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A little over nine years ago, I stumbled across an image that changed the way I regarded medical information; an illustration that was created in 1928, Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) by, German born, Fritz Kahn. Although I had seen plenty of info information graphics in the past, this was the first I had seen one related to anatomy and physiology (I later learnt about Florence Nightingale’s polar area diagrams, although they are, more accurately, statistical diagrams). Dr Fritz Kahn’s (1888 – 1968) image plays out the workings of the head and trunk as an industrial machine, complete with pistons, pulleys, gears, radio stations, conveyer-belts, pipes and all kinds of other bits and pieces that make sense to the layman. By mixing these real-world objects with the intangible stuff that goes on in our body (intangible to the layman and the learner), Kahn was able to show us how we work. My memory must have failed me as I recall seeing this image as I was undertaking my own anatomy and physiology training, which was a few years prior to seeing the piece. I can only assume that when seeing it for the first time, the knowledge that I had learned finally found a way to gel between the two opposing worlds of the textbook and the body. I was thrilled. As a single piece, I think it’s the most important medical illustration that there is. Since then, the internet hasn’t been able to quench my thirst for Kahn’s illustrations and I’ve longed to see more…
That was until I found out that not only was there going to be a book published about him but it was going to be done so by Taschen! Having recently got back from a trip to Paris I was full of respect for Taschen after visiting their incredible store. I knew they were a special publisher (I already own some of their books) but didn’t quite realise the extent of their catalogue and the ethos surrounding their consumer and collectable titles. Fritz Kahn – Anatomy of Ideas is everything – and more – that I was expecting… very much more in fact. The first thing that struck me when I got to the end of the initial flick-through was photographic portrait of the man himself. In all these years of thinking about the few images of his that I knew about, I had never taken the time to imagined him as a person himself. His images have always been so enveloping that they’ve been all that was needed and was all there was room for in my head. When confronted by the illustrations my mind goes into study-overdrive as I journey into the image and as the images’ messages travel into my memory; it’s such an extraordinary way to learn. There was no space for the human aspect of the illustrations’ creation!
Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz have curated Kahn’s work and displayed it in such a powerful way. They’ve stripped down the text and put the imagery in the forefront and there’s no shortage of quality imagery either. There must be about 300 full page images included and each and every one of them offers some unique view on the body and the natural world around us. He metaphorically dissects individual elements of the body’s working systems and they are not just images with simply visual metaphors. Some very abstract ideas are used to convey certain ideas. For instance, there are a couple of crackers about the heart and how it could lift and elevator to the fifth floor in an hour if harnessed. Or harnessed a different way, a four-heart engine could propel a car at 2.5mph that would travel the circumference of the world in a year! To even come up with the ideas, let alone to visualise them is a great achievement. This was one of the big surprises of the book for me. Another one has nothing to do with illustration at all…
As well as being a doctor (a gynaecologist) and an illustrator, he was also a writer. Now there’s writing and there’s writing. Fritz Kahn’s writing is as unique as his imagery and so poetic in places. I googled one of the few pieces of writing included in this book but there are no hits to share with you. Einstein Sonata (Quasi una Fantasia) is perhaps one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read (I’m biassed, I know). This scientific journey of relativity takes another metaphorical twist that starts off with the life of a couple of mayflies and ends with a faster-than-light journey away from Earth. The Earth’s history is runs backwards in front of the pilot’s eyes. Over the course of a week, the pilot writes a diary of what he sees happening on the Earth. It’s moving, thought provoking and I can’t believe I’ve not seen this idea before (I’m sure it’s been done but I can’t imagine it’s been done anywhere as beautifully as this).
So, by now, you know how much I love this book and what it means to me to have a copy. I only have one small criticism (that I feel a little awkward even mentioning) but I do think it’s a shame that the non-english diagrammatic labelling in many of the images do not come with translations as they still – to this day – offer a great tool for the learning of anatomy and physiology. That said, the little bits of info that accompany each image makes up for this to some degree. Maybe I’m being too fussy! The next decision is where to keep the book – on the coffee table for all to see and enjoy, in the study with all my art books or filed in the anatomy and physiology section on the family bookshelves… Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz and Taschen have done Fritz Kahn proud. The book weighs in at 392 pages in a massive 32 x 26 hardback edition that’s nearly 4cm thick! Get a copy direct from Taschen and from all the usual places including AmazonUK… you won’t regret it. There are so may things to learn about Kahn’s art and life within.
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