[NSFW images ahead]
When we last dropped in on the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY, we unveiled some beautifully horrifying (or horrifyingly beautiful, take your pick) wax exhibits of grotesque anatomical oddities — the kind of exhibit (known as a panoptica) which once drew thousands of curiosity-seekers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Anatomically-correct wax figures like these came in many forms, but one of the most exotic, fascinating and popular was the “Anatomical Venus” — a life-sized female dummy with realistic internal organs, which amateur “surgeons” could dissect like a giant Operation game.
The most intriguing aspect of the Anatomical Venus is the overt sexual representation of the subject — who is often nude, reclining on a velvet couch or silk bed, and her body language is usually depicted as rapturous or even orgasmic.
I won’t pretend the whole concept isn’t vaguely creepy… it’s extremely creepy. Like, serial-killer creepy. But you still have to admire the macabre artistry behind it. Visitors to historic panoptica around the world certainly did, and even bought souvenir replicas which they could experiment on at home.
Artist and designer Joanna Ebenstein, co-founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, considers the Venus to be a kind of muse and mascot for that institution, and her exhaustive research into the subject has inspired a new art book.
The elaborate and beautiful volume, entitled THE ANATOMICAL VENUS: WAX, GOD, DEATH AND THE ECSTATIC, compiles 250 images of these Venus figures — some extremely rare — collected by the author from around the world.
The publisher describes it as a reflection on “the tradition of life-sized simulacra and preserved beautiful women, the phenomenon of women in glass boxes in fairground displays, and ideas of the ecstatic, the sublime and the uncanny.” The book also collects observations on the artists’ skills, as well as the social phenomenon of the Venus and what it says about human psychology.