Among Euan Uglow’s studio props was a female skull, minus the jaw bone and, possibly, two thousand years old. His friend and fellow painter Tony Eyton wrote that Uglow found it in an ancient burial ground and smuggled it out. It is a fit companion to Notes of an Anatomist by Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a practicing pathologist and Professor Emeritus of Pathology at Northwestern Medical School. He is also a witty, graceful scholar and essayist.
Notes opens with an urbane chapter on embalming with anecdotal references from ancient Egypt to Jacques Maritain in a dentist’s chair. But my favorite part is the author’s tribute to the miracle of the human body. After a tart glance at our contemporary funeral industry, comes this:
However, as a pathologist, too, I am not ready to condemn the practice of embalming as a shameless farce or to pass it up as nothing but a sordid hoax played by the greedy on the gullible. Rather, I see in it an impulse not without nobility, to prevent, or at least decelerate, the ruin of the human body.
Gonzalez-Crussi’s generosity continues:
Commercialism and dishonesty aside, the embalmer obeys that obscure dictate that would have us stave off, or at least retard, the decay of this marvel. It is our primeval vigor, our deepest creative prepotency, our basic fund of anti death energy, that infuses us with the wish, however irrational, to make the corruptible undecaying and the impermanent neutral. The ancients fancied that the soul did not abandon the body on a sudden; but even after death it lingered on for forty-two days, departing gradually and as if by stages.Da Vinci reflected on this theme and thought that it was quite fitting that the soul should dally, for the body is so wondrous a habitation that the soul could not find it easy to part with; and finding it so painful to quit its mortal domicile, it hesitates.
Later, that delicately spiritual writer Paul Valéry, on reading the autobiographical passage of Leonard that contains these reflections, was greatly intrigued. This was for Valéry a metaphysical system of most peculiar originality: that the farewell scene between body and soul should be imagined as capable of “bringing tears to the eyes . . . of the soul!”
Gonalez-Crussi closes with the reminder that Leonardo had himself dissected scores of cadavers. While his metaphysical construct may struck the popular ear as odd, it sounds perfectly natural to pathologists and embalmers.
• • • • •
Conversation in 1979 beween Sophie, the fourteen year old daughter of Uglow’s friend, painter Bernard Cohen:
EU: “Will you pose for me?”
SOPHIE: “How long for?”
EU: “Might be five years.”
SOPHIE: “Do you talk to your models?”
SOPHIE: “What do you say?”
EU: “You’ve moved your leg. Put it back.”
SOPHIE: “Do you give your models lunch?”
SOPHIE: “What do you give them?”
EU: “Scrambled eggs and spinach.”
SOPHIE: “Every day?”
SOPHIE: “No thanks.”
• • • • •
A few postings back, Special Pleading/Christian Artists, I mentioned the dependence of self-identified Christian artists on that curious genre, the Artist’s Statement. Without the crutch of expository prose, “Christian” art was largely indistinguishable from mainstream, non-Christian, come-as-you-are art. As an example of that reliance, I featured a work by Helen Zajkowski, a member of Christians in the Visual Arts.
I abbreviated Helen’s accompanying statement for reasons of economy. She wrote to tell me she would have preferred to see her testimony printed in full. I promised to make good. Herewith:
The core of my work is the Judeo-Christian philosophy calling for universal stewardship of our natural resources. My art deals with the biblical cycle of creation and destruction in ironic terms. By taking a well-known image from the Scripture and juxtaposing it with a current ecological issue, I aim to awaken the viewer to the new dimensions of the Old and New Testament, as well as to our current understanding of our environment.
You can view additional work by Helen here.