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Feature Stories

Recalling avant-garde medical illustrator Pauline Lariviere

Nervous System

Cindy Richards, Editor

Pauline Lariviere is such an obscure artist, she doesn't even have an entry in the popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. But one Illinois fan is working hard to raise her profile.

Chicago artist Phillip Schalekamp has been "fascinated by anatomy my whole life." He learned of Lariviere's work by accident about 1990. He was prowling around American Science and Surplus Center, a seller of odd artistic and scientific items in Chicago when he found two plates created from Lariviere's artwork. They were used by a precursor of Skokie-based Denoyer-Geppert Science Co. to make medical charts. He was so excited from an artist's perspective, he bought all 200 plates the facility had on hand.

At that point, Schalekamp still had no idea who Lariviere was. But he tracked down 10 of her original oil paintings, which had languished in a storage facility in the parking lot of Denoyer-Geppert. The paintings were signed "PM Lariviere." Schalekamp initially thought the artist was "Pierre" Lariviere.

Lariviere's significance emerges

He eventually learned Lariviere's approach was revolutionary in her time. In the 1940s, medical illustration focused on realistic depictions of dissected bodies covered with small, crowded labels to convey information. Her work, by contrast, used vibrantly colored abstract art to convey medical information in visually easier-to-understand representations – a style still used in medical illustration today.

A Canadian, Lariviere attended Johns Hopkins' "Art as Applied to Medicine" program in Baltimore where she studied with famed medical illustrator Max Brodel from 1931-1932. In the 40s, she was commissioned by Denoyer-Geppert to create the paintings and plates that served as the basis for the company's medical charts for nearly 50 years.

A Baltimore Sun newspaper article in 1950 said of the "polite little Canadian:" "She has taken liberty with color, she has used free perspective, [and] she has, whenever necessary for her story, deliberately distorted. The result is charts which are not only edifying and accurate, but are aesthetically pleasurable."

Carla Lents, a medical illustrator who is creative director for Denoyer-Geppert, says Lariviere's paintings were "cutting edge for the 1940s and 50s. She's taking the anatomy and imagining it in a way she couldn't have observed from life or a cadaver."

Medical charts today are created on a computer and often modeled in three dimensions, Lents says. Lariviere-inspired charts are no longer produced but, Lents says, her work is "a gem of history."

Schalekamp and Vanessa Ruiz, whose blog, Street Anatomy, looks at the intersection of contemporary art and anatomy, produced a gallery showing this spring featuring Lariviere's work alongside anatomy-inspired art from 20 other contemporary artists. Another show organized around her work, "Bone and Blood: Structural Bodies in Motion," is set for Sept. 28-Oct. 12 at 1907 N. Mendell #4-H, Chicago. (It's a fourth-floor walk-up with no elevator.)