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Writing

A couple of pieces from the Ottawa Citizen and the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The Anatomist by Bill Hayes

Alan King

Canadian Medical Association Journal

Pity Bill Hayes, writer of the new biography of Henry Gray, the British surgeon who gave the world Gray’s Anatomy. A fitness buff, magazine freelancer, and writer of two popular medical books, Hayes noticed there had never been a biography of the writer of the world’s most famous anatomy textbook. He must have thought he heard the knock of opportunity tapping out ‘bestseller’ on his laptop.

But after a few library inquiries and search engine marathons, it became apparent why the book had never been written: the good doctor had left a very cold trail. There was about as much personal detail about him in the archives as there was about the anonymous cadavers laid out on the pages of his textbook.

While a few photographs of Gray survive, nearly all of his papers were lost in a fire that destroyed his publisher’s archives the year he died and a mere handful of published scientific papers grace the shelves of medical libraries. Worse, he lived a tragically short life. He died at 34 of smallpox after treating his 10-year-old nephew for the disease, meaning a potentially interesting life swept along on a wave of early fame wasn’t available to be written about.

What to do? Faced with the same dilemma that bedevils biographers of Shakespeare, Hayes resorts to similar strategies to plug the gaps: he mixes personal experience with imaginative fantasies of what his subject’s life might have been like in the social and scientific context of his time — mid-nineteenth century England.

Starting with an examination of a photograph showing Gray surrounded by his students in the pathology lab, Hayes moves quickly to its contemporary equivalent. In San Francisco he signs up for a course in anatomy at the University of California, joining medical students in performing dissections and prosections. 

Much of the book is a first-person account of Hayes’ experiences in the dissection lab and his reactions mirror that of Western civilization’s conflicted relationship with post-mortem examination since Leonardo da Vinci first started hauling bodies out of the Arno. Fear is his initial reaction, then revulsion, curiosity and finally amazement and delight. In his final days at the lab he is almost gleeful as he peels back the skin and rattles off the names of the muscles attaching to the pes anserinus.

Hayes then goes to England, where he takes us along on research expeditions to Gray’s home, St. George’s Hospital in London (now a luxury hotel) and a small museum dedicated to his work.

If this were the extent of the story, this small volume might exude the faint odor of formaldehyde. Fortunately, Hayes finds another way to enliven and expand it. Gray’s Anatomy is not the product of one mind, but two. Henry Gray wrote the text. Another Henry, artist/surgeon Henry Vandyke Carter, did the woodcut illustrations. And when Dr. Carter wasn’t engraving woodblocks or wielding a scalpel in the pathology lab, he kept a diary. Little of it was about the writing and illustration of the book but it does provide a glimpse into the life of a young doctor at the school where Gray taught and insight into Victorian medical education. It also shines a light into the soul of an introspective, deeply religious young man, struggling to find a direction for his life and career.

In many ways, it’s the most interesting part. As Hayes points out, ”The sprawling paper trail left behind by H.V. Carter would lead me… into the troubled heart of a gifted man of science.” It’s easy to forget in a secular age that 150 years ago the best science was being carried out by researchers who held strongly to the traditions of mainstream Christianity. Confronted, as Carter was, with the wondrous mechanics of the human body, he struggled to find a philosophy that reconciled scientific practicality with religious belief.

His relationship with Gray was far less burdensome than the one with God.  As a student four years behind the gifted, fast-tracked Gray, he expressed an admiration that verged on awe. By the time Gray was twenty he was already the equivalent of an MD, by twenty-five, a Fellow of the Royal Society and head of the anatomy museum. In a burst of intense activity that lasted a year and a half, these two young men produced the magnificent volume that turned the interior of the human body into a work of art and the learning of its parts into a pleasurable ordeal. It became the standard reference manual for generations of medical students. The irony is that Henry Gray whose name is forever identified with it is a near total mystery. The artist, Henry Carter, whose name is all but forgotten, left a fleeting but penetrating sketch for us to remember him by.

Renaissance of the Kimono at the Museum of Civilization

Alan King

The Ottawa Citizen

Leave your watch and appointment book behind if you want to be in the right frame of mind for this exhibit. For if ever the phrase “timeless beauty” had any meaning, it is here. This show of magnificent kimonos is a monument to one man’s indifference to the tick of the clock and to his single-minded devotion to an extraordinarily laborious craft. A youthful-looking 78, Itchiku Kubota is only half-way through his Symphony of Light, a celebration of the four seasons. The 30 kimonos that portray autumn and winter are finished and on display here. But he has plans for another 45 kimonos to fill out the spring and summer sections and, at a year’s work per piece, he should finish sometime around his 123rd birthday.

You can dispute his math but it’s hard to argue with the attitude of someone who wants to end his days depicting spring and summer, the beginning of the cycle of life. Time, it appears, has never been a major concern for the celebrated artist. He spent 20 years perfecting his artistry and dyeing techniques before he had his first show in Tokyo. And before that period of isolated struggle — he spent from 1944 to 1950 in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp — dreaming every waking moment about his artistic mission.

His unworldly infatuation started with an eye-opening epiphany when he was 20. Already a master landscape and figurative painter, Kubota happened upon a fragment of a 350-year-old kimono during a visit to the Tokyo National Museum. It was a rare example of tsujgahana, the almost forgotten tie-dyeing art that flourished during the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (1333-1615) in Japan. The craft disappeared during the following century and was abandoned by succeeding generations of kimono makers.

Kubota says he was transfixed and stared for three hours at the beautifully dyed pattern of wild flowers on faded silk. The encounter, he says, “was intense and charged with mystery.” When he left he vowed that, “One day I will make, not a reproduction of tsujigahana, but my own version.” That version has turned out to be almost unbelievably complex and time-consuming. To illustrate it, the curators of the show have produced a helpful photographic display that runs along one wall of the Special Exhibits Hall.

The sequence goes approximately like this: On a plain white kimono the artist draws a pattern with Aibana ink or the juice from a blue flower. The kimono is then disassembled and kept that way through the dyeing process — meaning that the artist has to keep the whole image in his mind as he works. The patterns are then outlined with vinyl thread and tightened like small drawstring purses. These `purses’ are circled with thread three times and tied with a double knot, then dyed with a flat brush up to 40 times, depending on the required color intensity. After each color application, the fabric is rinsed at least 15 times, meaning that if there have been 30 dye applications, the fabric gets rinsed 450 times. After each rinse the fabric must be stretched on bamboo mats and dried to prevent shrinking. When the right color has finally been achieved on the purse, it is sealed with vinyl film to protect it during the dyeing sessions on the rest of the garment.

Sound complicated? That’s only part of it. Somewhere along the line Kubota paints intricate designs on the silk with sumi ink and adds texture and vibrancy to the surface with gold and silver embroidery. It’s a huge amount of work and in the thick of things he sleeps only three hours a day. But the results are breathtaking. The 30 Symphony of Light kimonos mounted shoulder to shoulder on the long wall of the Special Exhibition Hall form a single continuous landscape that flows from one luscious composition to the next.

A scene of mist-shrouded hills in one kimono is continued but altered slightly in its neighbor. A vision of pine forests and valleys pans imperceptibly and almost cinematically into a vista of shafts of light falling on a glimmering sea, then on to a panorama of snow-clad hills. The colors of autumn — rust, orange, ochre — merge into deep, rich cobalts and magentas, finally giving way to the muted ivories of winter. Silver Purity, the last of the series, is an almost abstract scene of a snow-covered hillside. Even more than the other kimonos, this one depends for its impact on a multiplicity of surface textures and the subtle variations in color. Though it appears to be just a few shades of cream, the artist says that there were 40 different colored dyes involved.

The compositions, as you would expect, use the flattened perspective of traditional Japanese art. But they seem contemporary because the colors and surfaces are so alive and because in some the high horizon lines give you the impression you are looking at a scene from an airplane.

Besides the Symphony of Light kimonos there are 15 other pieces. Some present fairly explicit images — branches of cherry blossoms or brilliant suns, for example. Others are decorative visual riffs that draw their inspiration from natural motifs — ferns or the ripples on the surface of a stream. It’s easy to forget that these are items of clothing meant to be worn. These technicolor dreamcoats are so beautiful a museum setting seems their natural home. But much of the work Kubota does is for Japanese haute couture and in a video that runs in the gallery you can see his work being modeled at a Tokyo fashion show. The exhibit, which has been seen in many of the major cities in Europe, travels next to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This is its only Canadian stop and perhaps your only chance to see it, unless, of course, Kubota returns in 45 years to show us his spring and summer line from the Symphony of Light.

 

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