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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.

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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