Art that cuts to the bone: Frank Netter exhibit at the Morris Museum

frank netter skull
Frank Netter set the modern standard for anatomical illustrations. His works are on display through February at the Morris Museum.
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To call Frank Netter’s illustrations life-like is an understatement.  The late M.D. was so accurate that his textbook art became a basic component of the education of countless doctors.

“The artist,” he once said, “must portray his subject matter as effectively as possible within the allotted pages. What to leave out becomes, at times, as important as what to include.”

frank netter skull
Frank Netter set the modern standard for anatomical illustrations. His works are on display through February at the Morris Museum.

Which presumably also was good advice for his other occupation–surgeon.

More than 40 of Frank Netter’s illustrations are on display through Feb. 27 at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, as part of an ongoing series on the intersection of art and science.

Frank H. Netter, MD, Michelangelo of Medicine is a more gentle introduction to anatomy than say,  Bodies…The Exhibition, the controversial road show of rubberized cadavers.

In fact, Frank Netter strived to remind physicians, through his illustrations, that they were treating more than just a collection of parts. All those organs were connected to human beings, whose pain was reflected in his paintings.

“I’m not portraying TV sets,” he once observed.

Netter, who died in 1991 at the age of 85, actually did not perform surgery for long.

Art came first. He studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students’ League, and was influenced by Robert Henri, George Bellows, Norman Rockwell and other artists and illustrators from the so-called “Ashcan School” who focused on everyday life in their art.

Although Netter’s work was published in the  Saturday Evening Post, Life and Esquire,  his mother urged him to pursue a more “respectable” career. So he enrolled in New York University’s medical school.

Being a doctor during the Depression wasn’t terribly lucrative, however. He illustrated a pamphlet about heart medication for Ciba Pharmaceuticals in 1938, and quickly discovered he could earn more by “drawing pictures” than by removing tonsils.

frank netter back
WHERE DOES IT HURT? An illustration by the late Frank Netter, MD, on display at the Morris Museum.

He went on to create 4,500 paintings, a 13-volume collection of medical illustrations and an atlas of human anatomy that has been translated into 12 languages and is now in its fifth edition, said Anne Wood Humphries, a freelance curator who has studied Frank Netter’s life.

“He decided to go with art instead of medicine,” Anne said at Tuesday’s exhibit opening. “But he didn’t give it up. He had to learn every specialty there was to do 13 volumes.”

Netter collaborated with medical giants such as polio vaccine pioneer Albert Sabin and heart transplant expert Michael DeBakey. His most inspiring subject, he said, was the 1982  transplant of an artificial heart into Seattle dentist Barney Clark.

The Netter collection is on loan from the Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation and is sponsored by Elsevier Health Sciences, which acquired the publishing rights to his work a few years ago.

Some of Netter’s illustrations have been converted to 3D images — enabling students to “dissect” a patient without spilling a drop of blood.

Admission to the Museum is $10 for adults and $7 for children, students and senior citizens. It’s free every Thursday between 5 and 8 p.m., and will be free every day from Dec. 5 through Dec. 12 for the museum’s Holiday Festival.

For more information, call 973-971-3700, or visit www.morrismuseum.org.

frank netter
A CPR illustration by the late Frank Netter, M.D. His works are on display at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.
frank netter
Frank Netter, medical illustrator extraordinaire, was a "curmudgeon with a heart of gold," according to curator Anne Wood Humphries. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
anne wood humphries
Free-lance curator Anne Wood Humphries says Frank Netter's medical illustrations were meant to convey a message; they often include many stories-within-a-story. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
HELLO IN THERE! No, that's not funny. This kid clearly is uncomfortable. Frank Netter aimed to convey the human element in his medical illustrations. More than 40 of his works are exhibited at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
HELLO IN THERE! No, that's not funny. This kid clearly is uncomfortable. Frank Netter aimed to convey the human element in his medical illustrations. More than 40 of his works are exhibited at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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