Viennese anatomist Josef Hyrtl (1810–1894) had the touch, such was his ability to work with human bodies after death. As a student, his dissections and injections were widely admired; as chair at the University of Prague, he authored Handbook of Topographic Anatomy, the first textbook of applied anatomy. A man free of mind, if you will, Hyrtl sought to discredit phrenology, an old fad that had come back into vogue, which supposed the shape and size of the cranium indicated the character and mental abilities of the brain within.
Hyrtl collected the skull of Caucasians across Europe, looking for diversity in size and structure to deconstruct pseudoscience with fact. How the skulls came into his possession was a mixed bag: some were criminals, some were poor, and others may have been dug out of their graves. Some are identified by name, profession, and age while others remain unknown, their conditions varying in terms of quality of preservation.
The Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, acquired 139 skulls from Hyrtl’s collection in 1874. Flash forward 130 years: photographer David Orr received access to the lot, creating portraits of a distinct and revealing nature. Each skull has been photographed head-on, then mirrored on one side, to create a vision of perfect symmetry. Orr photographed all the skulls, then made a selection of 22 for Perfect Vessels, at the Mütter now through January 5, 2017.
Speaking with Crave Online, Orr discusses the ways in which the skull meets the ideal conditions for a vessel, being a container, a craft in which to travel, a conduit for powerful energy, and a beautiful form that was once utilitarian but is now regarded as art. There is an elegant eeriness to this, something rather Gothic and Romantic about the idea of discovering a hidden level of beauty in the remains of strangers. We may never know this side of ourselves, never be able to see the face beneath the face and the home of the mind. This is where Orr’s photographs bridge the divide.
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Photo: Geza Uirmeny, m, 80 (attempted suicide at 70; lived until 80 without further melancholy) 2014 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter. © David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum.