Brains in jars: artists' fascination with anatomy From Hirst to Da Vinci, a shared obsession with dissection and the human body seems to connect exhibitions opening this spring
The pathos of pathology... an anatomical model of a human head at the Wellcome Collection, London. Photograph: Chris Helgren/Reuters
Is it something to do with the Olympics? Athletics is physical, the logic might go, so let's think about bodies... Anyway, a shared anatomical obsession connects exhibitions that open this week, and later in the spring. Damien Hirst's debt to anatomy does not need labouring. But just as his specimens are unveiled at Tate Modern, everyone else seems to be opening their own cabinets of curiosities. At London's Natural History Museum, dissected animals are going on view in an exhibition that brings the morbid spectacle – which in my childhood was simultaneously the horror and fascination of this museum – back into its largely flesh-free modern galleries.
It is no surprise that art and science keep coming together on the anatomist's table this spring, for anatomy has a venerable and intimate connection with the efforts of artists to depict life and death. In his series of popular prints The Four Stages of Cruelty, William Hogarth sees the public dissection of a murderer by cold-blooded anatomists as the ultimate cruelty. But many artists have been happy to watch or even wield a knife at such events.
Clinical knowledge, to help them portray humans and animals correctly, is one reason artists have been drawn to anatomy. Another attraction is more metaphysical: to look inside a human body is to get an eerie sense of who we are, to probe the mystery of being. Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is not a scientific study but a poetic reverie on the fragility and wonder of life – glimpsed in a study of death. Does Hirst make it as an artist in this tradition?
In a few weeks, all these anatomies will be put in the shade, for this spring's surge of anatomical display is due to culminate with an exhibition of the greatest works of art ever made about the interior of the human body.
Leonardo was interested in anatomy scientifically and poetically. He did his own dissections. These drawings are masterpieces of observation that he made under the hardest circumstances. He wrote about the terror of spending his nights dissecting the dead, all for the sake of knowledge.
No other art captures the enigma of our physical existence with such beauty and profundity as his anatomical drawings. In these, the human condition is laid bare.