Animal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form

by Randy Melick

Animal Anatomy for ArtistsAnimal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form. by Eliot Goldfinger, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Illustrated, 256 pages. ISBN 10: 0195142144

With the naturalist’s talent for analytically sorting things out and the artist’s talent for visually tidying things up, the sculptor and naturalist Eliot Goldfinger delineates the bodily structures of a kingdomful of fellow warm-blooded creatures in his new book, Animal Anatomy for Artist: The Elements of Form.  This recent effort represents a branching out of the distinctive blend of rigor, comprehensiveness and accessibility that characterized his 1990 text, Human Anatomy for Artists (Oxford). No how-to manual in the manner of Jack Hamm’s How to Draw Animals, which makes quick work of physiology while promising fast results based on mimicry of the circling movements of the artist’s hand, Goldfinger’s book offer artists the chance to see superficial appearance in terms of root causes, and to grasp how the animal body appears to the eye of the systematizing, stability-seeking mind.

The earlier volume has been a fixture in art supply stores and in the art instruction section of mainstream bookstores for over a decade. Amazon.com lists Human Anatomy for Artists as its twelfth all-time best-selling humanities textbook, ahead of The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Goldfinger’s book goes beyond the fulfillment of its stated purpose as a technical manual and succeeds because it is the expression of values that are as much humanistic as scientific, including persuasion through demonstration, a focus on concrete challenges with practical limits and a willingness to work with evidence just as it presents itself, especially when it presents itself in the form of real human beings. It is the prominence of humanity, I believe, particularly in the form of the splendid photographs Goldfinger took of models, friends and associates, that is a key factor in his first book’s wide acceptance. His spectacular cover photograph of a man’s highly anatomically expressive back—a man I knew named Euripides—is itself an art work of a very high order, strikingingly blending modernity and classicism. The figures of dancers, actors and artists, mostly young, all aspiring, from the studios of the New York Academy of Art and the Art Students League where Goldfinger taught in the 1980s, are stunningly beautiful and provide a needed human dimension to Goldfinger’s stringent method.

While unavoidable given its subject, humanity’s much lower profile in the new book poses problems. Though the impression will no doubt vary with the individual reader’s degree of interest in and love for animals, the absence of people leaves the book feeling somewhat clinical.  The choice of an illustration for the book’s cover, in particular, sets a quite different tone than that set by the cover of the earlier book. But the problem as I see it goes beyond presentation: it is the limited degree to which our humanity is given relevance and point in Goldfinger’s approach to the subject of animals.  This is problematic because an approach to this subject in which human factors have no place may prove to be inhospitable to art.

In his book Goldfinger demonstrates ways to tame the bewildering formal complexities of animal life.  Laying aside the human considerations that determine whether an animal is regarded as a poacher or a pet, Goldfinger presents animals as subjects called up for participation in the great, ongoing classical project: to bring unruly natural phenomena under intellectual control and to convert the unstable flux of appearances into visually credible, comprehensible form.  By focusing on those features of animals that remain invariant under transformation (as brought about either by simple movement or by evolutionary change), Goldfinger gives the alarming, shape-shifting aspect of animal life a measure of structural stability and visual predictability. It is an approach in which idiosyncracy and incident are overlooked in favor of patterns that control and generalities that characterize.

The analytic distinction between general and specific is the chief means Goldfinger utilizes to advance anatomical knowledge. Information is organized according to classes and subordinate classes. We learn, for example, that the ungulates, or hoofed animals, are subdivided into even- and odd-toed varieties, the artiodactyls (including bovids, cervids, and giraffids) and perissodactyls (including equids such as horses, and tapirs and rhinos), respectively. We also learn that what distinguishes the probiscideans (elephants) from our own species is merely the relative positioning and size of the wrist, heel and toe bones. Helpfully, Goldfinger stresses the structural characteristics that underlie distinctions among such orders and sub-orders.  He attributes a “basic body plan” to the animals he presents, one comprised by “structural units” (head, body and four limbs) which are capable of further subdivision and which move in relation to each other in accordance with physiologically determined parameters.

Goldfinger displays photographs of his analytic sculptures of some animals, which exhibit volumes carefully shaped to correspond to the body’s major moving parts with specific geometries determined by specified anatomical characteristics. These volumes, while severely geometrical, have a slightly bouffant character that nicely expresses their organic origins as forms that have grown outward from a core. These cores are presented as multiplied and arrayed in a dimension so as to present an axis that is often, though not always, calibrated to the direction of the long bone residing within. Sometimes these volumes correspond precisely to discrete osteological units, such as the rib cage; sometimes they correspond more loosely with regions, such as the mid-section (between the pelvis and the ribcage) or the girdle of the shoulder, which may combine parts of units and change when the animal moves. In these sections Goldfinger’s method is shown at its most flexible and, I think, at its best.

In Animal Anatomy for Artists and in its predecessor, there are a great many pages of verbal description of the origins and insertions of musculature. Such exhaustiveness is entailed by Goldfinger’s premise that anatomical facts are antecedently necessary in any artistic attempt to describe the natural body, rather in the same way that geographical facts are necessary to travel writing. In fact, the no-aesthetic aesthetic that is much in evidence in this book—its unadorned manner of illustration and plain-facts prose style, its emphasis on empiricism and analytic clarity, its general level of restraint and sobriety and even its choice of a sans-serif typefaces—is intended to lend it the authority of clear-eyed anatomical objectivity. The corollary to Goldfinger’s premise, then, is that empirical methods can make the character of anatomical facts plain.  From this it follows that anatomy conveys (as opposed to merely inspires) a specific aesthetic, the classical form aesthetic that is a function of anatomical objectivity. 

Those who share with me the converse conviction, namely that aesthetic imperatives provide the necessary frame of focus for observations of nature to occur, will feel that Animal Anatomy for Artists has put the cart before the horse. For Goldfinger gives first place to the empirical basis of an aesthetic, rather than to the conditions in us for its acceptability. Nature is seen as bestowing authorization on an aesthetic that gives objective facts their due. Yet this is problematic because in the end it is we, not nature, who must authorize what we think about nature. An aesthetic, as an ordering of priorities that affirms our manner of regarding nature, is the form such authorization takes.  Nature has a multitude of phenomena in stock and can suit many tastes; we can select from this stock in different ways and grab hold with strikingly divergent observations. This is an issue that bears directly on the agency of art and artists.  The scope of artistic agency, its range and power, is directly related to the ability of artists to conceive and re-order priorities, and in so doing to open up new domains of thought and feeling regarding natural phenomena. If, however, the acceptability of an aesthetic is a function of objective or non-human factors—if it is nature that sets aesthetic priorities—then the agency of the artist, and our ability to have new domains of thought and feeling opened up to us, is sharply curtailed and, perhaps, denied. Art is put in the position of nature’s portraitist, bound by the requirement to flatter the sitter.

Giving first place to the empirical basis of an aesthetic is an outgrowth—and not, I think, a fortunate one—of the reliance figurative artists have come to feel on the vocabulary of Enlightenment scientism, which values method and objectivity above all. This vocabulary is ill-suited for the purpose of coming to an understanding of how much anatomical art came to be made, and has proved a particularly baneful impediment to the appreciation of Leonardo, the anatomical artist par excellence. Charles D. O’Malley and J. B. de C. M. Saunders, in Leonardo da Vinci on the Human Body (Greenwich House, 1982), subject Leonardo to the assumptions in this vocabulary, writing that “… beneath the genius of his art [it is possible to perceive] the groping of his mind as it sought emancipation from a debased medieval Aristotelianism, through a corrupted Galenism to the achievement of a position of relative scientific independence.”  Thus they advance the notion that Leonardo was a proto-scientist who was the first to use sound empirical methods to gain an objectively accurate description of animal and human bodies.

There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that Leonardo was almost completely dependent on the achievement of others.  He depended on his teacher Andrea del Verrocchio for his stock of artistic types, with the result that his drawings appear as perfected Verrocchio’s rather than perfectly observed Florentines. Furthermore, Leonardo disbelieved that anything found in Galen was wrong. Anatomical facts he found described in Galen were on a par with anything he could see with his own eyes, and his efforts were directed toward a synthesis that could do justice to both kinds of authority. His drawings of humans, or animals, or animals blended anatomically with humans, are in effect records of the encounters he arranged between the facts he read in Galen or Aristotle and the ones he could observe for himself. The development his drawings exhibit came about as increasingly sophisticated adjustments became necessary to make these encounters plausible, a far more complicated task than the simple recording of empirical observation. In his anatomical drawings it is the skills of a diplomat that Leonardo demonstrates, rather than those of a scientist.

 Leonardo’s approach to the riddle of the Vitruvian Man was almost anti-empirical, since the famous drawing he made is remarkable not for its mimetic qualities, but for its abstract ones. The abstract features of the encircled square—the arcs and the chords, in particular, as well as arcs pairing to form ogival arches—are the very shapes he used to construct the figure within it. Evidently, Leonardo was less concerned with fitting the man in the encircled square than he was with fitting the encircled square into the man. The shapes that are the basis for the drawing of the figure, then, were not found in the body but built into a body. In relation to the total corporeal truth that the natural body offers for empirical observation, the abstract shapes Leonardo employed operated as stencils, determining how much of that truth appeared in his representations and what pattern they suggested. This repertoire of shapes, moreover, was small. Rather than giving each empirical element its own particular shape, the one discernable upon careful empirical observation, he would instead deploy one shape to describe myriad phenomena. A coiled pattern, in particular, would serve to describe hair, a perpetual motion machine, the flow of blood through the ventricles of the heart, the arrangement of the tendrils of a Star of Bethlehem plant or the spine of a rearing horse.

A student of mine, a former jockey, objected to Leonardo’s pictures of a horse coiled in serpentine movement as inhumane because, he pointed out, horses move in a sagital plane only; their spines permit movement forward, or, if faced with an impediment, backward, but never in a twist. This student’s reaction confirmed for me a point that Kenneth Clark makes in The Nude: that the warm-blooded body is not the origin of serpentine patterns of description, but their victim. What Leonardo’s use of such patterns suggests, then, is that the conditions for the acceptability of representations of the body do not originate in nature, but instead are devised by artists to meet internal human needs. The aesthetic Leonardo devised, one consisting of a few favored shapes, often serpentine, that he found particularly mesmerizing, sprung itself upon natural phenomena, capturing it in its uniquely hooked fangs. This aesthetic was, for Leonardo, a catalyst for observations, operating as the cause of his ability to get to know more about natural phenomena, rather than as an expression of such knowledge.

Goldfinger’s own beautiful, naturalistic animal sculptures are pictured in his book can also be seen as meeting an internal need, and, in so doing, pulsate with signs of humanity.  In their restraint and in their sense of narrowed formal channels they appear almost Egyptian, as though armored against the coming ages by an artist who wished through his art to touch eternity. The classical aesthetic these sculptures exhibit facilitates the particular need to see natural phenomena against a grand frame of reference and to subject it to intellectual control, a need that defines a certain kind of artist as a knowing and acting human being.

But these sculptures, and the evidence of humanity they embody, are not sufficiently prominent in this book.  The other kinds of resources it offers sometimes imply a conception of art in which human needs play no part, and which exhibits an overriding concern with the objective truth of representations of animals. This crowds out considerations of needs in us that enable representations of animals to gain currency, meaning and acceptance. A section of carefully constructed animal silhouettes, for example, appearing as jet-black shapes against a white background, was intended to convey the essence of the distinctiveness of particular species. Interestingly, they each also seem to aspire to the impact of a gestalt, albeit one that has bypassed the subjectivities of human psychology.  Here is a giraffe gestalt, for instance, authorized by purely objective means. While pondering these ink-black forms I was reminded of a drawing of a lion by Rembrandt in which, as E.H. Gombrich pointed out, the artist has penned the clearly identifiable schema of the face of a man within its shaggy mane. Sometimes the gestalt of an animal is a human being, Rembrandt seems to say. It’s a lesson that Goldfinger has helped us, in many different ways, to be better prepared to master.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2.