In 1847 the American missionary and naturalist Thomas Savage discovered the skull and bones of the western gorilla. Savage found the remains of this hitherto unknown species during his missionary work in Liberia and sent the material to Boston. There it was analysed and described by the naturalist Jeffries Wyman, who named the species Troglodytes gorilla. In 1929 the species was renamed Gorilla gorilla.
In 1863, sixteen years after the discovery of the species, a request was sent to naval commander rear admiral Octave Didelot by Prince Napoleon, the adviser of emperor Napoleon III, to acquire a specimen of a gorilla and ship it to a doctor Louis Auzoux. An article in Le Petit Journal of November 2, 1863 refers to this event:
"Admiral Didelot, on the request of the count of Rayneval, chamberlain of Prince Napoleon, recently sent a male gorilla with all its entrails to doctor Auzoux from the western coast of Africa. It is, I believe, the first time that someone possesses an entire gorilla in Europe. This important specimen will allow doctor Auzoux to create a plastic reproduction of this animal which has still only partly been studied, and on the composition of which there is still much to observe and discover."
Little was known about the gorilla when the captured specimen was sent to France. The newspaper article recounts how during a patrol, an African soldier in the French army was captured by a gorilla. The animal dragged the soldier high up in a tree and tried to feed the mortified man bananas. After a while, the gorilla got bored and let the soldier go. He then went about its business. The soldier survived the fall from the tree and was carried to a medical post to recover.
At that time doctor Louis Jérôme Auzoux (1797-1880) was already a celebrity. He achieved fame with his detailed and realistic didactic models of men, animals, and plants. Legend has it that the body of the gorilla was sent to him in a barrel of rum. Auzoux dissected the primate in public, and used the muscle tissue, skeletal structure, bones and organs for the first version of the spectacular, life-size anatomical papier-mâché model.
Our gorilla is one of the five surviving models manufactured by the doctor Auzoux factory. It is dated 1889. The other gorillas are in the Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, the Musée et Conservatoire d’Anatomie in Montpellier, the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, and in a private collection in Haarlem. The model in Leiden is said to contain real bones. It is thought that these could be of the gorilla dissected by doctor Auzoux.
The main innovation of doctor Auzoux, apart from using his secret papier-mâché recipe for his anatomical models, was the idea to create a model of separate parts so that it could be taken apart. His first anatomical model, that of a life-size man, was meant to replace dissections on dead bodies, making anatomy lessons less unpleasant and less dangerous for medical students.
The gorilla, like all Auzoux models in the nineteenth century, is made of paper-mâché. Each part is moulded, sculpted and manufactured separately. The finer anatomical details are painted on the smooth surfaces of the parts. The main arteries are constructed from metal wires wrapped in cotton thread. In the course of the twentieth century the Auzoux factory started to make models of plaster and plastics.
The model has 104 removable parts and 1193 individual anatomical details. These details are indicated with labels and numbers. The numbers refer to a list in an accompanying booklet, the so-called Tableau Synoptique. The gorilla is leaning with its right arm on a vertical branch and reaches a total height of ca. 220 cm. Its pose is said to have been inspired by a print of Marie Firmin Bocourt, a well-known zoological illustrator, dated 1858.
In 1863, when he received and dissected the gorilla the name Louis Auzoux was already an established brand. His anatomical models were well-known in France and abroad. In the previous years the Auzoux factory had produced anatomical models with a predominantly utilitarian function, but the interest in this particular type of didactic visualisation was growing.
It is often thought that the sudden interest in the anatomy of the gorilla, and the motivation of doctor Auzoux to create his model was related to the publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species (1859). This is not the case. Although the publication of Darwin’s work would fundamentally change our understanding of biodiversity, it was not until the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871 that the controversy caused by its central thesis would spark a public debate. In this seminal book, Darwin argued for the first time that man and ape are both descended from a common ancestor. The creation of the prototype of our gorilla and the appearance of the first commercially available models around 1869, must have been purely out of curiosity for this newly discovered species. It can not be considered as a contribution to a polemic that had not started yet.
The Age of Enlightenment introduced the pursuit of knowledge as an important feature of human development. The universe was thought of as big, but also rational, and with adequate education man would be able to answer all questions and solve all problems. In this new intellectual climate academic education blossomed and expeditions set out to study the world beyond Europe. These expeditions often had a descriptive and administrative purpose and experts described the geography, the geology, the people, the mineral resources and the nature of the places they visited. They collected naturalia, exotic species, rocks, minerals, and cultural artefacts. In Europe there was a lively interest in objects coming from overseas areas. This interest was partly scientific and partly caused by a taste for the exotic, the curious, and the spectacular. When Thomas Savage inadvertently stumbled upon a new species in West Africa it would surely attract the attention of cultured people. Therefore, it is understandable that Napoleon III would order a specimen to be sent to doctor Auzoux to be dissected and transformed into an anatomical model.
So how did doctor Louis Auzoux become a manufacturer of didactic anatomical and botanical models? In France, the Age of Enlightenment was followed by the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. One of the changes created by these movements was the creation of a new system of education. This system promoted standardised classrooms for a healthy and productive environment and standardised curricula. Responsibility for education was no longer a privilege of the church. From then on schools were accessible to all levels of society. Doctor Auzoux’ didactic models were perfectly timed for this new system where teaching by demonstration became increasingly important. But the Auzoux factory was not unique.
During the nineteenth century, other manufacturers were specialising in didactical aides, like Madame du Coudray’s adapted Baby Machine by the Paris firm Etablissements Mathieu. Angélique du Coudray (1712-1794) was a midwife who embraced the new climate of educational reform to teach the art of giving birth (l’art des accouchements) with the use of a model. In the realm of botany, the delicate models of German model makers Robert Brendel (1821-1898) and Reinhold Brendel (1861-1921) acquired wide acclaim, especially in the academic world.
The foundation of medical colleges throughout France caused an increase in anatomy lessons. Dissections were a mandatory part of these courses. As refrigeration technology was not developed on a wide scale yet, the cooling of cadavers was either rudimentary, or dependent on the weather. Dissection therefore, was an awful business. People in the vicinity of anatomical theatres complained about the heinous smell. Professors performing dissections and students assisting them were always at risk of infection.
With the increase of the number of dissections came the need for a less odious substitute. Several people started to make anatomical models. Most of these model were made with great artistic talent and skill. They were made from wax, like the beautiful models of the Italian Fontane, or with wood. These materials had the disadvantage that they were either fragile or heavy. Above all, the models were prohibitively expensive. In the early nineteenth century Jean François Améline, a young medical practitioner, created an anatomical model using papier-mâché. This material was ideal because it was cheap, light and tough. It was a huge step forward, but Ameline’s student Louis Auzoux would take the idea even further. He borrowed the idea to use papier-mâché from Améline but built his model out of separate pieces. The models created by Auzoux could be taken apart during anatomy lessons, mimicking a dissection. The parts, with their detailed and realistically painted surfaces, could be studied and explained separately. This was the birth of the clastic (from the Greek klao, which means to break) model. One of the first models Auzoux made was a life-size anatomical model of a man. This Grand Écorché (large flayed man) was the start of his career and his fame.
The ideal of intellectual growth paved the way for academies, including medical schools, to improve their curricula and to focus more on didactic demonstrations rather than repeat traditional and often obsolete knowledge. This progress was an opportunity for doctor Auzoux. A life-size anatomical model of a horse showed his ability to tackle very complex objects with his paper-mâché technique. It also underlines his talent for clever marketing, because the creation of the horse model coincided with the formation of military academies and veterinary colleges.
Horses were very important in the nineteenth century because they were the most common mode of transport in civil society as well as in the army. Both the cavalry and the infantry used horses. A good understanding of equine anatomy was important to educate the people responsible for their health and well-being. After having created a full model of the horse he also created a series of detailed studies of separate anatomical parts, like the mandible, legs, and feet. Auzoux catered for every specialism. Modelling the horse was a strategic choice based on its usefulness for society.
Auzoux approached the other zoological models with the same sense of pragmatism. It was a logical choice to create the model of a silkworm, because of the economic significance of the silk industry. Modelling bees, oxen, and leeches was a conschious choice equally driven by utilitarian or economical motives.
As the collection grew, many more animal species were created. They were and presented in the sales catalogue as comparative anatomy. Often these were models of organs or skeletal structures of animals.
After the success of the anatomical models Auzoux applied his craft to botany. The first models represented plant species which were important for the agriculture of the time, like wheat, and could be used in agricultural colleges. Soon these models were also introduced in primary and secondary schools.
After he had demonstrated the potential of his method Louis Auzoux decided to scale-up the production. In his native village of Saint-Aubin d’Ecrosville (Eure) he established a small factory. He recruited the workers among the local population and trained them until they acquired the skills that were needed to produce and assemble the thousands of individual pieces that made up his models. The attention to efficiency and productivity in the factory were typical of the Industrial Revolution, but Auzoux also fostered notions of quality and craftsmanship which are usually associated with the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The most important difference between Auzoux’ workshop and a typical nineteenth-century factory was the absence of steam-powered machines. The production-line consisted of a chain of stations where skilled artisans were performing specific tasks. Every part of an Auzoux model was created separately. From a prototype sculpted by Auzoux, a metal mould was made that captured the volume and details. The alloy used for the moulds combined a relatively low melting point with the ability to reproduce fine details. The same alloy was used by printers for typesetting. Auzoux had a talent to find pragmatic solutions by looking at existing technologies. The moulds were embedded in wooden blocks and could be used in a large press. After laying down several layers of wet paper strips in the mould, the volume of the piece would be created by filling the shells with a secret mixture of papier-mâché, chalk, cork-powder, fibres, and flour. This mixture was commonly referred to as terre (earth), but sometimes it is called carton (cardboard), or simply papier mâché.
After this step the halves were put together in a press. This step could take up to 24 hours. Then the pieces were released from the moulds and cleaned up. The final appearance of the individual pieces is a mix of realism and schematic representation. Details like muscles and veins were realistically painted and covered in a glue-based coating, which gave them the semi-transparent effect of real tissue. The colours were carefully selected to enhance the realism of the objects. The arteries that were separately added were colour coded red for oxygen-rich blood going to the organs, and blue for oxygen-depleted blood. In this specific case, realism was sacrificed to a more conventional way of visualising anatomical information.
The parts were connected with an intricate mechanism of supporting wires and assembled with the use of hooks and eyes. The order in which the body could be disassembled was indicated by arrows and numbers, while small labels identified the anatomical parts by name. Most of the models were accompanied by a synoptic table, which identified all the parts, and contained instructions on the order in which the model could be disassembled. From the creation of a single part to the final assembly of the finished product, every step involved skilled manual labour.
With the establishment of his factory, doctor Auzoux had created an efficient production line that was capable of producing a series of highly detailed and high quality anatomical and botanical models in large quantities. These objects would be of interest to a wide market, and after the initial success of his models of humans and horses, the demand for his work steadily increased. To sustain this remarkable factory in Saint-Aubin with its specialised workers it was necessary to increase public awareness by approaching influential people.
Auzoux invited influential friends to write positive reviews, praising the usefulness of his models. In 1833 Auzoux himself sent a letter to all the prefects of the administrative departments of France, underlining the importance of realistic anatomical models for anatomy lessons in public institutions in the interest of science and humanity. He asked to put his proposal to the vote in the general assembly. The letter was accompanied by a positive report from the Academy of Medicine.
The minutes of the general assembly of the department of the Drôme, held on 27 August 1837, contains a reference to Auzoux’ letter. Article 19, Clastic anatomy model, describes how such a model could be useful as a guide for the practitioner, the young anatomist, or as an instructional aide for someone teaching philosophy. It also mentions the fact that Auzoux proposes a smaller alternative which costs only 1000 francs. The assembly concludes however that it has no financial resources for such a purchase and that the usefulness of the model for the department would be very limited. No further action was taken.
Nevertheless, his tenacity paid off. The models became famous despite the price, in particular, the model of the horse and the botanical models which found their way into many schools. Gradually the Auzoux models found their way to countries all over the world through a network of agents. Henry A. Ward, Auzoux’ agent in the United States, lists the models under the heading Auzoux’ Anatomical Preparations in his Catalogue of Human Skeletons and Anatomical Preparations (1884). In the introduction to his catalogue, Ward states that:
"The Clastic Models of Animal and Vegetable Anatomy issued by Dr. Auzoux, of Paris, have been so universally accepted as chef-d’oeuvre in this department of scientific illustration that it seems quite unnecessary to say any words in their praise."
The anatomical models of doctor Auzoux were exported to countries with hot climates, because the lack of refrigeration was an even serious issue than in Europe. This is why the Grand Écorché found its way to countries like Egypt and Turkey. The models were exported to many countries all over the globe. They were sold in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, and of course in all countries of Europe.
Auzoux’ business talent was balanced with a keen sense of social responsibility towards the people that worked for him. Apart from training on the job, he arranged for additional education to be given to the children of his employees. He created a savings funds and created a save working environment where all the workers had a voice. The governance of his factory and the rules he laid out guaranteed the physical and mental well-being of his workers and their families.
Although the shape and integrity remained intact, the surface of our gorilla has deteriorated over time. Under the influence of the often suboptimal conditions in which the model was kept, the coating has given way and the thin outer layers of paper, glue and paint have crumbled or peeled off. This is a problem with many of the Auzoux models that have survived in attics, broom closets, and garages. Apart from having a damaged surface, the model was quite dirty. It was not beyond repair, but it was clear that it had to be restored.
In a painstakingly careful process which took several months the gorilla was professionally stabilised, cleaned, conserved, and carefully restored by the Paris-based restorer Celine Poirier who holds the masters degree Restaurateur et conservateur d’œuvres d’art from the Ecole de Condé. She passionately specialises in paper objects from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, especially globes.
Céline Poirier has extensive experience with the restoration of Auzoux models, paper manuscripts and works by a great artists like Picasso, Picabia, Sallusto and Hockney.
During the restoration, all the parts have been removed, cleaned and stabilised. With a special glue-mixture to match the original formula, the restorer has fixated all the crumbled and flaked parts of the surface. She also cleaned the eyes and repaired the structural metal elements that keep the model together. Every part and every detail has been given individual care.
After completely having disassembled the model and having consolidated and cleaned every individual part, the gorilla was meticulously assembled again. The restoration was a success. The model is now preserved for the future, but the wear and tear of its age are not hidden by completely retouching the paint that has disappeared.
What does our gorilla represent in our time? Is it cultural heritage, an expensive oddity, a relic of a lost era of didactic methods, a symbol of the transience of life on earth, a tribute to human ingenuity, or a tribute to the ingenuity of nature? We know that Auzoux’ models served a utilitarian purpose and were carefully tuned to a specific market which he saw to expand. The fact that this model is the replica of a gorilla somewhat breaks the pattern.
The anatomical models of doctor Auzoux, of his predecessors and contemporaries were created to be used in specific contexts. They either served as didactic tools, or as a preparation or substitute for real anatomical dissections. The botanical models were mostly useful in the context of education, either in schools, or more specifically, in agricultural colleges. With time the usefulness of the original models declined. The full-blown human anatomical models never really found a widespread dissimulation within the medical colleges. They were quite expensive, and the fact that they could be rented would not have made them more popular. Despite the high level of detail, and the anatomical realism, many professors of anatomy preferred to practice on real bodies to prepare their students, no matter how unpleasant this may have been.
Other manufacturers, like Franz Josef Steger (1845-1938), decided to use materials like plaster to produce a similar effect as doctor Auzoux. Steger’s models are part anatomical model, part classical sculpture, which places them half-way between didactic tools and art. Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka created wonderfully delicate and incredibly realistic models of plants, and invertebrates in an unlikely material: glass. These models are very sought after and have nearly all only survived in the academic collections and museums that commissioned them.
The Deyrolle firm of Paris, founded in the early nineteenth century by Jean-Baptiste Deyrolle, started with collecting insects for natural history collections and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century continued to gain momentum until it became one of the most important houses for taxidermy and natural history education. It was taken up by successive generations and has never lost its importance. This venerable establishment is still in business and the shop and gallery are open to the public. This well-known treasure of the rich cultural-historical fabric of Paris can be visited at 46, rue du Bac, 75007 Paris.
Irrespective of the techniques applied and the materials used, the sheer craftsmanship involved in the making of these models elevates them to a different level. From being mere utilitarian objects they have become attractive to collectors who appreciate quality of execution, but are also aware of the history of science and the relationship between art and intellectual history. From didactic tools they evolved into collectable items and crossed the threshold of cultural heritage. This process also made people aware of the necessity to identify and preserve them.
Although the Auzoux factory continued to manufacture anatomical and botanical models well into the twentieth century, its management decided to diversify the offering even further by producing anatomical wall-charts and other didactic materials. For their models, they moved away from papier-mâché to plaster and plastics.
The demands of education changed, materials changed, and the old anatomical and botanical models were slowly pushed aside by newer, more modern and less costly objects of instruction. Many models withered away in display cabinets in schools, attics and broom-closets, or were simply discarded. Some survived these episodic cleaning frenzies and ended up into the possession of public and private collectors. Gradually the smaller anatomical and botanical models were considered as decorative objects which gave a touch of academic distinction to an interior.
After a relatively long period in which most neglected artefacts of cultural and scientific heritage either slowly disintegrated, or were kept as curiosities, an awakened interest in the second half of the twentieth century made collectors aware of them again. It was in this period that the Auzoux factory, now in the final stage of its existence, auctioned off many of the original papier-mâché models as it was making room for more modern merchandise.
In the second decennium of the twenty-first century, after a wave of sub-cultural fashions favouring the dark, the gothic, and the Victorian, and an equally strong wave of interest for all things vintage, a rekindled interest for original anatomical and botanical models from the nineteenth century as art objects sends the auction prices of these objects soaring. This phenomenon coincides with a revival of taxidermy in mainstream and popular art.
Recently, historic objects of natural history, such as anatomical and botanical models, botanical illustrations, fossils, and faux-, rogue-, or real taxidermy, have gone through a revival in high culture, closely followed by popular culture. This re-emergence is complex and many-faceted. The re-emergence of natural history in art galleries and museums is also related to a renewed fascination with death. This fascination manifested itself through the popularity of goth- and emo subcultures, and the loosely related adoption of steampunk by a very wide audience.
The revival of taxidermy is paralleled by an increase in the popularity of Victorian photography, specifically ambrotypes because they are still widely available. Not only have they an unmistakably gothic charm, but they are also from the period, and therefore allow modern collectors to reach out and get something authentic and affordable. The added value for the enthusiast of the nineteenth century and the macabre is the existence of post-mortem photos from this era. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but popular with an increasing circle of enthusiasts which has also adopted taxidermy as a cultural and artistic language to express old ideas with new signs and symbols.
Our gorilla has a different status. It is not stuffed, it is not created by infusing the tissue with plasticine, like the posed cadavers of Dr. Günther Hagen, it is entirely artificial. The gorilla does not pretend to be more than a didactic tool. But it has become much more than that, because it is a silent witness to an age in which the last big pieces of the puzzle of the world were discovered, while the maddening complexity of life was captured by the first comprehensive theory.
This gorilla has travelled through many periods, and as a witness of the past it has taken on new meanings, as a symbol, not only of the science of discovery but also of a species that is threatened with extinction, because the habitats in which it thrived when it was discovered are rapidly disappearing. In this sense, it is a perfectly modern vanitas.
Far from referring to the gothic and melancholic aspects which fascinates some people in these anatomical models, Dominique Yee (b. 1960), a Flemish painter with Chinese roots, has captured the human expression of the animal in a series of 4 large acrylic paintings. The paintings are square, 120 x 120 cm, and focus on a part of the face of the gorilla. The paintings catch the expression of the gorilla in broad, assured brushstrokes. The colours match those of the original very well without replicating them. The technique of Dominique Yee is direct and each brushstroke is final. The result is fresh and immediate. In her paintings she has accomplished something remarkable: she has managed to breathe life into a representation of one of the first Troglodytes gorillas captured. Her gorilla paintings are for sale at Spectandum.
Recently, interest in didactic objects has seen a revival. Natural history and cabinets of curiosities are emphatically present in contemporary art, art collecting, fashion- and interior design. The French ceroplastician Nathalie Latour and Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere (her work at the Gemeentemuseum The Hague) use wax and mixed media to refer to the didactical philosophies of the past, while at the same time staying firmly in the present. Their works engage with the fundamental questions and notions that are associated with life and the human condition. The artist Polly Morgan uses taxidermy objects in juxtaposition with mundane objects not to show the animal, or to make a point about death, but to create images and ideas on a meta-level which forces the viewer to contemplate life and beauty in a more acute, or poignant way. Wim Delvoye deployed exaggerated gothic decorative architectural elements, completely isolated from its original context, and combined it with medical visualisations to throw the spectator off-balance as soon as he realised what he was looking at. This worked very effectively as a kind of philosophical cold shower.
With Peter Buggenhout (his work at the Museum Leuven), the natural world invades familiar objects and like a jungle of dust and dirt devours it until all that remains are unrecognisable and insane objects impressing the viewer as some bizarre archaeological finds. Some of his works take the viewer a certain distance along the path of the anatomical model, only to disintegrate into all kinds of rubbish and dirt on closer inspection. The work resembles that of Delvoye in the way it delivers impact to the viewer. The work of Damien Hirst, by contrast, entirely revolves around death, which appears in many guises. His works often distantly remind the viewer of old collections of naturalia. His oeuvre does, however, play a role in the resurgence of natural history and taxidermy in art.
The Cabinets of Curiosities of approach Steffen Dam the original displays of natural history, and natural science as closely as possible, while being of a completely different nature. He was directly inspired by old books on natural history and science and has managed to raise his art to a delicate meta-level, mirroring the originals in a different, but very physical medium, just by being faithful to the source of inspiration. In this respect his precious work resembles that of Dominique Yee in the approach of the gorilla. Shen Shaomin’s (his profile at the Saatchi gallery website) surreal, dadaist and semi-religious re-constructions of skeletal structure populate an artistic universe that resembles the out-of-context taxidermy of Polly Morgan, but is more iconographic. He hits the brain of the beholder with a conundrum of possible-impossible anatomy, forcing his audience to look at the world around them again, with a new sense of wonder. The narrative works of Jake and Dinos Chapman finally, broadly sketches a dystopian universe of images that is only distantly related to the visualisations that are discussed in this article. Where Auzoux combined realism with convention, Jake and Dinos Chapman use the conventions of existing representational, and often controversial visual arts and imbue them with a counterfactual realism that is as intriguing as it is repulsive. In this respect, their work summarises the attitude those who are both attracted by the Auzoux model, as being repelled by it.
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Percheron, B., Nouveaux cabinets de curiosités. De l’anatomie clastique Auzoux à la décoration comtemporaine. Rouen n.d.
Video about the restoration of the gorilla, performed by Céline Poirier (25 min.)