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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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kandel: The Artistic Depiction of Emotion

Kandel : The Artistic Depiction of Emotion Through the Face, Hands, Body, and Color
This is Chapter 20 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 *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

Constantinople, c. 570

CHARLES DARWIN, PAUL EKMAN, AND LATER SCIENTISTS Emphasized that hand movements and other gestures convey social information, just as facial expressions do. In fact, the uniform, symmetrical qualities of faces, bodies, hands, arms, and legs allow the perceptual systems in the brain to treat all bodies, as well as all all faces similarly.

In exploring new ways of communicating the emotional state of their subjects Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele therefore focused not only on the face but also on the hands and body of the sitter by exaggerating or distorting these physical features. The body allowed them to provide additional information about a person's attentional and emotional states.

As the image at the top might suggest, artists have been using hand and body gestures to communicate turbulent emotional states for quite some time.

 A simple comparison of two self portraits, one by Oskar Kokoschka and one by Egon Schiele, illustrates immediately how gestures enhance the emotion conveyed by the face. Kokoschka’s insecurity during his relationship with Alma Mahler is emphasized by his bringing his hand awkwardly to his mouth. By contrast Schiele looks both proud and confident albeit highly mannered in his nude self-portrait kneeling.

I also feel the Kokoshka's cupped hand to his mouth is a gesture of insecurity or hesitancy (though not necessarily relating to his relationship with Alma Mahler).--- and that  Schiele's face and vertical open hands express self confidence.

Though I'm also guessing that their self portraits would express hesitancy or  self confidence, regardless of their hand gestures.


Father Hirsch


Above are  three portraits that Kokoskchka painted of the Hirsch family in 1909, the father and two sons.

Kandel sees them as examples of the neurology of face perception -- i.e. more areas of the brain are involved than in seeing  non-face objects, and direct eye contact activates the dopaminergic system that regulates the reward and pleasure centers.

He begins by suggesting that Darwin had surmised this, but the science that he mentions was developed long after 1910 -- so this chapter does not relate artists to science as they might have known it.

Kandel quotes Kokoshka's  desparaging comments about the angry old father who often bared his false teeth -- and he refers to an art historian's opinion that the portrait of Felix Albrecht  (bottom) displays  Kokoshka's contempt for him as an inferior landscape painter.  (which might well be -- since his hands do appear clumsy and knarly)

In the portraits of Ernst's brother and his father, the colors re muted and the head is surrounded by a florescent aura.  The eyes are asymmetrical, one larger than the other, and the sitter's gaze is directed away, as if he were obsessed with his inner self and did not want to confront Kokoschka. Only Ernst looks at the viewer directly and seems interested in sharing the viewer's thoughs and emotions.

Kokoschka conveys these insights in two ways: he attempts to paint “portraits of characters, not portraits of faces.”  Also, he further enhances the emotional impact of his portraits, as we have seen, by exposing the details of his workmanship—strong, layered brushstrokes and scratches made in the wet paint with his fingers or the handle of his brush—techniques that often enhance face recognition. In addition, the space in which Kokoschka places his subjects is vaguely defined and often a bit unstable, producing a lurching, anxious quality.

Yes, Ernst is the only portrait that looks back directly at the viewer - and the only one that feels peaceful.

Kokoschka paints people as he feels about them - but it's interesting, as Kandel reports, that old man Hirsch was quite proud of his portrait and hung it in a prominent place.  He was evidently proud of being a crabby old geezer.

Father Hirsch also exemplifies, as Kandel explains, the different emotions expressed by the top (fear, sadness)  and bottom (happiness, anger, disgust) of the face.

 This difference in signaling capability is clear in Father Hirsch: the lower face conveys anger more powerfully than the upper face, which seems more estranged. Taken together, the upper and lower face convey much more information about a complex and nuanced emotion than either half alone does.

Kokoshka's expressive portraits recall the world wide traditions of mask making.

The three examples shown above are actually the same mask seen from different angles - reminding us of the importance of  the inclination of the head, and the  fact that the signal intended may be  opposite of the signal received.

Kokoshka, portrait of Hermine Korner, 1920

Kandel then briefs us on some theories of perceptual psychology - based on studies that track the eye across the visual field -- and how facial features, the eyes and mouth, get most of the attention.

The above lithograph is presented as an artist's version of this study -- as if the artist were "retracing his own eye movements" (although it seems to show that the artist was looking at the lady's hair at least as much as her eyes)

C.F. Nodine and Paul Locher proposed that there are three stages in the visual perception of art works:

1. perceptual scanning
2. reflection and imagination
3. Aesthetics

And they seem to be concerned with who is doing that perception in a paper entitled:
The role of formal art training on perception and aesthetic judgment of art composition

Though I wonder if those stages are necessarily consecutive --- can't  it be a feedback loop ?

Then Kandel tells us of  the studies of Francois Molnar who suggested that there are different patterns of viewing for different styles of art. (the eye moving slowly over a classical painting, while darting around to focus in on details in a Baroque piece).  If only we were shown some examples !

JUST AS SOME regions of the brain respond selectively to faces, others respond to hands and bodies, particularly bodies in motion. Kokoschka’s sitters’ fingers are often clenched, unnaturally bent, or distorted—or in the case of women, long and sensitive.,,,, . But Kokoschke’ most interesting use of hands is as a symbolic substitute for the face and eyes in social communication. This is evident in Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze- Conrat, Child in the Hands of Its Parents, and Children Playing, all painted in 1909 ( shown above) . In his painting of the Goldmans, Kokoschka does not even depict the parents’ faces, instead conveying their love for their infant child exclusively through their hands.

Kandel seems to be telling us that  there are parts of the brain that respond selectively to hands -- but since he refers to no specific studies, I'm guessing that his enthusiasm for the topic  has just gotten the better of his prose.

So though it does seem that Kokoshka's "use of hands is as a symbolic substitute for the face and eyes in social communication", that doesn't really further his connection of brain science and art.

Unlike Kokoschka, who relied on minor inflections of the hands and body to communicate emotion, Schiele used exaggerated contortions of his whole body in his paintings. In Death and the Maiden, for example, a depiction of his complex, ambivalent feelings about ending his relationship with Wally, he captures the themes of love and death. The painting shows Wally and Schiele in the aftermath of a sexual experience, presumably their last, symbolizing the death of their love affair. Wally’s arm is partially hidden by Schiele's coat, giving the appearance of a weak embrace: she is only barely hanging on to him. This exaggerated gesture is accomplished despite the omission of Wally's arm.

Poor Wally!

Kandel's interpretation of this scene makes sense, but Wally's arm has not been omitted -- and their body gestures, though expressive, are not exaggerated - they are quite natural.

In this painting, the psychology of visual perception seems to be far less interesting than the psychology of  guilt -- as the artist depicts himself as the creep who  defiled and abandoned the maiden who loved him.


We saw the conscious attempt to depict the ugliness of illness and injustice as artistically important and original in Klimt’s three univesity murals, in Kokoschka’s sculpture Self-Portrait as Warrior, and in the portraits in which Kokoschka introduces scratches and thumbprints into the wet paint. The interest in seeking beauty in the ugliness of life reached its height in Schiele’s self-portraits. As Simpson writes: “These physical details [that they depicted] were supposed to be idealized [to] utilize them the way Kokoschka and Schiele did was interpreted as a major  visual affront.”

Kandel has conflated the "depiction of the ugliness of illness etc" with "seeking beauty in ugliness" -- but these can be two distinct intentions and responses, can't they?

The horrific paintings of Dr. Kevorkian do a pretty thorough job of the former -- but I don't find any beauty in them.

It's like difference between a close-up view of big hairy spider -- and a view of that same spider after it has been freshly crushed between two sheets of plate glass.

Bernard Hoetger (1874-1949)

Outside of beginning art classes, it's not easy to  find examples of portrait sculpture as distorted as Kokoshka's self portrait as a Warrior.

The above piece by Hoetger was as close as I could come.

The Hoetger piece is more sculptural as the inner masses are composed and connected to the surface.

But Kokoshka is presenting a more interesting subject: himself as an artist/prophet/cultural-warrior.

Without seeing the actual piece, I can't really tell whether that piece is beautiful-ugly or ugly-ugly.

A FINAL contributor to the beholder’s emotional response to art is color. Color is uniquely important in the primate brain, much as face and hand representations are, and that is why color signals are processed differently in the brain than light and forms.

We perceive colors as possessing distinct emotional characteristics, and our reaction to those characteristics varies with our mood. Thus, unlike spoken language, which often has an emotional significance regardless
of context, color can mean different things to different people. In general, we prefer pure, bright colors to mixed, dull colors. Artists, specifically modernist painters, have used exaggerated color as a way to generate emotional effects, but the value of that emotion depends on the viewer and the context. 

Kandel has not yet shared any scientific studies that show how color "is processed differently in the brain"- he only suggests that its effects are more dependent on context than a verbal text might be.  Nor does he query whether  blacks, whites, and grays might also be considered colors.  Isn't the eye/brain sensitive to their coolness or warmth?

Following the development of color theories in the 19th C., and an enthusiasm shown by the Impressionists, Kandel takes us to Van Gogh who wrote:

I am completely absorbed in the laws of colours. If only they had taught us them in our youth!. . . For that the laws of colour which Delacroix was the first to formulate and to bring to light in connection and completeness for general use, like Newton did for gravitation, and like Stephenson did for steam—that those laws of colours are a ray of light—is absolutely certain.

Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of a bedroom in Aries  is the first instance in which he consciously used complementary pairs of colors to produce striking effects. “Colour,” he wrote of this painting, “is
ii do everything.., to be  suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general.

And just what are the "complementary pairs of colors" that Van Gogh was consciously using?

I don't see much purple or orange -- so he must just be referring to red-green.

The colors in this passage seem especially beautiful -- and perhaps suggestive of rest and sleep -- but these primary colors, yellow-red-blue, are not complementary.

The Sower, 1888

The Sower, 1888

Another painting of the same year, "The Sower" is dominated by the intense yellow of the sun on the horizon. “A sun, a light, which for want of a better word I must call pale sulphur—yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!” wrote Van Gogh. Yet, as Robert Hughes has remarked, in addition to its beauty, the yellow of this sun has a terrible force that radiates upon the solitary figure of the sower. Hughes continues:

It is wrong to suppose that van Gogh’s colour—rich and exquisitely lyrical though it is—was meant simply as expression of pleasure.. . . The freedom of modernist colour, the way emotion can be worked on by purely optical means, was one of his legacies.. . . He had opened the modernist syntax of colour wider, to admit pity and terror as well as. . . pleasure. . . . Van Gogh, in short, was the hinge on which nineteenth-century Romanticism finally swung into twentieth-century Expressionism.’ 

Jules Breton, 'Song of the Lark", 1884

It's not wise to use reproductions when thinking about color in paintings - but what the heck.

Regarding the quote from Robert Hughes, I wonder how else a painting can affect the emotions other than by "optical means"

Above is a painting done four years earlier - with an equally strong, though different,  color for the sun. Breton's orb is much smaller and less dominant - and its color seems less about pleasure, pity, or terror than it is about sharing a brief moment in the central figure's life.

Since Van Gogh painted two pieces titled "The Sower" in 1888, I'm not sure to which one Kandel refers - but neither one seem so much about tragic emotions as a sense of wonder  concerning the natural world and man's place in it.

Here's a version with the color removed - and the thrill certainly is gone.

Tres Riches Heures of Duke Du Berry, "March", detail

And here's another bright yellow sun which also accompanies peasants sowing in the field - done about 450 years earlier.

Particularly important is the fact that we perceive an object's color as much as 100 milliseconds before its form or motion. This difference in timing is analogous to the fact that we perceive the expression of a face before we perceive its identity. In both cases, our brain processes aspects of the image that relate to emotional perception more rapidly than aspects that relate to form, thus setting the emotional tone
for the form—the object or the face—confronting us.

Is there any way to test just what effect  these micro-second differences might be have on seeing/feeling/thinking ?  Might there not be a any noticeable effect at all ?

Zeki elaborates further on the significance of these differences in our perception of color and form. In saying that we perceive something we imply that we are consciously aware of it. Yet we perceive color in area V4 of the brain, and we perceive it earlier than we perceive motion in area V5 or faces in the fusiform face patches. We therefore become conscious of color and of a face at different times and in different places in the brain. Thus, argues Zeki, there is no such thing as a unitary visual consciousness: visual consciousness is a distributed process. . Zeki refers to these individual aspects of consciousness as micro-consciousness.

 Semir Zeki is another psychologist who has written a book about fine art: Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (2000)

As one Amazon reviewer put it :

 Zeki's argument is roughly that the mind is an active creator of visual experience; that we create visual experience using a variety of "modular" cerebral functions (specific neighborhoods of the brain that detect edges, analyze movement, perceive color, recognize faces); and that art works which "appeal" to these modular capabilities provide the foundation for art. claims that art that becomes "great" if the mind is presented with ambiguous or multiple interpretations, provoking it to "actively create" varied interpretations from the work in view. in this way Zeki hopes to reason his way toward a "neurological aesthetics," a biologically based prescription of what is beautiful or compelling art.

Kandel does not second that proposal, but concludes this chapter with  his own:

Artists have long intuited the separation between color and form,  often forsaking aspects of one to emphasize those of the other. By carefully creating soft outlines and vague contours, as well as by greatly minimizing the value range of light and dark, the Impressionists and  Post—Impressionists allowed the viewer to dedicate more of the brain's limited attentional resources to the perception of pure color. Though these images lack the photographic crispness of the academic paintings that preceded them, their explosive chromatic range exerts an unprecedented emotional thrust. This prepared the psychology of fin-de-siecle beholders for the rich painting tradition of the coming generations of Viennese modernists.

But what are examples of  that "explosive chromatic range" among the Viennese modernists ?

This Klimt seems like the mostly likely example.

Jan Davidz de Heem (1606-1683)

-- but is that Klimt  any more colorful than a typical 17th C. Dutch floral ?

While this Kokoshka is more typical of the Viennese modernists-- i.e. not really all that colorful

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