Under the skin: anatomy, art and identity

We are fascinated by the contents of our complex and fragile bodies.

Through history to the present day, artists, anatomists and doctors have both competed and collaborated over the possession, interpretation and depiction of our flesh and bones. Along with photographers, filmmakers, printers, scientists and sculptors they have developed diverse and diverging approaches to representing the layers of our physical selves. Opening a profound conversation on what it means to inhabit, and own, a human body.

‘Under the skin: anatomy, art and identity’ was an exhibition exploring the human form and its place in art, medicine and society from the medieval age to the contemporary world.

Following the success of acclaimed pop-up show ‘Illustrating the human body’, this significantly enlarged event features body-inspired pieces from more than a dozen contemporary artists. They sit in contrast and dialogue with over 60 rarely seen anatomical drawings, books and objects from the Royal College of Physicians’ outstanding collections, spanning over 500 years.

The Bud © Sofie Layton
Acne © Tasmin van Essen

From ancient woodcuts to 21st century scans, anatomical models to modern sculptures, dissections to artists’ installations: all have the power to evoke feelings of delight, disgust, fascination and horror. The results are amazing, but also occasionally shocking, feats of art and science. They capture the beautiful and unsettling shapes, structures and textures of our skeletons, tissues and skin, whilst raising troubling questions about the use, misuse and ownership of our bodies.

Together exhibits and artworks tell the frequently disturbing story of scientific anatomy and trace creative attempts to capture the experience of physical existence. They provide personal and emotional reflections on medical images of the human form, and provoke reflection on profound issues of identity, power and consent.

Listen to our fellows and members speak about their experiences of post-mortems and anatomy classes


Whose bodies are being used, by whom, and who controls how they are depicted?

Contemplating our complicated relationship to our bodies today are contemporary artists Andrew Carnie, Amanda Couch, Adelaide Damoah, Tamsin van Essen, Bee Flowers, Rebecca D Harris, Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, Sofie Layton, Lucy Lyons, Liz Orton, Angela Palmer, and Ruth Uglow.

Their works in a range of media from glass to ceramic, sketch to sculpture, print to performance are core to this unique exploration of the human image as seen by both artists and scientists, providing both counterpoint and response to the medical objects on display.

With historical and scientific items as diverse as a rudimentary 15th century representation of a naked body, Vesalius’ seminal and encyclopaedic human anatomy from Renaissance Italy, preserved human remains originating in 17th century Padua, an anatomy of acupuncture from 19th century Japan, 20th century moving x-ray images and 21st century medical textbooks, the displays peel back the surface of human existence to reveal what lies beneath. Mapping the techniques, styles and materials employed across seven centuries to map the human form and express how it feels to be alive.

Visitors are also invited to explore the anatomical treasures contained within the Royal College of Physicians’ permanent collection in greater depth, with a self-guided tour examining the technical accomplishments, tensions and moral ambiguities of the anatomist’s art.

This thrilling exhibition provides a unique perspective on the human body’s place in our visual culture and social history. It is both an overview of hundreds of years of attempts to comprehend and communicate the mysteries of our corporeal selves, and a live debate on the contested position of the human form in contemporary art and the public sphere. 

About Thinking 3D

TThinking 3Dhinking 3D is an interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of three-dimensionality and its impact on the arts and sciences. The innovative project puts the minds of the 21st century in touch with those of early practitioners exploring three-dimensionality.

The programme includes a year-long series of exhibitions, events, public talks, gallery shows, and academic symposia intended to incite dialogue between artists, art and book historians, mathematicians, astronomers, geometers, earth scientists, botanists and chemists.