After Rymsdyk: drawing in Glasgow University Anatomy Museum by Jac Saorsa, Research Fellow at Glasgow University Medical Humanities Research Centre

I am here in Glasgow working on a paper in which I hope will put the Drawing Women’s Cancer project into historical and philosophical context. All of the work up to now on the project has been directly concerned with the here and now – with the experiences of women in the present, and this was the necessary and primary aim from the beginning. I feel however that to enhance the validity and indeed the credibility of the work, it is very necessary also to ‘ground’ the project in relation to what has gone before. Here is a pertinent section of the proposal that the Wellcome Trust, who have generously funded my time here, approved:

The paper will look at how perceptions of the woman patient between the 18th century rise of obstetrics and the ‘man-midwife’ persona of William Hunter and his Scottish contemporaries, through the 19th century advancement of gynaecology to the present day treatment of gynaecological disease, have influenced present day attitudes – both medical and general – towards gynaecological illness and its overall impact on women’s lives, and moreover, how these attitudes were and can be affected by and through visual art. I will focus on a methodological and philosophical comparison of Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (drawings by Jan Van Rymsdyk) and the development of my own drawings for Drawing Women’s Cancer as a basis from which to explore how visual art as a form of expression and communication can, as a form of ‘metalanguage’, effectively serve to ‘speak the unspeakable’ in this area women’s health.

It is the historical context that has been engaging my time and thoughts up to now as I have discovered the University Anatomy Museum. The experience of drawing from the very same bodies that Rymsdyk drew from is a gift, and in many ways very humbling. Glasgow University Library also holds the full set of Rymsdyk’s drawings for the Gravid Uterus in their Special Collections and I spent a whole afternoon studying them, trying to understand how he executed them – one artist to another. I have to admit I had a few surprises after only ever seeing the reproductions. I discovered that he definitely does use graphite in the drawings,  which are often considered to be just red chalk alone, and he also uses what looks like dilute ink in blue yellow and green. The drawings are less defined and precise in the flesh – and, to my mind, better for that! In some there is definitely a ‘wetting’ if the chalk – and this is further evidenced by the buckling of the paper- but it is a technique he seems to use sparingly. Most of the tonal quality comes from exceptionally sensitive blending of the chalk and overall, at least in my opinion, he does indeed have a very ‘painterly’ style.

It is from Hunter’s work – and Rymsdyk’s drawings – that medicine was able to take huge leaps in understanding the woman’s reproductive system but for me, even beyond that, the drawings themselves are much more than scientifically oriented illustrations. I now have a richer and far deeper understanding of the sensitivity and the artistry of the man from seeing and feeling first hand the power of drawing to communicate and express. Moreover, from such an intimate perspective, the experience has allowed me to take great leaps in terms of how I feel about my own practice in relation to Drawing Women’s Cancer and the other art and medicine projects I am currently working on.

This post carries some of the drawings I have been doing in the museum. Some may find the drawings difficult, but please be assured that the intention behind them is not to upset, but rather to celebrate the capacity of drawing to express such subjectivity.

I have used red chalk (or at least the modern equivalent) and graphite. I am not in any way trying to emulate Rymsdyk, this is never the point, I am simply trying to ‘get inside his head’ in search – through practice – of the subjective nuances of what he was doing. I am also, undeniably, enjoying myself enormously, and especially savouring the necessity to get back to a level of ‘discipline’ in the work!

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