Observations on Observing the Hand
The Buhl Collection presents the human hand as an aesthetic object that reminds us how much more we know more about life and one another than we can put into words. Artificially arrested in both movement and time by these photographs, the hand becomes a meditative object with “a remarkable density of implication.” Images of hands have been found among the earliest known cave drawings: 19,000 years ago hands were incorporated in a montage of hunting implements created by Australian aborigines in Kenniff Cave in Queensland; 14,000 years ago they surmounted a fantastic collection of drawings of now-extinct animals in Spain’s Altamira cave.2 These were not mere trail leavings or territorial postings: they were the signatures of socially located and defined individuals: “I am a painter;” or “I am a hunter.” These prototypical declarations of self are the shards of dawning human consciousness.
As you consider the technologically and compositionally modern photographic images in this exhibition, it is worth remembering that they join and extend a tradition of human expression that is literally thousands of years old. The hand can make the statement, sign the statement, or be the statement.
Aristotle, who described the hand as “the instrument of instruments” argued that the hand had been given to humans because of their intelligence. In saying this, he meant to refute the opinion of Anaxagoras, who one century earlier had asserted that humans are intelligent because they have hands.3 Approximately 2,500 years have passed since these speculations were first recorded. We still do not know who was correct, but perhaps both were.
Anthropologists have long considered that human life received a major formative boost about 2 million years ago when Africa's walking apes (the hominids) began the regular practice of fashioning stones into tools. But chimpanzees living during the same time almost certainly were capable of comparable tool manufacture and use, so we really must ask why tools became so much more important to the descendants of the walking apes than to the apes that stayed in the trees. Tool-using chimpanzees went right on being chimpanzees, but some of the descendants of Homo habilis – nicknamed “handyman” as the first hominids to manufacture stone tools – migrated out of Africa, began devising more complex implements and habitats, and over successions of generations produced offspring with bigger and bigger brains. By 50,000 years ago the most successful hominids were living in organized hunter-gatherer communities and were on the verge of opening the first art galleries.
Did tool use influence the evolution of walking apes but not the evolution of tree living apes? If so, why? One Darwinian-minded conjecture is that tools must have played very different roles in the fate of these two populations. When the first hominids appeared in Africa about six million years ago the chimpanzees were already supremely well adapted to tree life. Although having the ability to forage at ground level must have been beneficial to the chimps, ground-level excursions and the employment of tools in that environment must not have been essential to their survival.
By contrast, the walking apes were committed to life at ground-level and compelled to succeed there. We will never know exactly how they did it, or what breaks (lucky and bad) made a decisive difference. In the broadest possible terms, though, we do know this: the winners of the hominid evolutionary competition – our ancestors – staked their survival on the inventive use of their hands and ultimately on transforming themselves into highly social tools-makers and tool users.4
Tool-making hominids didn't just survive: by 1 million years ago, their scattered descendants had colonized every major land mass on the planet. We have only recently come to understand that they were building a new brain for themselves in the process. By about 200,000 years ago hominid brain volume had tripled, and its functional capabilities may have been identical to those of the modern human brain.
The final piece of modernization and specialization of the hominid brain is widely held to have been its acquisition of a special capacity for language: we talk, and if we don’t talk, we sign to one another.5 Language, or course, is far more than words strung together: it is gesture, dance, song, even silence. As we see again and again in the photographs in this exhibition, it is any coin we can use in our unceasing exchange of meanings. No one knows whether there is a specific gene for human language, but many people believe there must be. It may also be true that language is what is sometimes called an “emergent effect” of many other factors, just as flight is an emergent effect of wing design taking advantage of atmospheric and gravitational physics. No matter how we account for it, human communication formalized with a superstructure of grammatical patterns probably came into common use less than 50,000 years ago.6
One curious fact about language is that it does not seem to develop spontaneously in humans in the absence of a community to teach and sustain it. Linguistic competence, then, may be – like the music of Bach – as much a cultural as a biologic achievement, but of such fundamental importance in ordinary life that every new child must acquire it. If this is true, we can infer that the human brain has a distinctive ability to conform itself to the cultural messages and practices it encounters from the moment of birth. We can also understand that this brain of ours, having discovered when and where and with whom it shares its life, can call upon the deeper grammar of the whole body when it chooses to speak. As we see again and again in these photographs, it loves to speak with the hand.
In brief, then, evolution toward a distinct human species began with an unexplained (and almost certainly for some apes a doomed) experiment in upright walking that unexpectedly grew into a biologic revolution because (as Darwin himself pointed out), hands no longer needed for the support of bodily weight had been freed to do other things. The modern brain, the body that contains it, and opportunities for a radically new and open-ended existence came into being because of a unique partnership of hand and brain that was a pragmatic success in the short term and biologically defining in the long term.
In 1833, the Scottish surgeon and comparative anatomist Charles Bell wrote a book about the hand, which he saw as being so central to human life that “it behaves as if it were the seat of the will.” He remarked that few people truly appreciated the importance of the hand and guessed the reason to be a lack of understanding of a design so perfect that “we use it as we draw our breath, unconsciously.”
Surprisingly, Bell was just restating ideas that were already quite old; in fact, 300 years before Bell wrote his book, the hand had gained the attention of an extraordinary range of artists and thinkers who shared the opinion that fundamental secrets about human life were hidden in the hand. As we study these photographs, no matter what our own background or interests may happen to be, we join a long list of celebrated explorers who have been drawn to the hand in their search for clues to the nature of our own existence.
On a Navy ship, when the announcement “All hands on deck!” is broadcast, it is not just fingers and thumbs but entire sailors that are being summoned. Likewise, in this exhibition of photographs of the hand we are not simply looking at postures or actions of the human upper limb: these images represent entire individuals.8
For virtually the whole of recorded history, humans have used their hands to represent themselves and what they think, feel, and intend: we have a highly tuned awareness of hands even if we are as unconscious observing as we are using them. It is not just that we gesture or sign to one another, or send written notes on paper or e-mails from our computers: our hands and even images of them can specify the “self” in ourselves.9
The history of anatomic studies of the human hand and their influence on philosophical and scientific studies of human life is one of the most fascinating stories in natural history. This history illustrates the cumulative power of countless spontaneous and ultimately decisive interactions over many hundreds of years involving artists, scientists, anatomists, surgeons, theologians, and writers. In particular, 16th century anatomic studies of the hand offer invaluable insights to viewers of modern “art” photographs of the hand. Without knowing at least something of that history, we can barely begin comprehend our own strong responses to contemporary ideas about, and representations, of the hand-as-self.
Permit me the interruption of a minor but necessary docent’s reminder as we set out on this small historical journey. The modern habit of separating science and art is nothing but a cultural bias. It is also naïve. Every discipline is the product of human thought, and human thought makes its own pragmatic choices about what goes with what, if it is allowed to. The hand as an object of study is a striking case in point: modern scientific understanding of the anatomy of the hand (one of whose consequences is the truly miraculous ability of hand surgeons to restore function to injured hands) has its roots in the work of Renaissance artists.
Like other artists of his time, Leonardo da Vinci began making anatomic drawings not because he was interested in discovering the inner workings of the body but because he wanted to be able to produce more realistic drawings of the posed body. The earliest were done in 1487, but it was not until 1510 that he began a systematic study of the anatomy of the hand.10
Da Vinci’s anatomical studies stand as defining examples of Renaissance thinking and accomplishment. Despite his lack of classical training in languages and literature, he was an intellectual free agent who freely drew upon a wide range of disciplines – art, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, and engineering – in all of his work. His approach to human anatomy was characteristic, with both observations and questions gathering over the many years during which he sought to systematize his own understanding of human mechanics. In the end, his drawings leave history with far more than a priceless collection of physical artifacts; they are a treasury of clues to the workings of a gifted and unfettered mind. Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are important to us for another reason. They mark a critical moment in history when medicine began to transform itself from a discipline captive to its own history into a discipline adapting its ideas and methods to science and attempting to reinvent itself on that basis.
These two woodcuts are critical to our understanding of both the practical and symbolic role of the hand – and of the anatomists who studied the hand – in bringing medicine out of the dark ages. Although systematic human dissection was carried out by a few Greek anatomists (an anatomical museum was founded in Alexandria by Herophilus in 275 B.C.E.), religious taboos not only curtailed or precluded their work but had effectively forestalled the practice everywhere else in the world. In 180 C.E. Galen published what was to become the only standard reference to human anatomy – based almost entirely on animal dissections – and human dissections did not resume until the mid-13th century.
Dating from about 1316, the woodcut on the upper left shows Mondino de’ Luzzi, professor of anatomy at Bologna, presiding ecclesiastically over the exertions of the menial barber-surgeons below – they did the cutting, he did the explaining. Mondino lectured from Galenic texts, and his students were required to learn what had been taught for a thousand years rather than what the dissection being conducted in front of them might have disclosed.
Anatomy in the universities was presented in this way until 1543 when, in a highly controversial break with tradition, Andreas Vesalius (at the age of 28!) published a 7-volume compendium of human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This was the first anatomy text since the time of Herophilus based on human dissection. Not only did this text break Galen’s domination of the teaching of anatomy, but it was a direct attack on the subordination of practical knowledge and exposition to scholastic dogma. Vesalius himself, not the barber surgeons, had performed the dissections. In the Preface, dedicating his efforts to Emperor Charles V of Spain, he condemned “that detestable procedure by which some conduct the dissection of the human body and others present the account of its parts, the latter like jackdaws aloft in their high chair, with egregious arrogance croaking things they have never investigated but merely committed to memory from the books of others…”11
The noted art historian Claire Sherman points out that the woodcut portrait Vesalius commissioned for his book is a bold declaration in its own right.
“Standing in front of a curtain, a richly dressed Vesalius glances at the viewer while he holds the dissected forearm and hand of a larger than lifesize figure placed next to a column…. What is equally remarkable is the emphasis on the dissected forearm and hand of the heroic figure next to Vesalius. This choice is deliberate, because the prominently depicted flexor muscles of the fingers are considered the anatomically complex feature associated with human identity and intelligence (italics mine). The focus on Vesalius’ own hand as writer and recorder shows his intellectual prowess as a scholar, while the dissected hand demonstrates his manual skill as an anatomist…: a daring allusion at a time when manual labor was still associated with barber surgeons and not academically trained physicians.”12An additional innovation in this kind of representation – reframing the dismantled corpse as a heroic display – quickly became commonplace in anatomic texts that followed Vesalius, as Katherine Rowe points out:
“Remarkably, these figures rarely make cautionary or protective gestures. Far from warding off investigation, the hands in anatomy illustrations seem to invite and offer it.”13
Rowe points out two additional subliminal messages conveyed by these highly stylized anatomic illustrations; first, that the cadaver was a consensual partner in an important didactic exercise; second, that the cadaver’s hand was to be understood as a cutaway model of the hand of the anatomist who, like a sorcerer, had discovered how to open his own marvelous hand to public view. Perhaps we can see an even more astonishing subliminal assertion contained in these artful displays: the anatomist, animator of a lifeless form, is to the corpse what Michelangelo’s God was to Adam.
One century later, in a sumptuous visual bow to the celebrated Vesalius woodcut – faithful most of all in its ennobling the event by quoting the display of the dissected flexor apparatus of the hand – Rembrandt recorded an important public dissection conducted in late January, 1632. This was his first commissioned work and became one of his best known paintings, The Anatomy of Dr. Nicolas Tulp. William Heckscher comments about the historic significance of this painting:
“I think it has never been properly realized that … the formal anatomies, such as the one conducted by Dr. Tulp and painted by Rembrandt, represented equally important chapters in the historical development of the stage. The success of the anatomy, just like that of any other theatrical performance, depended largely on the size and on the sympathetic response of its audience. The anatomies of this type were expressly designed to attract and to hold large numbers of onlookers. They needed financial success, also, and had therefore to depend on the support and approval of the masses no less than Shakespeare’s plays in London or Vondel’s in Amsterdam.”14If we find it quaint or dissonant that medical doctors – even in the 17th century – might have put cadavers on stage to draw paying crowds, it is only because modern western medicine so vehemently recants the original intimacy of the healing, the occult, and the dramatic arts. The need for disavowal is almost past, though, because so many adults are either too young or too technologically habituated to appreciate the degree to which the healing arts have always relied upon “low tech” ritual, magic, and drama.
Whatever formal place the Vesalius portrait deserves as an icon to enlightened medicine, it cannot be overlooked as an equally vivid memento of medicine’s theatrical affinities and to the power of myth. The literal message of the scene was that science would liberate medicine from centuries of unsubstantiated dogma and superstition disguised in academic drag; the subliminal message was that Vesalius, representing the scientific physician of the future, holds in his hands the power to raise the dead. The visual metaphor was new; the intimation of preternatural power was not.
To admit that medicine has had its flings with grease paint and snake oil is to do no more than acknowledge both the mythic allure and the protean versatility of the hand in the emotionally charged world of sickness and healing. Referring to this history requires that we refer as well, if only in the briefest terms, to the fascinating history of medical hand reading. Palmistry, or chiromancy, is an ancient and essentially worldwide folk art that was warmly embraced and then abruptly dismissed by medicine just as Vesalius and the anatomists who followed him were bringing the hand to a very different kind of prominence in the medical academy. Since palmistry is specifically concerned with messages about self communicated by the hand, it is highly germane to the theme of this exhibition.
UCLA historian of Science Brian Copenhaver has examined the history of palmistry in remarkable detail, and points out that chiromancy (divining the future by examination of the hand), was accepted by Aristotle, Ptolemy and even Galen.
“For an expert to predict changes in a person’s life by observing features of the body was normal in ancient medicine and remains so today… The specialty of chiromancy was a division of physiognomy, but it was also dependent on astrology and greatly shaped by it.” For the extremely long time that astrology and astronomy were essentially the same discipline practiced by the same people, the association was a favorable. Moreover, after 1450, “printing would strengthen the occultist tradition by amplifying its visual power.” Chiromancy, or palmistry, attracted serious followers in medicine of the 16th and 17th centuries, even as the Popes of the same era were banning books on divination and issuing papal bulls and encyclical letters condemning astrology.
While in theory the idea that the hand reflects the character and perhaps even the fate of its owner, in practice the interpretation of these markings could be remarkably opaque. The Saunders “cognitive map” of the hand (illustration) “is merely grotesque, a labyrinth of lines, marks, signs, and places, a dense puzzle; the untutored reader will be lost in this maze, where bad luck and wayward sex are the main prospects.”
Copenhaver cites a 1661 book of the scholar and poet Johann Praetorius, which had taken notice of the moral ambiguity of hand reading and concluded that chiromancy could be either “an honorable practice or a criminal perversion…; eventually, astrology would make chiromancy disreputable.”15
The judgment of medicine has been that palmistry belongs to its discarded past. Copenhaver notes, however, that “chiromancy has survived the centuries… It will survive some more.”
Two hundred years after Tulp, in 1833, the pioneering Scottish surgeon and comparative anatomist Charles Bell finally made explicit the idea that had gathering momentum for 2500 years but had yet to be directly and authoritatively expressed. Writing at a time when geologists were rapidly undermining Biblical accounts of time and of the antiquity of life on Earth, Bell was not only a physician but the son of a minister and himself a devoutly religious man. He was aware of the growing public interest in geology and debates about the significance of fossil finds, and well acquainted with a famous treatise published in 1802 by theologian William Paley, in which the argument was made that the existence of God could be shown by the inference of design in complex structures. As Paley famously argued, one might find a rock lying on the ground and conclude it had been lying there forever; but no one finding a watch on the ground would come to the same conclusion. Some objects (a watch, for example) are so complex that they must have been designed; obviously a designed object cannot exist without a designer. 16
Agreeing to write on a biological theme for a series of books commissioned by Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, Bell joined the theological “argument from design” in a book which he titled The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design. As a comparative anatomist, he was an expert on the differences in structure between the human forelimb and that of many other animals. What made the human hand like Paley’s watch was not so much its marvelous mechanical complexity as its “perfect” adaptation to the workings of the human mind and will.
The human hand is so beautifully formed, it has so fine a sensibility, that sensibility governs its motions so correctly, every effort of the will is answered so instantly, as if the hand itself were the seat of that will; its actions are so powerful, so free, and yet so delicate, that it seems to possess a quality instinct in itself, and there is no thought of its complexity as an instrument, or of the relations which make it subservient to the mind; we use it as we draw our breath, unconsciously, and have lost all recollection of the feeble and ill-directed efforts of its first exercise, by which it has been perfected.17In effect, Bell wrote to close the gap between the approaching hands of God and Adam that Michelangelo had painted on the Sistine Chapel 300 years earlier: by bringing the human hand and mind to life, God proves His own existence!
Think what this means: after 2,500 years of speculation, capped by 300 years of post-Renaissance anatomic and biomechanical study, anthropologists, artists, anatomists, physicians and philosophers had reached a consensus that the hand is not only a vital structure, but is that part of the human body through which we create a self, exercise our intelligence, and gain the chance to reclaim our original high place in the divine kingdom.
Michelangelo had said as much in 1510 in his great tableau of the Creation of Adam. But the anatomists, beginning with Vesalius and ending with Bell, put the icing and the candles on this cake. Standing at the threshold of the Darwinian revolution, speaking with one voice, the anatomists said that God had not just touched man; he had put incontrovertible physical evidence of his presence – and of his special plan for humans – inside the hand, where anyone could look. What more could the hand possibly reveal to tell us about ourselves and our place in the universe?
On November 8, 1895, a physicist at the University of Würzburg, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, noticed light coming from piece of crystal-coated paper that was lying on a table not far from a cathode tube he had been testing. Since the tube was covered with opaque paper, he realized that some kind of ray generated by the tube had passed through the light barrier. By covering the tube with thin sheets of different metals, he showed that some metals were better than others at blocking the rays; he also discovered that he could expose normal silver-impregnated photographic paper with the rays. The resulting image was unlike the photographic image created by reflected light, which imitates what we can see with our own eyes. This was an image that mapped the density of the components of an object, leaving a silhouette of the internal structure of that object on the film.
Röntgen immediately decided to see if he could look through his own hand with the X-rays. Amazed that he could see his own bones, on December 22 he made a “shadow picture” of his wife’s hand. The first human X-ray – of Bertha Röntgen’ s hand – was included in the preliminary report he made to the Physical Medicine Society of Würzburg on December 28.18 He also sent copies of the image of his wife’s hand to a number of friends, who shared it so widely and excitedly that news of his discovery had traveled around the world in less than two weeks.19
Röntgen included a number of other “shadow pictures” in his preliminary report, including a door, wire wrapped on a spool, weights in a box, and a compass. But Nick Hopwood, of the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, believes that it was Bertha’s hand that turned an otherwise obscure scientific discovery into an international popular sensation virtually overnight.
“From 5 January the skeletal image of a living hand inspired sensational newspaper reports around the world, and on 23 January Nature reproduced it in an English translation of Röntgen’s article. The same issue of the journal contained the first of a flood of X-ray images of other hands. These replications of Röntgen’s work helped to make the new rays the paradigmatic imaging technology of the twentieth century, and Mrs. Röntgen’s hand an icon of modern medicine, modern physics, and modern communications media.”20One of the elements in this image that lends it instant recognition and social significance is the dark shadow cast by Bertha Röntgen’s rings; not surprisingly, rings were included in many of the images that were immediately created in other laboratories. But there is more to the success of this image than its identity as a married woman’s hand. Consider-ing the centuries-long march toward virtual deification of the human hand that preceded Röntgen’s discovery, one sees in this image the artistic realization of what had never been depicted before in emotionally direct language: a ghostly intimation of the presence of the designer of the human hand.
Among the many reflections that could be offered viewers of these photographs, one that seems both apt and timeless is that people are utterly obsessed with and fickle about their own bodies. This pan-cultural physical neurosis has driven humans, century by century, through ecstasies of joy and despair over the mouth, nose and eyes, arms and calves, breasts and chests, vaginas and penises. Most of all, though – and this may come as a surprise – physical capriciousness condemns us all, again and again, to bipolar binges of love and contempt for our hands.
Let’s start with love. Long before Bell’s Bridgewater Treatise, Andreas Laurentius, professor of anatomy at Montpellier in 1598 and later physician to Marie de Médicis and Henry IV impressively distilled the of praise that had accumulated from the time of Anaxagoras to the time of Vesalius. In one of several books of anatomy that Laurentius published that remained influential for two centuries, in a section entitled ‘Of the excellency of the hands,’ he grandly made the case:
By the helpe of the hand lawes are written, temples built for the service of the Maker, ships, houses, instruments, and all kind of weapons are formed. I list not to stand upon the nice skill of painting, drawing, carving and such like right noble artes, whereby many of the ancients have made their names honorable unto us, yea and eternized them to the worlds end. By our hands we promise, we call, we dismisse, we threaten, we intreate, we abhorre, we feare, yea and by our hands we can ask a question.21How could one ever despise such an appendage? On its face, not a hard question: knowing human nature, we know how easily a hand can drag a man – or a woman – into the dark world of criminality, where a “sinister” reputation can have anatomically concrete associations: “We know you had a hand in this!” But the “hand as guilty member” metaphor is not simply a play on words. Consider the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:30):
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.This exculpatory formula leads us to an unexpected complication in an otherwise straightforward survey of popular attitudes about the hand. The Sermon on the Mount codifies two extremely widespread beliefs about the hand.
The first belief is that the hand can act on its own, absent or even contrary to the conscious intent of its owner. The second belief is that a treacherous hand can absorb the full responsibility for the offense of an individual: his odious hand sundered, the owner is cleansed and restored.
Those of us who live in industrialized western societies tend to regard the practice of punitive amputation of the hand as barbaric. In doing so without considering the symbolic meaning and power of the practice, we imagine that we have outgrown the body’s ancient psychophysiologic protocols, or can rid ourselves of them merely by ridiculing or disavowing them. Thinking the Sermon on the Mount to be stand for nothing but metaphor or sanctified pagan jurisprudence, we deny own deeply rooted need for and responses to exculpatory ritual, and misapprehend the power of the hand to choreograph and complete those rituals.
If you doubt the force of common rituals surrounding the hand in relation to crime, punishment, and redemption, consider what happens to those unable to detach and distance themselves from a guilty hand. The implications are ominous, and the penalties can be dire, as Shakespearian scholar Michael Neill reminds us (Julius Caesar; 3.1.184-89):
Brutus:“Ironically designed as a symbolic ‘profession of innocency’ demonstrating Brutus’ claim that the murder is the work of priestly ‘sacrificers not butchers’ – the ritual becomes a ‘hieroglyphic’ of guilt, whose meaning is brought home to the audience by Antony’s ambiguous counter-ritual of hand-clasping.”
The word power introduces another equally important stigma that can be borne by the hand. In every human society we know about, hands have flown the ensigns of social tonnage and professional rank. We groom, adorn and inscribe our hands to display and choreograph movements that deliver messages about class. The working hand, in contrast, is the symbol of a laboring body and emphatically not a divine gift. Indeed, it could be argued that people are far more likely to be punished for the blood they inherited than for any blood they ever spilled.
Shoshana Zuboff, professor of social science at Harvard, writes:
“This repugnance toward labor rides a long wave in Western history, a wave that has not, even yet, reached its crest. In the religious zeal of the early Middle Ages, trades that trafficked in money were considered illicit, materialism being an indication of a lack of faith. With the growing urbanization, more detailed division of labor, and accelerated mercantilism of the late Middle Ages, however, this view of economic activity took an important turn: ‘Work itself no longer constituted the distinction between respectable and contemptible categories; instead, it was manual labor that had come to be the key factor in the frontier between respect and contempt.” In 1241, a municipality in Flanders excluded from the urban magistracy all robbers, coiners, and ‘those who have not given up all manual work for at least one year.’”23
David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his self-portrait, El Coronelazo, in 1945. Hector Garcia photographed Siqueiros in the Lecumberri Jail in Mexico City 15 years later. Garcia later said of his photograph, “It usually happens that when I see my photographs at a later time, they suggest many things I did not see initially. That hand is exactly the same hand he used to paint his famous self-portrait, El Coronelazo, where that open hand with its five fingers becomes a fountain of color.”24
It is hard to imagine any symbolism involving the hand with greater “density of implication” than that existing along the axis of freedom and imprisonment. The handcuff is a universal implement of physical restraint with enormous polemical power; it is used throughout the world as a mark of social protest. Although shackles fixed to the legs and ankles probably are far more effective in limiting mobility, handcuffs are more disabling.
It is worth noting the striking asymmetry in the visual vocabulary we use when the hands are depicted in gestures or poses of freedom and imprisonment. Hands can be tied, cuffed, amputated, or put behind bars. Almost anything else the hands do is an expression of freedom. What this means, in plain terms, is that our hands are the instrument through which we exercise our freedom. It’s that simple.
In 1511, Albrecht Dürer published Great Passion and Small Passion, two collections of woodcuts in book form intended to inspire meditation and piety.25 Included in the Small Passion collection is one woodcut that depicts a meeting of the resurrected Christ and the apostle Thomas (a.k.a. Doubting Thomas). It is an exquisitely sensitive image with a surprisingly ambiguous message.
This meeting, occasioned by Thomas's refusal to believe, offered Thomas the opportunity to make his own judgment about the resurrection. Christ says to him, "reach hither they finger, and behold my hands, and reach hither they hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless but believing." After submitting to this extraordinary examination, Christ admonishes Thomas with these words: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." (John 20:24-29)
The message could hardly be simpler or more direct: Christian belief is a matter of faith. But the Dürer can be read as conveying a more complicated and ambiguous message; this reading depends on the representation of Christ's right hand, its relation to Thomas's hand, and on the literal and metaphoric use of light playing on the two hands.
Whereas the scriptural lesson amounts to an admonition on lack of faith, the illustration shows the hand of Christ in a posture of attentive mentorship, guiding Thomas's hand through an examination of the physical evidence. The implication of this reading of the Dürer is, first, that the human hand can substitute for the “superior” (hence more “spiritual”) senses of seeing and hearing;26 second, that notwithstanding the summary and irrevocable expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (the penalty for seeking knowledge to which they were not entitled), Christ actually encouraged Thomas in his skeptical search for the truth.
The scene, taken whole, is deeply shocking: it could be a tableau from a hospital emergency room, with Christ as the patient and Thomas as the doctor. Dürer admits us to this scene during a tense and utterly silent moment, where he draws our eyes to the wedded movement of these two hands as they explore the wound together. Neither Christ nor Thomas needs to see what we see: they are completely absorbed in their own intimate journey of touch.
Dürer shows Thomas's hand, literally and metaphorically, to be moving in the dark. His fingers scarcely penetrate Christ's body – a sacred chamber into which we are forbidden to look. Christ's hand is illuminated differently. The light falls on his fifth finger, showing it to be lifted slightly. This detail tells us unambiguously – because of the experience of our own hands – that Christ is guiding the movements of Thomas's hand with care and delicacy. Dürer’s Christ is not simply probing his own wound, or passively enduring an unwelcome inspection of his body: he is teaching.
Dürer, as one of the most successful artists of his day, knew that the hand, intelligently guided, is an instrument for the discernment and expression of truth. By depicting Christ holding Thomas's hand so as to guide it gently and precisely, he allows us to imagine that he placed a high value on his own gifts and saw them not as instruments for the subversion of his own religious beliefs, but for deepening those beliefs by enhancing his understanding of the world.
There are a number of images in the Buhl Collection treating the interplay of sight and touch, or suggesting the visual power of the tactile sense. Main aux Cinq Yeux, by Pierre Jahan, while lacking the explicit elements of tactile exploration that dominate the Dürer, is uncannily close to it in theme. The eyeballs on the fingertips can be read as a literal statement of touch-as-sight. The eyeball in the center of the hand transports us magically from the domain of physiology and perception to the traditions of Islamic, Judaic, and Christian iconography, where the eye-in-hand is “apotropaic” – a talisman used to invoke God’s help in warding off evil. Because in some traditions the protection sought is against the “evil eye” – the power to desiccate and thereby kill merely by gazing – the eye at the center of the hand should not be presumed to be benign.
Like knowledge itself, the eye can do good or evil. In the Dürer, the hand that has learned to see can be implicitly trusted. Jahan’s eye-in-the-hand has a less benevolent cast, therefore so, too, does the hand from which its gaze emanates.
When a hand belongs to an individual with spiritual power (as we see in Leonard Freed’s portrait of Martin Luther King in a motorcade), its touch offers comfort, affirmation, and protection.
The Atwood portrait of a blind girl being guided as she explores a cross-eyed cat is as funny as it is tender; it also reminds us (as does the Dürer) that an important lesson spontaneously defines its own stage, with actors and a drama to which others may be instinctively attracted.
For as long as humans have written about human life, we have told ourselves that we are summit dwellers in the biologic world and uniquely attuned to the deeper secrets of the cosmos. The exact sources of the elevating traits of human life – especially intelligence and consciousness – remain a mystery, but from the time of the ancient Greeks the hand has been repeatedly associated with the ability of humans to act with reason, with understanding, and with originality.
We have already considered a less flattering cultural idea about the hand, which in the Middle Ages had become a gloomy symbol for the despised burdens of manual labor. But by the beginning of the Renaissance the iconic hand was beginning to recover its classical meaning as symbol of human privilege, power, and promise. By the early 1500’s, as that era was coming to an end, the rehabilitation of man’s image of nobility had been largely completed, and that of the hand along with it. Michelangelo’s 1510 Sistine Chapel painting of the Creation of Adam is a stunning assertion of man’s divine origin; there is no mistaking its metaphorical message that God’s touch brought Adam to life. But the approach of these two figures also invites us to see the painting’s prophetic message: Adam’s dormancy will end with the spiritual animation of his hand, which will rise to duplicate God’s energetic gesture and then strive to emulate his creative actions.
Michelangelo’s painting established what has become a long tradition of depicting the hand in specific contexts (both sacred and secular) and imitative or otherwise evocative postures to imply both spiritual identity and purpose; that tradition is strongly represented in the Buhl Collection.
Just over two years ago, two colleagues and I met with a small group of people who had arranged a weekend at the University of Chicago’s Graham School to think and talk about the meaning of their work. This small symposium was loosely organized around the theme of the hand, hoping that something akin to a blind date with our own outmoded hands might breathe new life into a neglected or forgotten passion that had gone cold in the working world.
In thinking about the initial meeting of this group, I was determined to find a way for this group of strangers to inaugurate a small retreat without first having to declaim their degrees, titles, and positions. Because I knew Henry Buhl and was familiar with his collection of hand photographs, it occurred to me to bring along postcard-sized prints of some of the images in the collection. I planned to ask each individual to choose one or more images of interest and, by way of introducing themselves, to talk to the others about them.
Hopeful though I was about this “icebreaker” tactic, I was not prepared for the response. Within minutes of seeing these images people in the group were talking about one hand or another as if they had taken the photograph themselves, or using the images to illustrate stories from their own lives. By the end of an opening hour that included other hand-based initiations, a small band of explorers found itself ready to break free of the guides and strike out on their own. And they continued in that vein; over the next two days our small group of somewhat shy strangers dug for buried treasure, sifting with their own hands for clues to ambitions that had stalled or to ideas that had stagnated, or solutions to problems that had become intractable. It was an experience my colleagues and I had earnestly sought; its freshness and intensity startled us all.
Visitors to the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition of hand photographs from the Buhl Collection may likewise find themselves personalizing these images, or startled by the intensity of a response to a specific image. They are only hands, but it is impossible to look at them without seeing something of your own life. George Bridgman was an art teacher who loved the hand. Writing in his classic book on hand anatomy he told his students: “The pictured hand is standardized to no laws except those of perception; the eye is blind but for the idea behind the eye.27 He wanted them to draw through the lens of their own experience and understanding. And this is how we must respond to the photographs in the Buhl collection. All of us will see something from our own past; some will see into a possible future as well.
What makes this collection far more than a personal reminiscence for me is that it is not just my own past that some of these images recall, but a far,Millions of years of primate evolution produced nothing less than a biologic imperative for every new human life, under whose rules the hand – or its surrogate – will exert a lifelong influence over our experience and understanding of ourselves, of those around us, and of the world in which we live. Humans are not merely brainy creatures: we are paragons, connoisseurs, and inveterate propagators of brainy handiness.
3. Aristotle, De Anima III.8 (432 a 1): “So the soul is as the hand; for the hand is an instrument with respect to instruments, the intellect is a form with respect to forms, and sense-perception a form with respect to things perceived.” C. 350B.C. Aristotle, De Partibus Animalum IV.10 (687 a5-b24) “Anaxagoras deduced that it was through having hands that man was the most intelligent animal, but it is a more reasonable view that man received hands because he was the most intelligent.”
5. There is a huge literature on language origins that continues to grow rapidly. Among recent authoritative works: Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of language and the brain. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997; Andrew Lock & Charles Peters (eds), Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; D. Armstrong, M. Karchmer, and J. Van Cleve (eds.) The Study of Signed Languages: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe, Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2002.
8. This expression is an example of what is called synechdoche, which means using the name of a part of something to refer to the whole entity. Another example is ranch hand, someone who works on a ranch.
9. And in the case of fingerprints, it is just one aspect of the anatomy of the hand that is taken as a unique identifier of a unique individual. The association between fingerprints and criminals began with Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who believed that criminality could be inferred from specific fingerprint types. These two uses of dermatoglyphics – marks on skin – exemplify the two most common meanings of human “identity”: biologic uniqueness and inner makeup (or “personality”), as do all of the portraits in this exhibition.
12. Claire Sherman & Peter Lukehart (eds). Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Trout Gallery, Dickinson College (distributed by University of Washington Press), 2000. See commentary on the portrait of Vesalius, p. 72.
15. Brian Copenhaver, “A Show of Hands,” in Claire Sherman & Peter Lukehart (eds). Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Exhibition Catalogue, distributed by University of Washington Press, Seattle), 2000
17. Charles Bell. The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, As Evincing Design. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1840, p. 23. (This is the first American edition). Rev. Henry had died in 1829, and Bell’s was the 4th book published in the series. The British edition was published while Darwin was in the South Atlantic on the HMS Beagle; Darwin’s two major works on evolution were not published until much later, in 1859 and 1872.
20. Nick Hopwood. Originally: http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/students/PrimSrc00/Hopwood-Roentgen.html Note: "The original source is no longer accessible on the internet." according to a personal communication from Professor Hopwood
21. William Schupach. The Paradox of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy of Dr. Tulp’. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1982. (The quoted passage is from A. Laurentius, Historia anatomica humani corporis, Book IX, p. 729. Frankfurt a.M., 1599).
24. Hector Garcia. See http://www.zonezero.com/exposiciones/fotografos/hgarcia/garcia06.html
26. Clare Richter Sherman & Peter Lukehart (eds). Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (P. 132). (Exhibition Catalogue, distributed by University of Washington Press, Seattle), 2000.
28. Frank R. Wilson. The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.