They do nothing to prepare the visitor for the contents of the museum's third room. After a central chamber that is like the contents of a phantom Noah's Ark, tightly packed with the skeletons of ostriches, camels, and lions caught in mid-roar, the work of Fragonard appears in the display cases of the final room. The silhouette of a horse in full gallop, mounted by a stiff-backed rider, attracts the visitor to the cabinets that house the oldest part of the museum's collection.
Drawing closer, however, it becomes clear that something is wrong. This horse has no skin. Although it's caught in mid-stride, it looks like it's been flayed alive. Every cord of its flexed muscles is visible; bulging blue veins stretch over its jaws, tendons and ligaments strain to raise the out-thrust neck. The upright rider, arms bent as if to grip reins and a whip, is not exactly a skeleton, but neither is he human: rather an accumulation of brown ligaments, red arteries and yellow tendons.
The gigantic, shining orbs of his eyes stare fixedly into the distance, over rows of gritted teeth. It's Durer's Horsemen of the Apocalypse by way of Madame Tussaud she was a contemporary of Fragonard's , except that this is no waxwork - these are real bodies that have been carefully stripped of their skin and elaborately posed. In another cabinet, a stocky figure brandishes the jawbone of a horse. In the silent, deserted museum, his expression, his entire attitude makes it an effort of will to approach the glass of the display case.
Baring his teeth beneath twisted lips and a broken nose, he looks like he's advancing towards the viewer in a fury. The veins in his heart swell blue and red, over exposed viscera and a turgid groin. It's as though an enraged guard has caught you trying to break into the devil's sleeping quarters, and he's grabbed the first thing at hand - in this case, a mandible -to ward you off. To cap the horror, a trio of human foetuses dance a macabre, ecstatic jig around his firmly planted feet. There are over a dozen other flayed figures - ecorches - on display in the room.
The bust of a man, skin peeled away from the skull, is mounted on a pedestal. An antelope whose flesh seems to have exploded away from its bones looks at the spectator in dumb shock; a self-absorbed monkey appears to concentrate on playing an invisible violin; a llama, its tongue lolling, rears back in surprise. Of the 3, preparations of cadavers and body parts Honore Fragonard created in his lifetime, about 50 were ecorches like the ones in this museum.
Born in the Provencal town of Grasse, Fragonard trained to be a surgeon, and was named director of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon. At the age of 33, he came to the newly opened school outside of Paris. Dissecting cadavers at the rate of two a week, he started to develop the techniques that would allow him to preserve and pose his ecorches. Although he never revealed his special recipe, Fragonard probably followed a technique used by other anatomists: he preserved body parts by soaking in eau-de-vie, or another alcohol, mixed with pepper and herbs.
While still supple, Fragonard injected the veins, bronchial tubes and arteries with colored wax or tallow mixed with turpentine. They were then stretched on a frame in the desired position and left to dry. While Fragonard was still perfecting his technique, the head of the school, an ambitious and worldly aristocrat, was quietly spreading the word that he had a madman on his staff.
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In the salons of Paris, rumour had it that the figure on the horse was actually Fragonard's fiancee - who had succumbed to grief after her parents refused their marriage - disinterred by the mad doctor and preserved for eternity. A tiptoe inspection of the saddle area of the Horseman reveals the rumour was unfounded. In , at the age of 39, Fragonard was dismissed from the school as a madman.
If he was insane - and all indications are that he remained perfectly lucid until his death at the age of 66 - his brand of folly was particularly in vogue with the European upper classes. Aristocrats kept him employed creating similar preparations for their private cabinets des curiosities right up to the beginning of the French Revolution.
Fragonard died in , shortly after recommending that the contents of the veterinary school museum - as well as his ecorches - be placed in one of the churches that the Revolution had closed. As the initial horror of Fragonard's creations wear off, questions arise. If this is supposed to be an anatomy lesson, why the elaborate theatricality of the poses? If, on the other hand, this is meant to be art, what kind of sculptor, using what standard of beauty, would devote his life to creating prodigious monstrosities? And, whichever he was - artist or anatomist - how did he get away with it for so long?
Unfortunately, the only possible response to these questions lies in the silence of this neglected museum, in the works themselves. Taciturn in his lifefime, Fragonard spent his days and nights curved over cadavers, and never published a single volume to explain his techniques and motivations. When asked what he was up to in his secluded cabinet, the anatomist's only response was an enigmatic smile and an entreaty, one that's just as valid today: Venez et voyez. Come and see.
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The silence of the horses: in the18th century the anatomist Honore Fragonard discovered a technique for removing the skin from animals, and people, to reveal the inner workings of their bodies. Metro, Alfort-Ecole Veterinaire. The museum re-opens after a summer break on September 3. Open Tuesdays and Wednesdays pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10am-5pm.
Admission costs 15FF approximately pounds 1. Parties of 10 or more are charged 10FF per person. Call in advance for guided tour. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Minds free for 1 month. Independent Minds Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Minds.
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Gina Miller. Our view. Sign the petition. Spread the word. Steve Coogan. Rugby union. Motor racing. US sports. Rugby League. Geoffrey Macnab. Skip to main content Skip to table of contents. Advertisement Hide. Front Matter Pages i-xvi. Pages Back Matter Pages About this book Introduction This book is the first study of popular theatre in France from left to right, exploring how theatre shapes political acts, ideals, and communities in the modern world.