It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kandel: An Inward Turn, Vienna 1900

This is Chapter 1 of Eric Kandel's "The Age of Insight : The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN

Gustav Klimt, portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

In this painting Klimt abandons the attempt of painters from the early Renaissance onward to re-create with ever-increasing realism the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Like other modern artists faced with the advent of photography, Klimt sought newer truths that could not be captured by the camera. He, and particularly his younger protégés Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, turned the artist’s view inward—away from the three-dimensional outside world and toward the multidimensional inner self and the unconscious mind.

Thomas Gainsborough, "Lady Howe" (1764)

There may have been a few artists who attempted to " re-create with ever-increasing realism the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas", especially in the late 19th C., but it's not hard to find many others who didn't - and since Kandel has chosen to focus on portraiture, the 18th C. British school comes to mind, especially the above painter.

Thomas Lawrence, "Lady Wolff" (1803-1815)

Here's another wonderful painting from that period, full of distortions as well as attitude that could not be captured by a camera.

By repeating a simplistic statement that he probably found in an Art History 101 text book, Kandel has gotten off to a rather rocky start.

In addition to this break with the artistic past, the painting shows us how modern science, particularly modern biology, influenced Klimt’s art, as it did much of the culture of “Vienna 1900,” or Vienna during the period between 1890 and 1918. As the art historian Emily Braun has documented, Klimt read Darwin and became fascinated with the structure of the cell—the primary building block of all living things. Thus, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress are not simply decorative, like other images in the Art Nouveau period. Instead, they are symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs. These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.

Coincidentally, some observers have identified what they believe to be sexual imagery in the foliage next to Lady Howe --- i.e. a small tree delivering a waist-high, priapic salute to her great beauty.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) , "Fable" (1883)

Kandel then does a little flashback to Klimt's early career, describing him as "highly competent but unremarkable"

Judging from the reproduction, he may deserve a bit more credit. That's quite a painting from a 21 year old - though it does seem to be a pastiche of separate studies that haven't yet been fit seamlessly together. It owes a lot to Tintoretto.

Tintoretto, "Susanna and the Elders"

Being in the imperial collection that would soon go public in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, this is a painting that Klimt may have known quite well.

Hans Makart (1840-1884) "The Five Senses" (1872-1879)

Kandel also mentions his older collaborator (and employer ?), Makart, as "good but conventional", a "grand historicist" and a "talented colorist".

I've never seen a Makart painting in person, but I'd like to.

Something could probably be said about his sensuality and how it compares with Titian or Rubens. Without the background gravitas of the 17th and 16th Centuries, Makart seems to be cultivating light headed frivolity.

Kandel dates the "bold original turn" in Klimt's career to his 1886 commemorative depiction of the soon-to-be-demolished Old Castle Theatre:

But rather than painting a view of the stage or the actors on it, Klimt painted specific, recognizable members of the audience as seen from the stage. These members of the audience were not attending to the play but to their own inner thoughts. The real drama of Vienna, Klimt’s painting implies, did not take place on the stage, it took place in the private theater of the audience’s mind

Many of the characters above can be identified as leading members of Viennese society, including a leading surgeon, politician, and the actress who was sleeping with the emperor.

It's not surprising that the audience is "not attending to the play", since it appears, with all the empty chairs and people standing, that we are having an intermission.

Kandel links this "private theater of the audience’s mind" to the analysis that Sigmund Freud's senior colleague, Josef Breuer, was then conducting on the inner life of a patient named 'Anna O.".

But here we seem to be immersed in the theater of elite Viennese society, with the principle actors being these larger than life characters in the royal boxes.

Kandel then gives us a brief history of Modernism in 19th C. European culture, Vienna's transformation in the decades leading up to 1900, and finally provides an example of modernism in the visual arts:

This new view led to a reexamination in art of the biological nature of human existence, as evident in Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur L‘Herbe of 1863, perhaps the first truly modernist painting from both a thematic and stylistic point of view. Manet’s painting, at once beautiful and shocking in its depiction, reveals a theme central to the modernist agenda: the complex relationship between the sexes and between fantasy and reality. The artist depicts two fully and conventionally dressed men seated on the grass in a wooded park, engaged in conversation over lunch, while a nude woman bather sits beside them. In the past, nude women were represented in paintings as goddesses or mythical figures. Here, Manet breaks with tradition and paints a real, living, contemporary Parisian woman in the nude, his favorite model, Victorine Meurent

Despite the attractiveness of Victorine’s voluptuous body, the two men appear as indifferent to her as she is to them. While the men appear to be speaking with each other, the nude woman, sharing the men’s denial of sexuality, attends only to the viewer. In addition to its astonishingly modern theme, the painting is also startlingly modern because of its style. Several decades before Cezanne began to collapse three dimensions into two, Manet here had already flattened the viewer’s sense of perspective by providing little depth or perspective.

Painted the same year as his "Olympia", the confrontational nude prostitute, I think I'll join those who see this primarily as Manet's attempt to Épater la bourgeoisie, rather than to pursue an interest in "the biological nature of human existence", which fits the theme of Kandel's book far better than it fits this 31 year old artist, who also seems to be thumbing his nose at the academic style of his day. Growing up in the prim and proper home of a judge, and having already frustrated his parents by becoming an artist, might we not expect him to take some pleasure in acting like a naughty little boy?

Kandel elevates this scene as participating in what is "central to the modernist agenda: the complex relationship between the sexes and between fantasy and reality."

But I wonder whether this is just his own modernist agenda.

One contemporary, Emile Zola, had something of a formalist response:

"Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists."

Kandel prefers to quote a 20th C. writer, the art historian Ernst Gombrich::

Art is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could no longer adapt to the new demands that life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, a training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance of the unexpected.

Which might be how evolutionary biology would account for the perpetual avant garde, if only that phenomenon were universal.

BTW - the above theory is not really Gombrich's - but it's his précis of Morse Peckham's "Man's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behaviour and the Arts"

As he wrote in the New York Review of Books, Gombrich did not especially agree with Peckham's theory either. Here is a brief dialogue between the two writers, wherein Peckham astonishes me by saying "My real hope is to enable people to play the role of art-perceiver so well that they do not have to play it so often"


It's also astonishing that Kandel attributes this bizarre theory to Gombrich, a scholar whom he greatly respects and will further discuss in later chapters.

Finally, in this chapter, Kandel quotes the concluding paragraph from "Freud and his Critics", Paul Robinson's defense of the father of psychoanalysis:

He is the major source of our modern inclination to look for meanings beneath the surface of behavior—to be always on the alert for the “real” (and presumably hidden) significance of our actions. He also inspires our belief that the mysteries of the present will become more transparent if we can trace them to their origins in the past, perhaps even in the very earliest past. . . . And, finally, he has created our heightened sensitivity to the erotic, above all to its presence in arenas . . . where previous generations had neglected to look for it.

Apparently, Kandel also sides with Freud.

Freud emphasized that much of mental life is unconscious; it becomes conscious only as words and images. This is indeed what he, Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele accomplished with their prose and their images. Beyond dealing with the same concerns in their common culture, each brought to his work a scientific curiosity about mind and emotion that was characteristic of Vienna 1900.

What kind of evidence will Kandel present to substantiate this claim about a "scientific curiosity about mind and emotion" in the above three artists?

We'll have to wait and see.

(I've thrown in an image of "Saul and David" as exemplary of how other artists may have been curious about mind and emotion -- though science only seems to be involved with the question of whether Rembrandt painted it )

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