Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Christophe Degueurce:
Fragonard Museum: The Ecorches.

Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Blast Books (April 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 092223339X
ISBN-13: 978-0922233397
Price: 42.00 EUR

Creepy Fascination

“Human foetuses dancing Gigue”

The human body’s hidden secrets have always fascinated people. An ancient master of the art of preservation of internal organs was French anatomist, Honoré Fragonard, whose remarkable collection of flayed figures can be admired at Musée Fragonard near Paris along with his impressive book.

It’s a sad story, a true Love Story, which happened about 200 years before Erich Segal wrote his famous novel of the same title. As the story goes: A young man loves a young woman, however, the maiden’s unyielding parents oppose the young couple’s union whereupon she dies of grief.

At this point, the romantic love story abruptly turns into a macabre farce. At night, the sad boy sneaks to the graveyard, excavates his girlfriend’s corpse out of the consecrated earth and takes it home. He washes the dead body in warm water, shaves it and cuts the vessels open to expel the thickened blood.

Prepared for eternity

He then takes a sentimental breath – and tears off her skin. A few weeks later, his deceased girlfriend’s flayed figure is sitting on a horse in his living room – dissected, neatly arranged and prepared for eternity. And when a visitor questions him about the funky flatmate, “his only response is a look of profound melancholy – he had given his true love the ultimate gift: eternal preservation.”

The young man in this story has a name, Honoré Fragonard. The French, “surgeon, anatomist, and virtuosic preparator is known for his famous écorchés: [...] masterfully dissected human and animal specimens preserved more than two centuries ago.” Born in 1732 as a cousin to Rococo painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, he produced in his lifetime some 700 long-time preserved, skinless cadavers, of which 21 have outlasted the course of time.

After studying surgery, at the age of 34, Fragonard obtained the employment that would make him and his creations immortal: at the veterinary school of Alfort (near Paris) he served for six years as the school’s first professor of anatomy, perfecting his skills, teaching them to students and preparing all day long. After his lay-off, Fragonard continued to prepare dissections in his home and sold them to the aristocracy. He was involved in the French revolution, acting as a commissioner for arts. In 1799, Fragonard died, aged 66. It is not known whether the great anatomist of the 18th century was flayed and dissected himself but it’s likely.

A specialist in cadavers

Showroom at the Musée Fragonard (on the left, the famous “Horseman of the Apocalypse”). Photos (2): Tourisme Valdemarne

The picture book Fragonard Museum – The Écorchés, appreciates the life and artwork of this great man, presented in the Museum of the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort (10 kilometres southeastern of Paris). Written by Christophe Degueurce, a professor of anatomy and the museum’s curator, the book’s main focus is on Fragonard’s 21 specimens. We learn that during Fragonard’s lifetime these écorchés have been used for scientific demonstration purposes as well as being simply works of art that should trigger religious emotions. We learn a lot about the protagonist’s life as well as about his high craftsmanship and skilled preparation techniques to make dry specimens: how Fragonard injected resin mixtures into the veins; how he revealed the vascular system by corrosion; how he opened the cranium, extracted the brain without damaging the skull and finally stuffed the cavity with horsehair.

In addition, we learn about the genesis of Fragonard’s masterpieces, namely the “Man with a Mandible”, the “Human foetuses dancing Gigue” (see photo above) and, of course, the best known of them all, the “Horseman of the Apocalypse”. And we remember the macabre love story and secretly wonder if this “horseman” really can be the corpse of Fragonard’s dead bride.

Overwhelming evidence says not. At the risk of crushing romantic notions, the greater tragedy lies with something rather obscure that isn’t quite befitting a bride (dead or alive): the dried remains of a penis, which Fragonard apparently removed in order to better position the rider on his mount.

Letzte Änderungen: 07.08.2013