Fun with Your Modern Head

Fritz Kahn, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (2d ed, ca. 1929).
Artist: Fritz Shüler. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart. National Library of Medicine.

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala

In recent decades, scholars have begun to reckon with the visual turn in the popular science of the 18th and 19th centuries — the plates of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the lantern-slide lectures and theatrical electricity and magnetism shows of the Victorian era — a reckoning that nowadays is sometimes paired with desperate calls for a renewed “public engagement with science” as a response to the displacement of the industrial economy by the information economy, and by the political rise of climate denial, intelligent design creationism, and alternative facts.

Less well-attended is the visual turn in popular science of the early 20th century, and the key role of the German-Jewish physician-author, Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Kahn commanded a mass readership in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Even so, his enormous oeuvre of printed illustrations — several thousand — has been mostly overlooked. The small amount of scholarship on Kahn focuses on his most famous work, the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (“Man as Industrial Palace” or “Man as Industrial Factory”, with art by uncredited illustrator Fritz Shüler). That scholarship treats “Der Mensch” as a peculiarly Weimar cultural production. But “Der Mensch” had, in translation, a global impact. And more obscurely, direct American antecedents.

This blog (loosely based on the longer account in Body Modern) tells the back story: the antecedents and origins of “Der Mensch”:

In the early decades of the twentieth century a modernizing imperative took hold. Suddenly it seemed that a new age was dawning — an era of new technologies, fashions, and political philosophies — modern times. In the aftermath of the mass carnage of the Great War (1914–18), and the overthrow of the German, Russian, and Hapsburg empires, it seemed especially important to rethink things — to strip off old-fashioned ideas and decorative motifs that choked the preceding era. The new era needed new designs and inventions, with design elements that emphasized industrial production, machine power, strong practical lines, bold colors, and smooth surfaces of metal, glass, concrete, and rubber.

“The headquarters,” Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate XIII, part of a series of plates,
with fancy translucent overlay pages, that served as the inspiration for Fritz Kahn’s
1926 poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast.” Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.
Hanns Günther, Wunder in Uns (2nd ed., 1923).
Cover design: Walter Thamm. National Library of Medicine.

Wunder in Uns (The Wonder in Us) bears the marks of that moment. In 1921 Hanns Günther (pseudonym of the German popular science writer Walter de Haas, 1886–1969) compiled a book of twenty-eight essays on the human body “for everyone.” Furnished with a cover illustration that showed a boldly minimalist outline of a human heart, Wunder in Uns presented illustrated lessons on “recent developments” in medicine and “modern physiology” — and a chapter that compared the human body to an industrial machine. Central Europe was then greatly afflicted by political and economic turmoil. Everything was unsettled by the terrible destruction wrought by industrial warfare in the Great War. But even in troubled times Wunder in Uns attracted a wide readership and quickly sold out its first edition.

Part of the book’s appeal lay in its unusual color plates, which featured stylized cutaway diagrams of the interior of the human body. Although anatomical illustrations had long been a staple of popular medical books, they typically presented a view of static structures. In contrast, the striking illustrations in Wunder in Uns deployed images of industrial technology and process inside the human body as a way of visually explaining the body’s functions.

The head was depicted as the most technologically modern part of the body, the “Headquarters”. The brain was figured as bundles of wires connected to telecommunication offices staffed by little switchboard operators, file clerks, and messengers, who sort and redirect sensory electrical messages received from the eyes, nose, mouth, and lower body. In contrast, Plate III’s lesson on the physiology of digestion shows foods tumbling off a conveyor belt down the esophageal chute into the stomach and intestines, a sweaty corporeal furnace room or mine, tended by manual laborers. The body then had a class production system, an industrial organizational structure — the “head office” directed the body factory.

Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate III, another plate redrawn from illustrations
that appeared in a 1917 edition of the encyclopedia Pictured Knowledge.
Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.

And all of that was modern. In both form and content, the illustrations of Wunder in Uns signified their modernness, their adherence to new ways of thinking and doing. The mixture of text, drawings, and photographs was in the graphic style that had only recently been developed in American newspapers and magazines. The application of that style to visually explain the workings of the human body through industrial metaphor was a particularly clever innovation. And the way it was done was also new: each colored plate was dressed up with a tissue-paper overlay printed with captions, a slick modern packaging concept. The modern was a kind of performance that could be almost anything, so long as it was new, a novelty, the latest thing.

America was another signifier. Wunder in Uns tried to do things the modern industrialized American way. Its illustrations of the industrial body were borrowed from an article, “The Body We Live In,” written by Northwestern University physiologist-educator Winfield Scott Hall (perhaps in collaboration with his wife Jeannette Winter Hall), that first appeared in an American encyclopedia, Pictured Knowledge (Chicago, 1917).

“A look into headquarters,” Pictured Knowledge, vol. I (2nd ed.: Chicago, 1917).
This version has one less worker than the redrawn colorized plate in Wunder in Uns.
Artist: Uncredited.

Fritz Kahn, Life Magazine 19 April 1943.
Photograph: James L. Hussey.

Later in the 1920s and 30s, Wunder in Uns essayist Fritz Kahn, then a very minor popular science writer, took the idea of visual explanation and built a career out of it. His most esteemed work was the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast.” But, in a succession of popular illustrated books and articles, and in collaboration with a cadre of commercial artists, Kahn developed many different strategies and genres of visual explanation. They amped up the modernness of the pictorial content and style every step of the way, and revolutionized — to a large degree invented — the entire genre of conceptual illustration.

And in the 1940s, in exile in New York as a refugee from the Nazis, Kahn returned conceptual illustration to America.

Kahn’s commitment to visual explanation was based on an underlying premise: the modern way to communicate and instruct, the modern way to move readers (“the masses”), is through pictures that entertain while they instruct and persuade. Words alone are inadequate. “The picture is worth a thousand words.” An advertisement for Kahn’s Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man) boasted that the five-volume set on the science of the human body had 1,200 images.

“Twelve of twelve hundred . . . illustrations from ‘Das Leben des Menschen'” (ca. 1931).
Two-color promotional insert. Artist: Roman Rechn. Leo Baeck Institute,
New York. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart.

Pictures had powerful emotional and cognitive effects. They still do. The public thirsted for novel images, was addicted. It still is. And, using an array of media technologies, powerful industrial media machines churn them out. Today, in that proliferating picture and design environment, Kahn’s tropes and genres of visual explanation are our tropes and genres of visual explanation. Not just body factories, but body architectures, fantastic voyages inside the human body, aestheticized flow charts, dramatized statistics, mixed-media bodies, body dynamism, body abstraction, visual synopsis, and so forth. We see these visual tactics deployed so frequently in animated cartoons, instruction manuals, videos, websites, comic books, and magazine illustration, that they are nearly invisible to us, like the air we breathe. And we don’t imagine that they have a history, a history that lives on in us, in the present. Kahn’s prime directive — don’t just say it, show it — is the prime directive of civilization, our common sense, reproduced in every creative writing class and television show and video game and website. Kahn’s pictures showed the modern world in the human body and the human body in the modern world, using modernist aesthetics like surrealism, Jugendstil and Bauhaus functionalism. They were a striking part of the visual rhetoric of modernity. But his reliance on pictures in bulk also performed the modern, was part of a modern rhetoric of visuality that has only accelerated in 21st-century post-modernity. And that history is what Body Modern is all about.


Michael Sappol is fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. He is the author of Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.

“The book is nicely illustrated and the history of our relationship between biology and mythology is brilliantly addressed.” —The Daily Heller

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