Dissecting Vision: Surface, Skin, and Pathology in and around Cubism


ACLS Fellowship Program




“Dissecting Vision” argues that in the French empire, thinking about surface—as it emerged in abstract art, or articulated bodily boundaries and difference—was forged between worlds of art and medicine. The visual and textual rhetoric of syphilis comprises the project’s key framework. The disease was among France’s most prominent public health crises by the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a point of prominent, if veiled, public discussion, it constituted a locus for thinking about the visual, social, and political valences of pathological skin. The disease frequently remained latent, evading the diagnostic eye; when symptoms did erupt, they were both volatile and ephemeral. Syphilis thus engendered not only a crisis of medical vision among physicians, but also a widely accessible model of visuality, one that encouraged careful scrutiny of the body’s integument and whose tenets included semiological uncertainty, representational ambiguity, and the material rupture of the signifying surface. These same optic problems energized modernist artists. “Dissecting Vision” argues that emergent surface-centric models of embodiment fundamentally informed modernist artistic production, tracking formal, morphological, and historical connections among physicians’ efforts to read and represent pathological skin and artists’ interrogation of the form and function of the painterly and sculptural surface.