I discovered anatomical drawing years before I could understand what I was looking at. When I was in the first grade, my grandfather took my interest in crayons and colored pencils as a sign that I might follow in his footsteps. He’s a doctor, with charmingly old-fashioned ideas about the unity of art and science, and looking back, it feels inevitable that he should have introduced me to Leonardo da Vinci.
I was too young to hold the book myself, but when he lifted it from the shelf and held it in his lap it seemed almost sacred, too complicated for any single person to comprehend. I still remember the yellowish sketches: ribs and tendons cross-hatched into three dimensions; perfectly rounded skulls that made me furious with my own clumsy hands; the fetus cleanly sliced from its mother’s womb. Mostly, I remember my envy for the man, centuries dead, who’d drawn all this so effortlessly—envy that was deeply bound up in awe and confusion and discomfort with how deeply he’d gazed into the body.
I felt similar emotions when I visited “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish doctor often considered the father of modern neurology, won the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his twenty years of research on the nervous system. His theory of brain anatomy—“the neuron doctrine,” which argues that discrete neuron cells transmit signals across charged gaps—catalyzed some of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the last century. “The Beautiful Brain” suggests, provocatively but convincingly, that Ramón y Cajal’s ideas caught on not merely because they were right but because they were bolstered by impeccably detailed, imaginative drawings of neurons he’d observed under the microscope—evidence which, at a time when photography was still an expensive oddity, was widely circulated among the world’s great scientists.
If Ramón y Cajal’s medical renown was partly a product of his artistry, then his drawings’ aesthetic virtues can’t be separated from their effectiveness as scientific documents. For most of his early career, neuroscience was dominated by “reticular theory,” which conceived of the brain as a solid, continuous “web.” Ramón y Cajal’s theory instead emphasized the intricacy of the nervous system’s individual parts, crucially suggesting that certain neurons could grow over time. The neuron doctrine was a triumph of imagination as much as scientific observation, and it introduced a bundle of new metaphors for the structure of the brain. It was not just a tree but a garden, a flower, a forest; in Ramón y Cajal’s research, as in Leonardo’s, science and imagination joined forces, glorifying life in the act of interpretation.
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.
Again and again in the history of medical drawing, style has taken precedence over content. The most famous anatomical text in the English-speaking world, currently in its forty-first edition, originated in the middle of the nineteenth century because its author, Dr. Henry Gray, objected on aesthetic grounds to the cumbersome, baroque textbooks of his day, illustrated in the tradition of Vesalius. Working with the artist Henry Vandyke Carter (who later turned on his partner for trying to remove his name from the title page), Gray developed a convenient, authoritative anatomy that could be used by any doctor in any city, eschewing gaudy illustrations for a style stripped, as it were, down to the bare bones.
Considering Carter’s work alongside that of his European predecessors, it’s hard not to think that Gray’s Anatomy marked a huge change in the way human beings understood themselves. First published in 1858, six years after Ramón y Cajal was born and one year before the release of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the book presents the human body as a thing without a personality or a soul, no more or less than the sum of its hundreds of thousands of parts. Nothing could be further from the anatomy texts of a few hundred years before, in which bodies maintained something of a personality even after being dissected. The mysterious chiaroscuro of the Renaissance cadaver was gone, replaced by the harsh scrutiny of the operating theater.
In a way, Gray’s Anatomy marked the end of the ideal set out by the Renaissance artist and poet Leon Battista Alberti: that the visual arts should “contain a divine force that not only makes absent men present … but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive.” By removing that spark of personality from depictions of the body, it helped relegate anatomical illustration to the second tier of visual art. Yet it killed Alberti’s elusive dream by offering what was arguably the culmination of another—the Enlightenment fantasy of the Homo faber, the “working man” who masters his environment with strength and intelligence, and builds tools that allow him to understand every inch of his body. Over the course of Ramón y Cajal’s lifetime, man would discover that, as of yet, he didn’t really understand his body at all.
Displaying the works of Ruysch and Vesalius alongside those of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “The Beautiful Brain” brings up another perennial problem with depicting the body. Anatomical drawings are supposed to serve as objective records. But it’s almost impossible to draw the body without smuggling in unscientific assumptions about how it should look and how others should perceive it. The further back in time one goes, the easier these are to spot. In the case of Renaissance anatomy, they’re plain as day; in the work of Ramón y Cajal, you have to look closer.
Walking through “The Beautiful Brain,” you have to lean in to see each drawing, none of which are larger than a sheet of printer paper. Strangely, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, swallowed up in the microscopic. The wall text likens a sketch of brain tumor cells to the sky in Starry Night, often said to have been inspired by Van Gogh’s starved hallucinations (how perversely appropriate—the literal depiction of the mind’s deterioration mirrors its symbolic expression). I felt as if I were looking at the cells while they were still buzzing with life, synecdoches for the creatures from which they’d been cut.
In many ways, Ramón y Cajal’s drawings mirror the themes of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European art. His work bears the same relationship to Renaissance anatomical illustration that an abstract composition by Piet Mondrian bears to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or that Ulysses bears to the Odyssey: it raises a single microscopic fragment to the level of the epic. Ezra Pound exhorted his generation of artists to “make it new!” Drawing single cells with the same depth of imagination that Vesalius had brought to the entire body, Ramón y Cajal could scarcely help but obey.
Like some of the best art of the time (I’m thinking in particular of Georges Braque’s early Cubist compositions), Ramón y Cajal’s drawings often take perception as their primary subject, interrogating the same process that earlier figures took for granted. Unsurprisingly for a neurologist-artist, sight was one of his lifelong interests, and in a sketch from 1904 he speculates on how the brain might process a passing arrow: the pupils accepting light from the object, the retinas sending signals to optic nerves that crisscross above or below one another on their way to the back of the head. Tracing Ramón y Cajal’s carefully elongated lines up and down the page, you might feel as though you’re looking in a mirror: the process described by the drawing plays out even as you study it. The disorienting effect is strengthened by what seems a ghostly face leaping off the page: the empty eyes, while sketched from above, can be imagined pointing straight at the viewer, while the lightly sketched rear side of the brain doubles as an open mouth.
Works like these don’t just convey what their artist saw under the microscope. They’re mysterious, playful, redolent of a kind of mystical depth. Unlike so many other scientific illustrations, their precision never feels exhaustive; instead, it seems to offer a hint of the transcendent. I’m reminded of something the critic T. J. Clark wrote about the modernist paintings of Paul Klee (1879–1940), to which the adjectives “playful” and “precise” are frequently applied: “the surface came to look as if it were a kind of transparency ‘really’ hung across a glimpsed infinity on the other side.”
It’s challenging to talk about the aesthetics of scientific drawing at a time when science and aesthetics are widely seen as opposites. The wall text in “The Beautiful Brain” tends to strike a sheepish tone, as if anticipating a sneer, whenever it connects Ramón y Cajal’s sketches with other works of art (“We do not know whether Cajal was aware of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, but…”). Science and the visual arts have drifted so far apart that it feels almost indecent to suggest that a diagram could be as evocative as a painting, that it could trigger personal associations and reappear in the mind’s eye for a long time after. Walking through an exhibit filled with such drawings, you wonder why they shouldn’t.
Walt Whitman has a famous poem about an astronomer who visits a town to deliver a lecture on his observations. As the astronomer drones on, Whitman’s spectator grows “tired and sick,” and finds himself wandering out into the night to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.” The poem could be said to sum up the contemporary attitude toward science and art: the former is cold and clinical, and destroys our innate capacity for wonder at the world; the latter is warm and wise and encourages wonder. If nothing else, Ramón y Cajal’s drawings remind us what a load of nonsense this cliché really is: it’s entirely possible to study the world closely and be in awe of it, and sometimes close study encourages these very emotions. Ramón y Cajal’s research into the roots of perception certainly didn’t smother his passion; his childlike delight in the brain and the body is palpable throughout the exhibit.
More generally, “The Beautiful Brain” suggests two conclusions about our own time. Science, so often seen as diametrically opposed to the humanities, may be a rightful heir to the avant-garde tradition. It’s certainly capable of everything the creative avant-garde is supposed to achieve: it shocks; it questions the most basic tenets of reality; it belittles the assumptions intrinsic to everyday life; it proposes new styles and attitudes that the mainstream only accepts decades later. But it’s also true that science needs the humanities in order to thrive: to provide the sense of wonder that drives scientific investigation, and to inspire creative solutions to impossible-seeming problems. Seen in this way, Whitman’s speaker grows tired and sick of science divorced from art, literature, and spirituality, but not of science itself.
What sort of impact will contemporary science make on the arts? For the nearly two decades since the human genome was mapped, it’s been possible to refer to the entirety of our species’ identity as a long string of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs. The first edition of Gray’s Anatomy was intended to sum up mankind’s knowledge of its own form; if a comparable book were assembled today, the pages would need to be as big as those of the textbooks Dr. Gray was trying to do away with in the first place. Some see these innovations as a death knell for the humanities, or wonder, or both. But they don’t have to be, any more than innovations in microscopy spoiled painting in Ramón y Cajal’s lifetime. Artists have a way of embracing startling new scientific discoveries—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—and reimagining them in art, inventing fresh wonders where others insist on seeing the End Times.
“If you want to understand life,” Richard Dawkins said a number of years ago, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Aesthetic manifestoes have come from unlikelier places. After experiencing its Renaissance, its Enlightenment, and its modernist periods, the Western understanding of the body may finally have entered its postmodernity, in which the traditional concepts of the natural and the whole are treated with skepticism, and the body itself has made the leap from analog to digital. Life, redefined as an elegant row of complementary symbols that can be read and written and arranged: every era, including ours, is responsible for creating a new version of the beautiful, and the career of Santiago Ramón y Cajal reminds us that science plays a central role in the process. How might people in the future remember 21st century beauty? Go to www.genome.gov and look up, in perfect silence, at the miles and miles of weightless DNA, the code you’re composed of, which we may soon be composing in.