty in the images, only this time, his fascination is accompanied by a “strange sadness” (748). Although his new reaction is less enthusiastic than it once was, he still marvels at the careful deconstruction of the human body with every flip of the page. In short, he contemplates the Book in the context of art and to some extent medical education.

    While Paterniti portrays David Williams as an irrational individual, who finds artistic beauty in what seems like an objectively ghastly Book, he fails to consider the likely change in Williams’ attitude to the Book were it presented to him in its tragic historical context. As he gazes at his brother’s still and lifeless body on the dissection table, Williams no longer finds “anything beautiful about him, only a pallid mask where his face had been” (743). Yet, he finds beauty in the anatomical paintings and in fact, sustains this belief even after he discovers the ghastly origins of the Book. Why?

    The Book, as Williams examines it, is divorced from its historical context. As he flips through the pages, he sees intricate forms, some lurid and voyeuristic, but perfect, nonetheless. He sees characteristic blends of colors to produce flesh tones, arterial red, venous blue. To some extent, he also sees a new resource to guide his students, not to mention practicing physicians and surgeons. He doesn’t see individual people, but rather only generic collections of organs and blood vessels that once belonged to innocent individuals. Even the faces, when shown, are partially or fully dissected and thus it is nearly impossible to even speculate the identity of a particular cadaver in the Book. Because there is no detectable identity in the body parts, Williams does not experience the same magnitude of grief [upon discovering the origin of the Book] as the Jewish woman at Cambridge. The Book eternalizes painful memories of her beloved brethren, who were victims of its creation and thus, it reminds her of those she lost.

    But what if Pernkopf’s Anatomy was presented to Williams at the Museum of German Art, where the names of the murdered victims would be inscribed alongside their painted bodies and stories of their deaths revealed in terse adjuncts? Here, the Book would be a historical artifact, rather than object of art. The history of its creation would become one’s basis for judgment, rather than form, color, and composition. Although the aesthetic properties of the Book would still be acknowledged, they would figure less prominently in one’s contemplation of it.

    Terry Tempest Williams, in her essay, “A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness,” consciously imagines herself removing a tiger shark from its traditional context in a museum exhibit and planting it in the world of art, where it suddenly acquires a new, antithetical meaning. Williams implores us to not only share in her delight at observing a hostile tiger shark, but also to designate wilderness, as embodied by the shark, “art of the wild” (Williams 483). By virtue of both convention and her profession, Williams initially examines the shark for its biological properties. She marvels at “how out of proportion its mouth it to the rest of its body” and wonders “how many teeth hung from its gums during its lifetime,” speculating “five to twenty” rows (480). The stillness of the shark accentuates its “rows of teeth…biting and tearing, thrashing and chomping on flesh,” and instills a chilling fear in Williams (480).

    Williams freezes in terror as she imagines the destructive potential of the shark, stored in its the numerical vastness and muscular cartilage, come to life. Her fear, based in her scientific observation of the shark, emerges from an intrinsic animal connection she forges with it that reminds her of her own physical fragility. She realizes that both she and the shark are trapped in a world that “thwarts creativity” (481). Upon learning that Damien Hirst finds “ideas of trying to understand the world by taking things out of the world,” Williams [figuratively] leaves the world of the museum and takes the shark with her into the untapped wilderness. Hirst divorces a particular object from its context to understand it in absolute terms. Terry Williams adopts this logic in her examination of the shark, overcoming her struggle to conceive it “in the context of art, not science” (481). Suddenly, the freedom of the shark’s movement and her freedom of thought unite to produce a new meaning. Imagining the shark in the context of wilderness defamiliarizes it and gives Williams the advantage of a detached fascination.

    Yet, David Williams’ detached fascination toward the body parts in Pernkopf’s atlas creates animosity, suggesting not only that a given object may be perceived in multiple contexts, but also that the same context when applied to different objects may elicit contrasting responses. As Terry Williams gazes at the shark, she finds herself trapped “between contrary equilibriums”—between the notion of wilderness as something that meaninglessly exists and as an ontological entity that, like “a constellation of monarch butterflies,” explores the “meaning of life” and existence (483). When one examines “a shark in a box” and “a human being suspended in formaldehyde” one sees, respectively, sharp, destructive teeth and a pallid face that captures the pain of death and elicits sympathy (484).

    However, when the shark swims freely, darting left and right, it suddenly becomes a graceful creature of Nature. When a faceless collection of body parts is presented, one no longer senses the individual’s existence that met with death, but rather is enraptured by the intricate beauty of the human anatomy. In both cases, removing an object from its original context and conceiving it in another context transforms our perception of it, insofar that terror becomes beauty. While Paterniti recounts David Williams’ exploration of the Book primarily through the lens of art, a single context, Terry Williams describes her perception of the shark in two [disparate] contexts. She might advise David Williams to imagine, for a moment, that Pernkopf’s Anatomy is displayed at a historical exhibit and that every painting in the Book is labeled with a name, photograph, and brief biography.

    The “astral penumbra of arteries” suddenly belongs to a young thirty-five year-old man, who successfully supported a wife and two children through factory labor until the ambitious Pernkopf came along (Paterniti 737). “Is the Book still beautiful?” Terry Williams would ask. While David Williams’ initial admiration of the Book for its artistic prowess seems to be justified by Terry Williams’ contemplation of the shark in two different contexts, his sustained fascination with the Book even after he discovers its history remains nebulous.

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    Medical Illustration Professor David Williams in the Essay The Most Dangerous Beauty. (2022, Nov 25). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/medical-illustration-professor-david-williams-in-the-essay-the-most-dangerous-beauty/

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