By Michael Sappol
Fritz Kahn (1888–1968), a German-Jewish physician-author, was the first great exponent of the conceptual medical illustration—illustrations that go beyond the representation of human anatomy to visually explain processes that occur within the human body. His published works, aimed at a mass readership, contain thousands of imaginative images, produced by a cadre of talented commercial artists. In Kahn’s Das Leben des Menschen (5 vols., 1922–31), many of the illustrations copy the look of contemporary advertisement, with display type, subheadings, physically attractive models, etc. But they are not intended to sell a product: instead the human body, its structure and functions, are what’s advertised.
That approach was not invented by Kahn and his artists. Anti-tuberculosis, pure food, sanitary cleanliness and anti-venereal disease campaigns before, during and after World War I, were already using techniques of advertising, with varying degrees of artfulness, in Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States and other countries. But in Kahn’s books lessons on anatomy, physiology, microbiology and pathology take center-stage without any directly instrumental purpose.
In Der Mensch Gesund und Krank (2 vols., 1939) the figures are mainly given a standard format that no longer permits headline-style display type within the frame of the illustration. This greater design consistency made for a more streamlined modern look. But Kahn never fully embraced consistency in presentation: he and his artists still eclectically borrowed from a variety of advertising design and illustration methods and subjects.
Take for example “The Sensory Organs of the Head,” which uses the encircled face of a beautiful woman to present a lesson on cellular physiology and the senses. The setting is the home (then accounted as “woman’s sphere”). Haloed by a circular band around her head, the female figure resembles a Hollywood starlet. Within the spotlight, her head is tilted back and lips parted slightly. The pose is ambivalent: Is she overwhelmed, frightened, on the edge of sexual arousal? None of these are particularly relevant to the lesson at hand, but all of them are relevant to the aims of the author and his artist, which is to get the reader to pay attention to the image. The illustration mimics contemporary movie posters, glamor magazines and cosmetics advertisements. The glamor girl is bombarded with the proliferating sensual experiences of modernity. The specialized sensory receptor cells seem to be shooting out along radiating dashed line-tracks launched from the technologies, commodities and experiences of everyday life. Heat is represented by a steam radiator; sound by a phonograph; light an electric lamp; cold a draft coming through an open window. The cells, like futuristic aliens or surrealistically distorted spermatozoa, seem to be attacking, pushing to penetrate the protective circle to gain access to the female subject and achieve “the reception of stimuli arising at a distance.”
Everything about “The Sensory Organs of the Head” tells the reader that we are in the modern world, but the aesthetic of the image comes entirely out of commercial advertising, and not modern art.
In other illustrations, especially in the 1930s, Kahn’s artists were influenced by modern art and modernist poster and magazine advertisement. There was a two-way traffic in images: pharmaceutical manufacturers were making illustrated ads that took up some of the same themes that Kahn featured—images showing stylized interior pathways of the respiratory and digestive systems. A few years after the publication of Kahn’s 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (a collaboration with uncredited artist Fritz Schüler), Chemische Fabrik Promonta GmbH hired Kahn and Schüler to produce similar illustrations for advertisements for their pharmaceutical products.
The convergence of advertising illustration and fine art—the dynamic exchange of stylistic moves and aesthetic principles—is now so familiar to us, so pervasive, as to almost be invisible. We expect such things. But in the 1920s and ‘30s, this was something new and powerful, a way for Kahn, his artists, his readers—and commercial advertisers—to be modern and more modern still. Kahn’s images signify a condition of life and an aspiration: if humanity lived in the modern world of cars, machines, mass media, and proliferating advertisements, then such things were also inside of us. We are modern at the physiological core of embodied existence.
Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. This blogpost is adapted from Michael Sappol’s new book, How to Get Modern with Scientific Illustration (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press, 2016)