Even before he’d won the Nobel, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s achievements were hailed as a turning point for his country. He was born in 1852 and grew up at a time when Spain’s golden years were widely considered over and done with. While its rivals, England, France and Germany, raked in the spoils of growing empires, Spain’s landholdings shrank. At 22, Ramón y Cajal served as a doctor in the Spanish army on an expedition to Cuba; in his mid-forties, Spain lost the last of its New World territory to the United States. Spain’s schools were an international joke, almost universally seen as inferior to Germany’s, which at the time were churning out an unholy number of world-renowned scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, musicians and writers.
As an exception to this pattern, Ramón y Cajal became a living symbol of his country’s burgeoning Regeneracionismo movement, someone whose greatness could help reinvent Spain as a modern power. But the relaxed, relatively undisciplined structure of Spanish society clearly helped to enable his success. For most of his early life, Ramón y Cajal had a reputation for fighting with his teachers, and showed no particular signs of being headed for a long, brilliant career. Unlike many famous doctors, he began to take an interest in medicine only in his late teens, after his father, an anatomy teacher, took him on a trip to the local graveyard. Unencumbered by the narrow specializations demanded by the contemporary German system, Ramón y Cajal had the luxury of drifting beyond medicine. He became a Freemason and later an amateur hypnotist. At a time when his country was overwhelmingly Catholic, he privately identified as an agnostic, although he continued to believe in the literal existence of the soul. Studying anatomy, epidemiology, neurology, painting, draftsmanship, gymnastics and bodybuilding in his twenties, he found unlikely inspirations for one subject in another. His notebooks don’t read like a doctor’s writings; instead, they strike a dreamy, poetic tone, comparing nerve cells to plants and bolts of lightning:
The cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, which can multiple their branches thanks to intelligent cultivation, send their roots deeper, and produce more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.
Drawing these roots, Ramón y Cajal’s hand is steady and confident. Even if you know little about draftsmanship, you can tell that he worked incredibly quickly; his lines are uniformly slender and precise. The structures he depicts are highly complicated but always carefully arranged, such that viewers don’t have to wade through superfluous detail to understand what they see. It’s telling that Ramón y Cajal drew almost exclusively from memory, allowing himself the time to process his own perceptions and reassemble multiple observations into a single, coherent whole—or, to use the term du jour among psychologists at the turn of the century, the gestalt. The results are somehow both hyper-rational and surreal. Examining them, you sense the artist’s impressive eye for detail, but also the ecstatic wonder he felt studying consciousness under the microscope.
In their enthusiasm for dizzying new ways of seeing the world, Ramón y Cajal’s drawings are typical of the modernist period in which they were made. This was the era when rationality and irrationality were drawing ever closer; when new technologies, as much as art and literature, seemed like the surest path to sublime experience. It was the era when Cubists and Futurists were looking to scientists for inspiration; when Gustav Eiffel, not an architect but an engineer, designed the most jaw-dropping building on the planet; when Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments with moving images put even the most radical avant-gardists to shame. With science changing almost every creative form, the art of drawing the body was hardly immune.
The first image of a human brain in “The Beautiful Brain” wasn’t drawn by Santiago Ramón y Cajal and isn’t remotely beautiful. It’s a dull little cross section, the kind you’d find in a high school biology textbook, with the different lobes colored pink, green and yellow and labeled with black arrows that stick out like needles in a pin cushion. Presumably, the diagram is intended to help laypeople understand some of the science of Ramón y Cajal’s work. But it accidentally highlights an important feature of anatomical art. The very act of drawing the human body—showing it naked, dyed, flayed and paralyzed on the page—suggests a kind of violence. The further back one goes in the history of anatomy, the more explicit the violence becomes; many of the drawings featured in the exhibit, some dating back centuries, underscore this idea.
Modern anatomical illustration began with the Renaissance revival of classical scholarship. Most of the great Renaissance artists dissected corpses in order to improve their paintings’ verisimilitude. The most important anatomists, such as Andreas Vesalius, author of the influential textbook De humani corporis fabrica (1543), took inspiration from the two main artistic wellsprings of the time: Greco-Roman mythology and the Bible. The early modern anatomical figure is frequently heroic, larger than life, frozen in the pose of Zeus or Christ or Apollo—think, for instance, of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, arranged to resemble the crucifixion. More than two centuries later, the anatomist Jacques Gamelin drew Christ flayed on the cross, making explicit what Leonardo had only implied.
In Juan Valverde de Amonsco’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1559), there’s an engraving of a man with a dagger, holding up his own skin as a kind of sacrificial offering. (Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment depicts a resurrected Saint Bartholomew triumphantly bearing the same bizarre instruments of his martyrdom.) The bizarre image, far from an outlier in its genre, evokes one of the dominant motifs of early modern anatomical drawing: the figures’ complicity, even perverse pleasure, in their own mutilation. In the engravings of Vesalius and his imitators, bodies neither living nor dead rip open their skins like subway flashers. “The Beautiful Brain” exhibits a page from Frederik Ruysch’s influential Thesaurus anatomicus primus (1701-1716) in which a quintet of skeletons grin and point, strumming musical instruments fashioned from their own remains. Their bodies are gone, but somehow they’ve held onto their humanity.