September 18, 2005 | During the heroic age of feminism, say from 1969 to 1980, I don't recall hearing all that much Latin but one phrase cropped with some regularity: templum aedificatum super cloacam. This was Tertullian's unforgettable definition of a beautiful woman—"a temple built over a sewer"—and it was wonderfully useful. If you ever needed to prove the fundamental misogyny of the West but had to hurry off to a pressing engagement elsewhere, it was a fine conversational trump card—the statement that renders further debate unnecessary.

Actually Tertullian, the second-century father of the Latin church, never said this; the bon-mot is of pagan origin and first appears seven hundred years later in an anonymous collection of maxims. Not that this mattered. The phrase is useful precisely because it summarizes what everybody already knows—in this case, that Christianity has given Western Civilization an abiding disgust and loathing for the body, not only for that of woman but the human body in general.

But can it be that the anonymous wit of late antiquity—as odious and repellent as he sounds to our modern ears—was more of an idealist than we are? After all, he saw that the body, corrupt and imperfect as it may be, had a beautiful and sublime aspect. In recent years, we have seen artists present the female body covered with simulated sores (Hannah Wilke), smeared with chocolate as a surrogate for excrement (Karen Finley), outfitted with grotesque and misshapen sexual prosthetics (Cindy Sherman), and in a state of rigor mortis and incipient putrefaction, recorded in a photograph of the corpse of an infant (Andres Serrano). To look at much recent art, one might easily conclude that the body is all sewer, and no temple at all.

As morbid and disturbing as these images are, they by no means represent the absolute nadir. This would be the work of Günther von Hagen, the creator of the Body Worlds exhibit that is now criss-crossing North America. (By October it will be on view in Toronto and Philadelphia.) It is worth taking a long look at von Hagen, for his flayed candy-colored bodies tell us as much about our world as Michelangelo's David does about his.

The way a body is treated aesthetically is always an index of a society's moral sensibility. The Middle Ages subordinated the life of the body to the life of the soul; the peculiar writhing and squirming of medieval statues functioned as a kind of spiritual seismograph, recording the spiritual tremors below the surface. This changed in the Italian Renaissance, which restored to the body the properties of weight, volume, and gravity. For the Renaissance artist, there was no lovelier, more exquisitely proportioned object in all of nature than the human form, a temple indeed. This is the humanism embodied—literally—in the David, and neatly encapsulated in Hamlet's soliloquy: "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel."

And what a piece of work is von Hagen. During the 1970s von Hagen, a refugee from former East Germany and trained physician, patented a technique for removing all residual fat and moisture from cadavers and replacing them with plastic polymers. These he gave bright neon colors, helping to differentiate the various muscle groups and blood vessels—a useful aid in teaching medical students, for which reason von Hagen invented the technique. So far, he was no different than Leonardo da Vinci or Andreas Vesalius, those celebrated anatomical artists of the Renaissance, who made lucid the hidden workings of the human body. But some unseen bridge was crossed when von Hagen decided that his cadavers were fun to look at.

Body Worlds presents some two hundred "plastinated" human bodies arranged in dramatic tableaux. A skinless rollerblader executes a neat handstand; a basketball player dribbles a ball, dodging a blocker; a mournful cadaver holds up his own flayed skin, as if deciding whether to send it to the cleaners. Through all of this runs a Baroque sense of theater—Barnum meets Bernini—and von Hagen certainly knows how to work a crowd. A website offers backpacks, baseball caps, and mouse pads with skinless bodies, beneath a disclaimer that explains that the purpose of Body Worlds is "health education." A helpful link even helps you donate your own body to join the traveling road show.

It is not the mixture of entertainment and corpses that repulses in von Hagen. Long ago, the Capuchin monks of Palermo created their famed catacombs, in which bodies—mummified in the dry Sicilian air—were arranged in comic scenes: grotesque families at dinner, group portraits of mummified naval officers. Here too is high ghoulishness, of a sort that requires strong stomachs. But the ghoulishness has a distinct moral agenda, and is meant to show the monks' indifference to death, and to steel them to it. With von Hagen, the ghoulishness is offset by no higher purpose, his protestations about health education notwithstanding.

Virtually every society on record has insisted on reverence for the bodies of the dead—and to judge from the archaeological evidence, this has been the case for at least fifty thousand years. Evidently, reverence for the dignity and integrity of the dead is innate, although—as von Hagen's success shows—he has found people can be talked into suppressing their instinctive reactions. But there always seemed to be something macabre about von Hagen's work, which placed him closer to the orbit of Dr. Kevorkian than that of Vesalius. There was no great surprise when the German newsweekly Der Spiegel published an expose on von Hagen—whose factory is in Dalian, China, which provides many of his cadavers—which revealed that at least some of his subjects had the evidence of bullet holes in the back of the neck, the preferred Chinese method of executing prisoners. At present he is under a cloud in his native Germany, which accounts for this year's American tours.

I have always been suspicious of art that deliberately and primarily seeks to offend, which is always an infantile impulse. But von Hagen has given me an unexpected sympathy for Karen Finley and those "abject artists" of the 1990s who pursued morbid and ghoulish themes. In so far as they made art that was intentionally repugnant, they at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe. No such capacity is apparent, alas, in the Day-Glo candy-colored universe of Günther von Hagen, who work is forever antiseptic and clean—and as efficient as a bullet at the base of a grinning skull.


Michael J. Lewis teaches American art at Williams College. He writes regularly on art and culture, and his books include Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind and the prize-winning Politics of the German Gothic Revival.




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