In 1902, Max Verworn began the Zeitschrift für allgemeine Physiologie (Journal of General Physiology). In 21 years, the Zeitschrift amounted to 20 volumes full of pictures, diagrams, graphs, and photographs — companions to extensive articles on the inner-workings of all sorts of bodily systems. The Institute holds volumes 1-5, 7-16, as part of its collection of visual raw material.
In the introduction to the first volume, the Jena-based physiologist discerned the parallels between the production of science and the making of art:
Just as the artist, who has long labored on his great work, engrossed in its details, occasionally laying aside and stepping away from his toolkit, to survey and consider the whole of his work — how its parts fit together, and what more he must do with his hands — so should the naturalist from time to time leave his work to rest and check his work from a high point. The beginning of this new century is just such an appropriate moment.
So it would become, that the journal would grow to be a compendium of visual material, that would later serve to both confound and inspire.
A working account of the myriad abstracting images in the Zeitschrift might begin with an pictogram that subtracts the world from its object, such as these contour lines which shed description in favor of a mollusk’s fattest edges. But, soon, as physiologist’s machines must penetrate the flesh — to investigate the muscles, to learn about inhalation and exhalation — the picture changes. The contour drawing’s rejection of worldly excess gives way to electrical apparatuses that track corporeal data, where the nervous jerks of a frog soaked in strychnine are compacted into a thin, white lines sounding out against the darkness; or, then, by inverting black and white, a field of parallels lines lays the groundwork for a calligraphic uptick of oxygen; and all the while a series of horizontal bands — ruptured gradients — trade interior for exterior to record the influence of light on breathing bodies. Such automated indexes of world against flesh, however, cannot be the physiologist’s last resort. Abstraction’s materials return with a vengeance when the scientist in question puts his eye to the microscope, stains the cells on his slide, and then sketches the cycloptic purples of a yellowing cell alongside the red and brown flecks that float through an aggravated nerve. They become all the more apparent when he figures the stages of his scientific gaze, abrading the chiaroscuro of tubular, twisted Hypermmina into unadorned, awkward curves. And abstraction’s extractions — its negotiation of the material world — are made eerily explicit when crystallized skeleton is removed from a bodily cavity, and spread across a page as a pulsing array of clear and opaque boxes, each relating to its neighbors through a kind of mutual diffusion. But perhaps the most confounding examples of physiological abstraction appear when they take up the photograph, when even its mimetic image is made to participate in all sorts of stripping away. In one, we find red blood cells morphing into ethereal, glowing disks; while, in another, the photograph is overlaid with tracing paper, and becomes the foundation for a series of restrained and tentative marks that, just as in the first picture above, limn the contours of its object.