Vanitas Dissected

Shaurya Taran
University of Ottawa
Class of 2016

To understand some of the works the author discusses, you can access the Vanitas paintings, as well as some of Vicente's other work, from the following link: http://www.medinart.eu/works/fernando-vicente/

“Vanitas” is a series of paintings by the contemporary Spanish artist Fernando Vicente. Each painting depicts a female subject with part of her skin removed, revealing muscles, organs, and bones. The paintings are like the medical illustrations of Netter’s, but rendered with more artistic intent and in deeper, more daring hues. Although Vicente’s art may appear straightforward at first, a closer look might suggest multiple interpretations of his seemingly simple works.

Each painting is a layering of two images, one of a woman and the other of an anatomical dissection. Although both images are a part of the same work, our eyes pause separately on each, as if one were distinct from the other. It is a careful balancing act. In a Netter’s illustration, our eyes move naturally towards the cut-away part of the image—the part which shows the skin removed—and do not pause for long on the human subject from which the cut-aways are drawn. But in “Vanitas,” the human subjects command as much attention as the cut-aways themselves. Small flourishes, such as the arm tattoo in “Escorzo,” or the pearl necklace in “Materia Rosa,” not only give the women of “Vanitas” life and personality, but remind us that these paintings are not merely medical illustrations. Here, the subjects are as important as the cut-aways themselves.

There is another reason why the paintings in “Vanitas” appear balanced, and that has as much to do with what is depicted as to how it is depicted. Notice how, in several paintings, there is no clear demarcation between foreground and background. This is most apparent in “Escorzo” and “Materia Rosa,” where the subject and surroundings blend and merge with each other in several places. Adding to the illusion of continuity is the artist’s selection of colours. Instead of painting the women against a neutral background, Vicente has rendered each in similar hues; in doing so, he has removed emphasis from the subject and added emphasis to the surroundings, thereby causing our attention to switch between the two.This effect is less obvious in some of the other paintings. While there may seem to be a clearer demarcation between foreground and background in “Humo” and “Presentimiento,” the subjects are painted right up against the picture frames, as if one were an extension of the other. The overall outcome is that each painting lacks a focal point towards which our eyes are drawn, and therefore we appreciate the paintings as a whole rather than merely as a sum of their individual parts.

One of the most striking features of each painting is its medical accuracy. Vicente has gone to great lengths to ensure the precision of the anatomy he has depicted. The cut-aways are remarkably exact, and are far more detailed than one might expect from a series which does not aim to impart anatomical knowledge. It is not uncommon for painters of this genre to sacrifice scientific fidelity for the sake of art. However, here the medical precision of each painting contributes to, rather than works against, its overall artistic quality. The faithfulness of these illustrations to actual anatomy is extraordinary, with each bone, nerve, and blood vessel placed exactly as it could appear in situ. “Escorzo” is perhaps most remarkable in this regard: the cut-away reveals multiple planes through the head and neck, with the brain half-exposed, along with glands, fascia, muscles, and nerves revealed in varying planes and to varying degrees. “Interiores” also stands out for its intricate dissection of the individual neck muscles, and “Gravidez” is impressive for its depiction of a developing baby, complete with an attached placenta. These details enrich the paintings, and contribute as much to their overall artistic appealas, for example, the tattoos and pearl necklaces which adorn some of the more fashionable members of the “Vanitas” series.

Vicente’s steady hand and eye for detail has resulted in a beautiful set of paintings, each of which beckons more than just a casual glance. The art is both elaborate and though-provoking. “Vanitas” is the kind of series to which a viewer feels compelled to return, discovering in each visit a new detail or a fresh perspective. The anatomy—captivating, vivid, and realistic—manages at once to be medically exact and artistically compelling. In “Vanitas,” Vicente has done with a paintbrush the work of a scalpel.

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