Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the ages

by Lorenzo Lorusso
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Les Grimaces

The comic representation of the doctor found a place of prominence on the stage of the Commedia dell’Arte (Comedy of Art) in Italy. The popular improvised comedy with its jolly stock characters flourished in the Seventeenth century and inspired dramatists outside Italy in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth centuries. In the pictorial arts the influence of the Commedia dell’Arte is strongly seen in the works of Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) that illustrated medical men in a variety of diverting situations such as the Italian mask Dottor Pantalone. The medical and theatrical profession converged in the personage of the itinerant physician. Many Dutch dramatists presented these itinerant physician selling drug or carring out the treatment on a platform in clown costume and considered quacks. On the other hand the theatre inspired William Hogarth (1697-1764) who as the first among artists to make caricature his main form of artistic production. He introduced the anatomical theatre is the scene for one of his caricature series “The Reward of Cruelty”. In his moral campaign he represented the medical profession in the picture of a dissection which turn into a sadistic orgy of slaughter. There was a morbid trend in Hogarth’s humor whenever he chose the physician as the object of his art. He ridiculed prominent members of the physicians’ guild in London, as “The Company of Undertakers” [Fig. 1]. In this and several other caricatures Hogarth grouped together caricatured portraits which produce a comic effect through their facial distorsion.

Fig. 1
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The Company of Undertakers

by William Hogarth (1697-1764), 1822.

The engraving is in the form of a coat of arms with the inscriptions “Et plurima mortis imago”. The Doctors are thoughtfully handling their cane heads, the form and name of which has a psychological function similar to that of the urinal in the early German woodcut of the Doctor and the Jester, namely that of a depreciatory allusion. The cartoonist is implying in effect the heads of the doctors are as empty as their cane heads. In the upper row is to be seen an equally boastful and successful eye-specialist, who has only one eye (the cane head shows his second eye). In the center is a woman surgeon in a harlequin’s costume (a reminder of the Commedia dell’Arte), and on the right is a practitioner, as ignorant as he is fashionable, who has a mole on his left cheek (symbolized by the heraldic bisection of the face which divides it into a light and a dark half). Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA

Fig. 2
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Facial expression

Caricature of facial expression; group of four men and one woman by Louis Léopold Boilly in Les Grimaces, 1823. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA

This artistic device was based on a principle carried to an extreme by the French Louis Leopold Boilly (1761-1827) [Fig. 2]. This development was stimulated by a form of ascertainment favored by the society of the Directoire, the art of the “ Grymaciers ”. These were comedians who, by forcing their features into grimaces, amused the guests of their wealthy patron. Boilly published caricatures which show crowds of such grimacers that depicts a grouped of five comic character heads of physician together into a grotesque composition. Boilly’s grimaces faces are less invented caricatures than studies of actual exaggerated expressions. Late in his career Boilly began a series entitled Recueil de Grimaces. The first few prints were mainly studies of facial expression, but he soon extended to representations of social types, ranging from beggars to connoisseurs. These extremely successful social satires served as important sources for caricaturists of the following decades, including Honoré Daumier (1808-1879). His studies of facial expression, doubtless inspired by Charles Le Brun’s (1601-1690) Methode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions and the physiognomic classifications of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) which had such a marked influence on the French artists. Boilly’s work culminated in a famous series of lithographs, Les Grimaces, published in 1823. Grimaces seem to have been an internationally favored motif of the period. The Swiss Lavater at that time stirred up a lively discussion by his writings on physiognamics. Grimaces are frequent in the drawings which Lavater commissioned as illustrations for his works. However, the classical notion of human types in terms of animal characters as reflected in their facial features could still be traced as an influence on his ideas. In a similar vein, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) resorted to the means of transforming men into animals when aimed at the physician in one of his “Capriccios”.


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