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Body Modern

Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject

2017
Author:

Michael Sappol

Body Modern

An imaginative exploration of how Fritz Kahn’s popular scientific illustrations visualized and performed industrial modernity

Lavishly illustrated with more than 100 images, Body Modern imaginatively explores the relationship between conceptual image, image production, and embodied experience, offering the first in-depth critical study of Fritz Kahn and his visual rhetoric. Michael Sappol concludes that Kahn’s illustrations pose profound and unsettling epistemological questions about the construction and performance of the self.

The chance meeting of Popular Mechanics and Gray’s Anatomy on a dissecting table, Fritz Kahn’s cutaway views of our inner workings expose far more than blood, guts, and bones. Taking Kahn’s delirious illustrations as his jumping-off point, Michael Sappol uses his vast historical erudition, just enough theory, and a prose style that cuts like a knife to lay bare the visual unconscious of the Machine Age. Delving deeper, he discovers the self, a cognitive widget turned out by Modernism’s philosophical assembly line. Witty, incisive, and impeccably researched, Body Modern is an X-ray of our image world in its early years, before the deluge.

Mark Dery, author of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams*

A poster first printed in Germany in 1926 depicts the human body as a factory populated by tiny workers doing industrial tasks. Devised by Fritz Kahn (1888–1968), a German-Jewish physician and popular science writer, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (or “Man as Industrial Palace”) achieved international fame and was reprinted, in various languages and versions, all over the world. It was a new kind of image—an illustration that was conceptual and scientific, a visual explanation of how things work—and Kahn built a career of this new genre. In collaboration with a stable of artists (only some of whom were credited), Kahn created thousands of images that were metaphorical, allusive, and self-consciously modern, using an eclectic grab-bag of schools and styles: Dada, Art Deco, photomontage, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus functionalism, and commercial illustration.

In Body Modern, Michael Sappol offers the first in-depth critical study of Fritz Kahn and his visual rhetoric. Kahn was an impresario of the modern who catered to readers who were hungry for products and concepts that could help them acquire and perform an overdetermined “modern” identity. He and his artists created playful new visual tropes and genres that used striking metaphors to scientifically explain the “life of Man.” This rich and largely obscure corpus of images was a technology of the self that naturalized the modern and its technologies by situating them inside the human body.

The scope of Kahn’s project was vast—entirely new kinds of visual explanation—and so was his influence. Today, his legacy can be seen in textbooks, magazines, posters, public health pamphlets, educational websites, and Hollywood movies. But, Sappol concludes, Kahn’s illustrations also pose profound and unsettling epistemological questions about the construction and performance of the self. Lavishly illustrated with more than 100 images, Body Modern imaginatively explores the relationship between conceptual image, image production, and embodied experience.

Body Modern

Michael Sappol is fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.

Body Modern

The chance meeting of Popular Mechanics and Gray’s Anatomy on a dissecting table, Fritz Kahn’s cutaway views of our inner workings expose far more than blood, guts, and bones. Taking Kahn’s delirious illustrations as his jumping-off point, Michael Sappol uses his vast historical erudition, just enough theory, and a prose style that cuts like a knife to lay bare the visual unconscious of the Machine Age. Delving deeper, he discovers the self, a cognitive widget turned out by Modernism’s philosophical assembly line. Witty, incisive, and impeccably researched, Body Modern is an X-ray of our image world in its early years, before the deluge.

Mark Dery, author of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams*

Body Modern

Contents
Preface
Introduction: Fritz Kahn, Modernity, and the Invention of Conceptual Scientific Illustration
1. Reading Kahn and the Homunculus
2. “Much Better than Words”: Pictured Knowledge and the Rhetoric of Visuality
3. Ocularcentric! Conceptual Illustration at Work in the “Great Loop”
4. Variety Show: The Studio of Kahn and Its Visual Devices
5. Kahn’s Take Away: Conceptual Scientific Illustration’s Iconophilic Diaspora
6. “To Picture the Body”: Kahn’s Images in the Postmodern Afterlife
Epilogue: Toward a Theory of the Homunculus
Acknowledgments
Fritz Kahn: A Chronology
Notes
Index