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Art and anatomy: Decades-old collaboration brings augmented reality into the hands of Rodin

Art and anatomy: Decades-old collaboration brings augmented reality into the hands of Rodin

This Wednesday, the Cantor Art Museum is launching a first-of-its-kind exhibit, “Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery.” This unique exhibit uses 21st Century technology to look inside the works of Rodin’s 19th Century sculptures.  As described by Tracie White in today’s Inside Stanford Medicine, the exhibit:

…is a feat of interdisciplinary collaboration that celebrates a long-time connection between sculptor Auguste Rodin’s fascination with the human form and medicine’s fascination with human anatomy.

“A deep and rich history unites the art of the museum with the medical school,” said Connie Wolf, museum director, which has one of the largest Rodin exhibits, with 200 of his sculptures, including the Thinker and the Gates of Hell. “These statues have inspired faculty at the School of Medicine. Art is informing medicine in this exhibit. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before.”

Indeed, the rich history that Wolf refers to goes back to the early 90’s when Albert Elsen, PhD, joined forces with Robert Chase, MD. Elsen, a leading authority on Rodin, was the person most responsible for amassing the museum’s huge collection. Chase, then head of the Division of Anatomy, knew his art, too, having taught a popular course on Renaissance art and anatomy.

Because Rodin was known to use models with diseases and deformities, these two “super docents” delighted in taking med students on strolls through the Rodin Sculpture Garden. They’d wend their way through the garden, from one statue to the next, prompting the students to determine whether there were actual clues belying a medical condition, or were they simply seeing the results of the sculpture’s artistic license?

In 1991, I was lucky enough to tag along on one of these walks. By that time, I’d logged scads of Saturdays and Sundays at the garden, usually with drawing pad in hand. This time, it was a very different kind of tour, more akin to doing rounds in the hospital. These works of art that were models for my drawings, were now being diagnosed like patients. I was fascinated from the get-go. The last stop on our tour was the Gates of Hell. After an introduction to the monumental bronze, the focus shifted to the final “patient,” the life-sized statue of Eve, positioned on the right-side of the Gates. She sparked the liveliest discussion of the tour: Was the model for Eve pregnant? If so, how far along might she have been?

I remember how excited I was, seeing Rodin’s art in an entirely new way. It never entered my mind, that decades down the road, I’d get to experience that newly enlightened excitement, again. Nor, did it occur to me that I’d get to witness the trajectory that spans the last 23 years.

Elsen died in 1997, and Chase, now emeritus, continued to explore new ways to view the body using 3D models. In 1990, Amy Ladd, MD, arrived at Stanford, having just completed a fellowship in Paris with two world-renowned hand surgeons, one of whom was an expert on Rodin. Now, she is a professor of orthopaedic surgery, and chief of the Robert A. Chase Hand Center at Stanford. Paul Brown, MD, an associate professor of anatomy at Stanford, entered the picture in 2000. He focused his efforts on a sophisticated platform that allows life-sized human anatomy models to be viewed in 3D. His work, along with collaborators Chase and Ladd, have resulted in the augmented reality that is the magic of this exhibit.

James Chang, MD, professor and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery, brings the surgical perspective to the exhibit. He became fascinated with the Rodin hands 15 years ago, as a surgery resident. He began to notice similarities in the hands of his patients, and the hands in the collection, and started to catalog specific conditions. Chang now teaches a popular undergraduate course in the humanities titled “Surgical Anatomy of the Hand: From Rodin to Reconstruction.” And, like his predecessors, he and his students can be found doing “rounds” amongst Rodin’s bronzes at the Cantor Museum.

The video above offers more about Chang and the others involved in this exhibition.

Previously: Bio-art gone viral: Cantor Arts Center displays models of human viruses and Rodin: Real art, but not real anatomy
Photo in featured entry box by L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

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