British artist Matt Collier‘s contemporary drawings are intricate interpretations of historical anatomical illustrations and waxes, inspired by the collection at Florence’s La Specola museum, which he encountered in 2009 while he was on an arts residency in Florence from the Royal Scottish Academy Edinburgh. Now, these works will be on display in a hallway of that museum, a great honour! I asked him about his inspirations and technique; he answers my questions here, and invites all ArtTrav readers to attend the opening of his show on July 19 from 5:30-7:30pm.

How does this exhibit relate, specifically, to the display of anatomical waxes at La Specola?

I specifically sought out this exhibition at La Specola as I spent a lot of time drawing many of the works throughout museum, which seemed like an unexpected or even strange mixture of art and science to me. I was realising that the work was of a time when contemporary definitions weren’t consolidated. I found the waxworks to be objects of abject beauty; they are functional I’d imagine even to present day learners, yet the quality of craft and skill seem to come from an artist-like obsessiveness to detail and execution. They seemed to go to great lengths to manipulate the wax every which way in order to unearth all the elements of the body, to envisage all visceral findings. To me, they attempt to reanimate the corpse so to engage with it intellectually. I’d seen Von Hagens Bodyworlds a few years earlier in London and was surprised how much more organic these were.

How long have you been working on this series – does it come out of your stay in Florence in 2009?

In some way they have as they originated from a steady line of work since around 2009, those centred around fluidly layering anatomical and botanical drawing. Yet this series seemed to become a series with the simple decision to standardise their size, this material confinement became a good place to rein in some of the ideas, methods and materials to what you see. I began to realise that each one could then be a moment, a glimpse in the build up to the larger drawings and paintings. With the rubber gloved hands entering the drawings especially, a narrative element plays into them, as well as creating a human scale, whereby the hands represent an active manipulation upon the organic forms. They work as illustrations toward the larger more chaotic work that is less decisive or narrative in that sense.

Your work relates to the history of medical illustration in so many ways. Can you speak of the choice of medium (mostly pencil and pen and ink on paper) and its relation to your inspirations?

I remember at art school, a tutor once commented that using marker pen [without a prepared pencil drawing] meant one would become too committed to the line drawn; but this is exactly why I started using it! This is why the drawings started looking the way they do, a confidence of hand had to develop. When the hand ‘falters’ routes out of a ‘poorly’ drawn area need to be created without rubbing out.

My use of this bleak black and white has developed from a very young age, even then I would find magazine texture paper to draw marker pen on- emulating cartoon drawing I liked. More recently there are quite a few medical textbooks I have looked at in order to capture their essence of illustrative direction and exactness.

Abstract vs accurate botanical reproduction: your work contains both. Tell us about the abstract forms, where do they come from?

That’s quite a slippery subject.. hard to say where it stops or begins when I look at these works. For me abstraction arises for a number of ideas or experiments. It opens the picture plain up for creativity, it may (very often with me) initiate a drawing or it may come when exactitude will not work.

I don’t believe in a pure abstraction. So I use it as suggestive, as generating force, although I have no idea of conclusions or particular meaning at initiation. Much of the abstract parts ‘activate’ the drawing out of diagram to organic, and this lies at the centre problem for science and the organic. Look at a surgical illustration, then watch a surgeon at work on someone – as a novice it’ll be like seeing two worlds collide.


Visitor Info

Matt Collier, Le Istruzioni Mediche
Museo di Storia Naturale, sezione Zoologia La Specola
Via Romana 17, Firenze

July 20 to September 29, 2013
Opening July 19, 5:30-7:30pm

Opening hours: Tues-Sun, 10:30am to 5:30pm, closed Monday

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