Posts Tagged ‘aesthetic’

Casal’s Necklace – Frank Netter (via printmag.com)

I’ve been teaching archaeological illustration at a field school for the past three weeks, and it’s always interesting watching students coming to grips with technical visualisation. As ever with students, one is confronted sometimes with questions and observations that one hasn’t anticipated. In between discussion of pen-nib sizes, conventions and stippling, we talked a bit about context, and whether or not archaeological illustration pays enough attention to the need for artefacts to be presented within some kind of meaningful contextual framework.

Recently, I was given a copy of an anatomy book illustrated by Frank Netter. Netter was a medical illustrator who worked between the fifties and the nineties, producing hundreds of medical visualisations of anatomy and pathology. His beautifully-rendered paintings were notable for a point of view that deliberately evoked the wider bodily – and sometimes, psychological – context for the anatomical or pathological focus of the image. Tumours, rashes, burns, breaks and ruptures were always shown in great detail – but often as not, so too was the rest of the arm, leg or torso, showing where and how that injury or illness affected the area around it. It was not uncommon for Netter to show not just the limb or body portion that was the main focus for the illustration, but the head and face of his imaginary subject as well – showing their expression, and often their discomfort, pain or even embarrassment. In this way, Netter managed to give his precise scientific visualisations a sense of context; a sense of empathy.

Netter’s paintings demonstrate how choices made during the process of creating an illustration, painting or other rendering can greatly impact the way in which visualised data is understood by its audience. His deliberate decisions with regard to framing pathology within a human-scale context makes it almost impossible to ignore the human-scale impact and consequences of that pathology.

Such an approach is often lacking in archaeological illustration. Despite the wider acceptance of theoretical positions advocating a stronger and more human contextual framework for reconstructions of past lifeways, etc., our technical illustration – our artefact and finds drawing – still resists efforts towards contextualisation. Most illustrators, myself included, have, at one time or another, tried to provide such a framework – but by and large these visualisations remain novelties, and not part of standard practice – largely, I suspect, because the aesthetic used in providing such context contradicts the conventional aesthetics of artefact illustration.

But conversations with the students over the past three weeks have made me think again about the value of providing context to artefacts – and Netter’s work suggests a way in which the aesthetics of both might be brought together. It’s something I’m going to be thinking about a bit more in the future.


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