This illustrated talk will follow the paths of sleeping beauties: lovely young women who lie on silk sheeted beds in glass cases in anatomical museums and fairground shows, who recline on sofas in Belgian train stations, and sometimes in the middle of streets. Often the women were nude. Sometimes they were adorned with a piece of jewelry or a bow, and sometimes they wore white dresses. One breathed gently in a glass case on a fairground verandah for nearly a century. Others lay quietly in caskets under flowers. Some were wax, some were real, some were dead, and some merely pretended to be dead. Sometimes, in the imagination of artists like the surrealist Paul Delvaux, they got up and walked about; pretty somnambulists wandering through natural history museums, arcades and streets, through modern cities and ancient Alexandria, Ephesus, and Rhodes.
Using photographs, posters, advertisements, and paintings, the talk will follow models known as “Anatomical Venuses” through one of the great wax anatomical museums of the world (La Specola in Florence) and an extraordinarily long-lived popular museum that traveled the fairground routes of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Pierre Spitzner’s Great Anatomical and Ethnological Museum). It will take side trips into some of the visual worlds the Venuses drew from or helped inspire, including fairground sleeping beauty acts, morgue shows, mortuary photography, reliquary displays, and art. In the paths of the sleeping beauties, it is clear that death and slumber, pedagogy and entertainment, science and reverie long shared strange borders.
Kathryn A. Hoffmann is the author of books and numerous articles on the body, including “Sleeping Beauties in the Fairground.” She is Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she teaches courses on anomalous bodies and the histories of medicine and the fairground. She has received awards for her writing, and lectures frequently for associations, libraries, and museums in the fields of the history of medicine, literature, and art.
Observatory is the new Brooklyn exhibition/event space run by a bunch of my favorite bloggers: Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy, Michelle Enemark and Dylan Thuras of Curious Expeditions, Pam Grossman of Phantasmaphile, Herbert Pfostl of Paper Graveyard, and artists G.F. Newland and James Walsh. It's the newest addition to the little neighborhood of galleries that's quickly becoming one of my favorite spots in the city: adjoining Observatory are the Proteus Gowanus gallery, Cabinet Magazine space, and Morbid Anatomy Library, where I stopped in for tea a couple of weeks ago and had the pleasure of browsing the shelves and meeting Joanna, Michelle, and Dylan.
Anyway, tonight's talk looks to be excellent, and if you're in New York, have the evening free, and actually read this in time to do something about it, I strongly recommend you come by! Plus, it's free and there will be wine. Full event info here.
For some related reading, check out Invading Hands, Sleeping Beauties at bioephemera, which discusses a previous lecture given by Dr. Hoffmann.