Review of Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject

Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject
by Michael Sappol

Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
264 p., illus. 19 color, 102 b&w. Trade, $120.00; paper, $30.00
ISBN: 9781517900205, $120.00; ISBN: 9781517900212

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
August 2017

“Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (literally: “Man as Industrial Palace;” more precisely: “Man as Factory”) is probably one of the most popular images in the science and humanities field of the twentieth Century. A kind of free-floating visual icon of modernity, it is systematically used to illustrate almost any essay or handbook on the body, modern life, technology, and the like. The origins of this image remain often obscure, however, as do the specific meanings of the context in which it first appeared and eventually the many different ways in which this image was reused, copied, imitated, plagiarized, appropriated, criticized, and studied.

The aim of Michael Sappol’s book is to answer these questions, starting of course with the question of the maker of this image, Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German Jewish physician who published a great number of didactic and vulgarizing publications that both reflect the scientific knowledge of the Weimar era and introduced a new type of illustrations, strongly informed by the emerging visual language of infographics, best represented in this period by the work of Otto Neurath, the inventor of the isotype picture language). After the First World War, Kahn had a private practice as gynecologist in Berlin, but he rapidly became a very much appreciated and bestselling author of books on medicine. When he had to flee Germany during the Nazi regime, he first went to France and then to the US before finally settling in Switzerland, yet he always continued his work and activity as writer and editor. These publications, chief of them the five volume work, entitled Das Leben des Menschen (1922-1931), were part of a larger commitment to scientific communication on health, nutrition, and social welfare through lectures and exhibitions as well as and community building (Kahn played an important role in the Zionist movement, for instance).

Kahn’s illustrations, which we now consider “typical” of the Weimar Republic and of interwar scientific culture in general, introduced a certain number of innovations, mainly the use of metaphor (the human body was compared to a machine and drawn as if it were a factory), the use of “little men” inside the visual representation of the body (these little men or “homunculi” were seen as the agents or laborers performing the bodily work inside the human factory), and the attempt to visualize in a more figurative way statistical data that were treated in more abstract way in contemporary infographics (Kahn like to link for instance photographs and drawings, that is figurative and abstract information). None of these elements is new in itself (the “factory” metaphor did appear since the first anatomical drawings, the “homunculus” was already there in Descartes’ writings, the visual treatment of statistical data had been a challenge since the start of this discipline), but their combination definitely was, as was the radical interaction with Modernism. Kahn and all those who were working in the same spirit strongly believed that that modern times not only needed new ways of thinking, but also modern tools of communication, and that visual language was by far the most important of these tools. Moreover, this visual language had to be something else than the traditional illustration, in which the image was still subordinate to the text. Instead, images had to cease to be just illustrations and become themselves the main source of knowledge and communication. Sappol examines very carefully the challenges, the mistakes, the accomplishments, and the limitations of Kahn’s work, which did change over time in order to become less entrenched in older ways of writing (that is in forms of communication that reduced images to illustrations) and more explorative of what is then a real visual rhetoric (as radicalized later on in publications such as McLuhan and Fiore’s 1967 landmark visual treatise The Medium is the Massage, which by the way might deserve an intertextual rereading in light of Sappol’s rediscovery of Kahn).

The merits of Michael Sappol’s study are numerous. The reconstruction of Kahn’s work and the rich and lavish illustrations of the book will prove extremely helpful to a better understanding of visual culture in a key moment of Modernity. What makes the book even more appealing, however, is the very careful reconstruction of the editorial practices that allowed the new visual language to become into being. Indeed, Kahn was not the maker of his own images and authorship is a real issue. An editor rather than an artist, Kahn commissioned and tightly controlled the contributions of a large team of collaborators, who often remained totally uncredited, so that one does not know very clearly what came from Kahn and what came from his collaborators and thus how one has to interpret certain aspects of the drawings. What makes things even more complicated is that the worldwide success of Kahn’s work around 1930 generated many imitations and appropriations, which probably must have had some influence on the development of this kind of visual rhetoric. Sappol gives a first-rate overview of the key themes and forms of Kahn’s editorial achievements as well as the manifold ways it was appropriated in other countries and cultures. He also gives an excellent discussion of the use of metaphors in scientific communication (if not in science in general), stressing both the impossibility to avoid them and the necessity to carefully inscribe them within a specific place and time.