Phillip Verheyen Project

Dear Mr. Suy,

I was very happy to receive your email requesting information about the painting “Philip Verheyn Dissecting His Own Amputated Leg” and the book “Amputaties en Bewaringen.” I am especially interested in your query because you are a professor of surgery from the same university, it seems, as Verheyen himself. I would therefore like to explain the situation to you in some detail.

I am an artist living and working in New York City. I have been interested in Philip Verheyen as a figure of the late seventeenth century, who in many ways functions as a metaphor for the philosophical changes of that era – Spinoza and the beginnings of Atheism, Decartes and the beginnings of empirical thought, Ruysch and the beginnings of theatrical anatomy and first Curiosity Cabinets, forbears of the modern museum. In many ways I think the fundamental beliefs of “our” Western cultures to this day still depend upon these philosophical shifts.

Do we not all perceive the world through images that are given to us through books and media; and through the socio-political contexts in which we are brought up? The painting “Philip Verheyn Dissecting His Own Amputated Leg” does not actually exist. It is a composite image I have created in order to explore this fragility of truth and authenticity. Simply put, the paradox for me lies in the empiricist question: In order for an individual to understand himself does he have to be separate from himself? Is the human body not the threshold point of objective knowledge – a singularity from which we extrapolate the multiplicities of the world?

In keeping with this project, the book “Amputaties en Bewaringen” does not exist either. In fact a good part of the Wikipedia entry from which, I assume, you obtained this information is fictitious, or at best conjecture.

The Museum of Contextual Amputations is a website which showcases artwork, like my own, which use various strategies of fiction to ask questions about truth and authenticity ( I am the editor of this “Museum”.

The reason I feel it is important to explain this project to you is that I don’t intend to deceive anybody. I use these strategies to deploy elements of fiction and metaphor within spaces which we consider as truthful and real in order to provoke these very questions.

I would very much like to begin a discussion with you about these issues if they interest you. I would also like to know more about Philip Verheyen, as there is very little information about him in this country.

I look forward to a continued dialog with you; I feel that as a Dutch surgeon you might be able to shed more light on these subjects for me than I could probably help you.


Sreshta Premnath (2006)


References to the project:

“Philip Verheyen (1648-1710) and his Corporis Humani Anatomiae” by Raphael Suy
“Amputation as Metaphor” by Berry Craig
“Poolse wereldreizigster over het raadsel van het lichaam” by Antoine Verbij

I. Description of a Painting

“In this anonymous, late 17th Century painting anatomist Philip Verheyen performs a dissection on his severed leg. His eyes are fixed in rapt attention as he carefully draws a taut tendon out of an incision in the ankle. His fingers hold the forceps with a gentle precision that brings to mind the painter’s brush. The limb itself, though severed seems like living flesh, as if freshly cut. As he performs this task with one hand the other floats seeming to unconsciously mimic the active hand.

The hand that performs the dissection itself floats in a black void, as if it too were separate from the body, one disembodied limb operating upon another. As our gaze moves down the sitter’s mauve gown we find that this visual amputation is no coincidence and is mirrored in the unsettling absence of the sitters left leg. The gown that we expect to fold over his left knee, disappears behind the foot of the table and is replaced by a bloody thigh only barely muted by the ridiculously insufficient gauze. The limb on the table, we then deduce, belongs to the sitter and is vertically displaced from its rightful position by the surface of the Dutch Yew Wood table. On further observation one finds that the sitters right foot, framed on three sides by the table and at the bottom by the floor is just as detached from the sitter’s body as are his other limbs. Its size and position in relation to his body and a hint of his gown as it stretches against his shin insist on the singularity of his body.

The map of the figure overlays the figure, filling in those spaces that are empty, missing or transparent. Hence the painting does not simply illustrate an amputation, but also implies a second amputation inscribed in Verheyen’s unidirectional gaze, which separates him from his limb, as well as the viewer’s gaze as it examines the surface of the painting.

It was during this famous dissection that Verheyen coined the term Achilles Tendon, in reference to the mythic Achilles Heel – the only mortal part of Achilles’s body corresponding to that part of his ankle where his mother is said to have held him as she dipped him in the river Styx.”

Pieter Deheijde; Amputaties/ Bewaringen, p. 53

II. Amputation and the Phantom

The amputated limb provides a concrete image for the paradox of disembodiment. The removal or displacement of an element from a larger structure results in several displacements. First, the structure from which it is displaced is rendered incomplete and unable the perform tasks it was able to carry out as a unified entity. Second, the viewer is unable to visually reconstitute the amputated entity, constantly substituting the missing limb with a glaring absence. Third, the limb itself is rendered completely useless, an inanimate symbol of itself – It resembles itself but is unable to fulfill its function.

A dead body, though devoid of function still registers as a unified entity, the entire structure having ceased to function, a dead limb however disturbs the unified surface. It splits the structure into two incompatible aspects – one with agency and consciousness, the other lifeless. The paradox that disturbs the surface of unity, rather than the limb itself is the “phantom”. That imagined/ projected entity, which substitutes for the absent limb. The paradox lies in the persistence of the body that insists upon the presence of an absent element.

It is in creating the “phantom” that Premnath’s project is concerned with.

In his series “Implements for Amputation” he presents Digital C-Prints of drawings. This layering of representation (drawings were made from 17th century textbook illustrations and then photographed) leaves the viewer three times removed from the signified object, thus implying another amputation which implicates the viewer’s gaze.

In “Verheyen’s Cabinet” we are provided with a critical re-inscription of the 17th century Curiosity Cabinet – an early form of the modern Museum. Here Philip Verheyen’s anatomy text-book Corporis Humani Anatomia (1693), is photographed, severed into pieces and then reconstituted to form strange biomorphic forms which remind us of plants or deformed animals and yet resist nomenclature in their visceral, yet robotic construction. One sees the procedures of the Dada Exquisite Corpse, and is forced to imagine a time at the beginnings of western empirical medicine when the human body was itself seen as a strange stringing together of organs, the cadaver, a kind of exquisite corpse in itself.

In his untitled video, keystoned to force a perspectival space within the wall, we see the artist, ankle tied to a rock on one bank of a river, attempting to swim across it. Tied to the site of origin and attempting to reach his site of desire he finds himself pathetically stranded, always mid-river.

Here we must return to the “Description of a Painting”: We then see the artist, like the anatomist Verheyen, searching for meaning, one leg always tied to the known (the mythical Mother) which on the one hand allows him to desire and on the other tethers him always only half-way from his object of desire. This space of desire, this space that resists nomenclature, we can then call “the Phantom”.