The hand of Anna Bertha Röntgen, wife of the pioneer of the X-ray, 1895.
Note the wedding ring. Before those experimenting with X-ray understood the effect of radiation, and enthusiastically experimenting with their own hands, many researchers lost digits from cancer. Marie Curie died of cancer from her own experiments with radium. She took her mobile X-ray units onto the battlefields of WWI, using this new technology to detect shrapnel in preparation for surgery. Xray marks the first time that the body could be opened without the knife and became an immediate sensation at the time. The ‘penetrative gaze’ – the body’s inside story as accessed with the invention of X-ray – thrilled the public of the day. Culturally, X-ray was associated with transgression, a form of sexual gaze, where the woman’s skeleton was imagined under her clothes. The powerful entertainment value of these new tools at the time remains impossible to ignore. The erotic frisson of the X-ray image was reflected in the publication of popular fantasies in the 1930’s that show men and women enjoying themselves in leisure activities, whilst the X-ray penetrates their bodies to show the viewer what ‘really’ lies underneath their garments (Cartwright, 1995, p. 122). Once the X-ray image of Roentgen’s wife’s wedding- ringed hand had begun to circulate in the illustrated press, the X-ray quickly became a cultural commodity. Women began to have their own hands X-rayed as love-tokens, a commodification of the flesh that can be compared with the commercialisation of 3D/4D embryo videos today, which are sold on the private market and are accessible in private clinics only (for reasons of cost). Certainly, new technologies that enable us to see the body’s interior – and better – produce thrill. I imagine that the impact of the X-ray image at the turn of the century was similar to that of a general public being allowed to witness a dissection in the public anatomy theatres of Renaissance Europe. The contemporary anatomy sensation that has seen queues of visitors internationally is Body Worlds by Gustav von Hagen. Von Hagen is well aware of the theatricality of the history of public anatomy and creates ghoulish dramaturgies around his plastinated corpses (https://bodyworlds.com/). His television anatomy lectures evoked the classical anatomy theatre and his performance – complete with assistant – was fully aware of both heritage and shock-value for the spectator. With his trilby and persona suggesting himself as a Joseph Beuys-like artist, his plastination technique enables him to arrange his cadavers into gestures, both solo and group, of both normal and extreme activity. These also evoke the anatomical line drawings of artists such as the 16th century Vesalius, whose figures would be found draped around architectural features, in landscapes, and in various self-reflective poses. These are ways in which the human interior has been made to perform in anatomical dramaturgies: in death, such figures remind us and comment of life, revealing the difference between flesh and the soul, body and spirit and asking us to confront our own mortality as well as the complex wonders of our human form.