He's been compared to Dr. Frankenstein and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, but Prof. Gunther von Hagens sees himself in a more Renaissance role; a sort of latter-day Leonardo da Vinci in anatomy study.
But when his latest exhibition, "Koerpewelten" or "Body Worlds" opened in Berlin last month, a number of residents, including Germany's Roman Catholic Church, saw nothing renaissance in his work. They simply found it sick, sinful and macabre.
It's easy to see why visitors might find von Hagens' work offensive. His exhibits include a man contemplating a chessboard as he sits at a table with his brains exposed. Another piece depicts a standing man, muscles and tissues bared, cavalierly holding his skin aloft. Other works include a pregnant woman with her belly peeled to expose a curled fetus.
But even more disturbing is the fact that the exhibits on display are real human corpses, preserved, dismembered and put on display.
Replacing Body Fluids
An anatomist, von Hagens developed a process, which he calls "plastination," in 1977 at the University of Heidelberg whereby water and lipids found in biological tissue are replaced with synthetic polymers. The result is a dry, odorless and durable corpse.
A former East German who spent two years in jail for attempting to escape to the West, von Hagens was allowed to leave East Germany in 1970.
Through the years, von Hagens has further developed "plastination" to arrive at a complicated process that can take up to three years to complete. A highly labor-intensive process, "plastination" work is done in Germany and China.
His jump from science to art, von Hagens told ABCNEWS.com during a telephone interview from China, was in keeping with the spirit of the Renaissance scholars such as da Vinci, who studied cadavers to better understand the human body.
The purpose of the "Body World" exhibit, he said, was to "show the beauty of the body interior" and to allow visitors to "come to terms with [their] bodies."
Although he claimed his art pieces have an "edutainment" — education and entertainment — function, the anatomist who never peels off his black felt hat in public is open to charges of sensationalism.
"I agree that this is sensational," he said. "Because everything that is rare is sensational. I welcome sensationalism because it draws people and then transforms reactions into dialogue."
A Requiem for Art
Sometimes dialogue isn't what people exposed to the show are looking for, though.
When his show opened in Berlin Feb. 10, the German Roman Catholic Church held a requiem for the dead people. His infamy has now spread to Russia, where residents of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk charged that a consignment of 56 bodies had been sent to von Hagens' privately run institute in Heidelberg.
In a report that caused a stir in Novosibirsk, Russian NTV television reported that the bodies were sent from the Medical Academy in Novosibirsk.
But von Hagens said he secured signed release forms from his subjects before their deaths.
"People know exactly what I will be doing to their bodies," he said. "We have a registry of 3,400 donors. Every day we receive five donations."
There is certainly no paucity of fans of the Gunther von Hagens oeuvre. At the Berlin requiem, protesters held signs saying, "Donating one's body is not a sin."
His shows have traveled around Germany, Japan, Austria and Switzerland. Von Hagens estimates more than 2 million people have seen his show in five German cities.
German media reports have quoted visitors' reactions ranging from the exhibit showing the majesty of God's creation to more cynical, "It's better to end this way than being cremated like a mad cow."
Von Hagens himself measures his success based on the fact that, "people leave my show with higher esteem for my work than when they enter."