I Sing the Body Schematic

Taschen’s latest mammoth volume, Fritz Kahn by Uta and Thilo von Debschitz is about a German doctor, educator, popular science writer and information graphics pioneer whose  work translating the human organism into accessible human metaphors and analogies, has all but fallen into oblivion. Expelled by the Nazis, who banned and burned his books, Kahn emigrated to Palestine, then France, and finally the United States to continue his life’s work. I was privileged to write a brief foreword to the book. Here is an excerpt. But the book itself must be held and perused to be appreciated.

page_va_fritz_kahn_1600_01_1308291237_id_670236Have you fantasized about little humanoid organisms controlling our every move in the multi-leveled factory that is the human body? How else can we, who are not fluent in the language of science, truly comprehend the complex mechanics of everyday human existence? Enter the visionary Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German scientist, gynecologist and author, to tap directly into into our collective conscious and subconscious imagination, taking an admittedly absurd notion and developing it into an iconic copyrighted graphic system that brought this metaphoric mechanistic fallacy to virtual life. If Kahn is remembered for any one accomplishment during his formidable and storied career, it will be the subversively comical yet decidedly resolute diagrammatic wall poster titled “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” or “Man as Industrial Palace” (1926), where the doctor visually transformed a human body into the mechanized factory we fantastically want it to be.

Kahn visualized data decades before data visualization was practiced. His “Der Mench” poster, a surreal painting (as precise as any Dali and as ironic as any Duchamp) of a schematic cut-a-way human head and armless torso, exposed mazes of complex apparatus housed in and connected to one another in various specialized compartments. These meticulously crafted machine-age wonders are analogous to organs, muscles and nerves. Each compartment is occupied by patently skilled homunculi (those little humanoids) wearing either lab coats, work clothes or business suits, depending on their heirarchical or class status, who operate all the body functions as though it were a normal day at a ball bearing manufacturer. The eye is a bellows camera, the lung is made of copper tubes, the stomach and intestines are fast moving conveyor belts doused with pressurized hydrolics. The poster further reveals the left and right top of the brain where studious homunculi are intently reading, drawing and conversing. Lower down, once food is consumed it slides directly towards the bowels, where workers physically break it down into sugars and starches and other components that are conveyed along the dis-assembly line into nearby digestive rooms. Although, I wouldn’t want any physician of mine to have this on his examining room wall in place of an anatomy chart, Kahn was such a master of his metier and pioneer of information graphics, a viewer could not help be entertained and informed by what would otherwise be cold, clinical information. This and other diagrams were so profoundly appealing that his influence spread throughout the world and were manifest in varied media.

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