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)


The Index is found here

Friday, October 4, 2013

Kandel: The Beholder's Share

Kandel : The The Beholder's Share - Entering the Private Theater of Another's Mind
This is Chapter 24 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 *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

THE CENTRAL IDEA IN THE BIOLOGY OF AESTHETICS IS that the artist creates a virtual reality of the world in much the same way the beholder’s brain does. To do this, as Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich point out, the artist manipulates the brain’s innate ability to make models of perceptual and emotional reality and thus to re-create the external world. To understand what cues our brains use in creating depictions of the physical and human world around us, the artist has to master intuitively the cognitive psychology of perception, color, and emotion.

What if one does not accept the premise that images  are created "in much the same way" as they are processed in the brains of whoever is looking at them?

Can a biology of aesthetics be pursued without that central idea ?

That notion seems as far-fetched to me -- as to suggest that airplanes are designed in the much the same way that passengers ride them or pilots fly them.

It's a premise that neglects the importance of skill, planning, and knowledge.

It was only in the decades after the 1850's and the introduction of  photography that artists began to search for new kinds of pictorial representation. As Henri Matisse described it much later, “The invention of photography released painting from any need to copy nature, allowing the artist to “present emotion as directly as possible and  by the simplest means.”  Rather than aiming to portray the outside world, the new painters strove to portray emotions, to enter the private theater of the sitter’s mind.

August Johann Holmberg (1851-1921) 

On the contrary, one might  argue that the invention of photography encouraged painters to render even more  tightly rendered details than Vermeer, who was, by the way, snatched from obscurity in the mid nineteenth century.

Delacroix,"Death of Sardanapalus", 1844 (detail)

By contrast, consider the French painting that preceded the photographic era.

Would anyone characterize this as a copy of nature ?

Doesn't it  “present emotion as directly as possible and  by the simplest means.” ?

Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoshka, and  Egon Schiele not only entered the private theater of a sitter's mind, they also revealed a great deal about their own emotional response to the sitter and encouraged the beholder to respond emotionally as well...... Indeed the power of expressionist art, or any great art, seems in large part from its ability to recruit the viewer's empathy.

I'm guessing that Kandel added the phrase "or any great art" after the first draft.  It makes his assertion more reasonable, but it also undermines his focus on what is so special about the Viennese modernists.

He then associates empathy with mirroring -- and draws our attention to two 17th C. paintings that actually portray images on mirrors - to engage the viewer in the private theater of both the subject's mind and the artists.

In Vermeer’s The Music Lesson: A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, painted in 1662, the artist depicts the back of a young woman playing a virginal (a simplified harpsichord) with a young man standing attentively to her right. It appears from the angle of the woman’s head that her eyes are focused on her hands as they move over the keyboard. However, Vermeer has inserted a mirror above the harpsichord that allows him to present the viewer with another, quite different reality. In the mirror, the woman’s head is not bent downward, but is turned to the right so that her gaze is directed toward the man. The human brain, as we have seen, is exquisitely sensitive to the direction of a person’s gaze, using people’s eyes as a means of inferring their interests and emotional state. The angle of the woman’s eyes in the mirror shows us that the true object of her attention, and perhaps her instinctual desires, is the man

Wow - I hadn't noticed that anomaly.

Since the viewer is not positioned directly behind the lady, we would not expect to see her face straight-on in the mirror even if she were directly facing it.

But still -- her head is turned more than one might expect.

Is that due her instinctual desire to look at a man?

Or... is she just looking for guidance from her music teacher ?

The turned head also seems to turn the viewer's back into the room, completing a triangle that ends at the white jug on the table in the foreground.

It seems  quite a stretch to conclude that :  Vermeer's mirror-with-the-painting emphasizes the tension between perceived reality and the true events unfolding in the  woman's mind.

Kandel is not entering into the world of the painting as much as he is pulling the painting into his own area of concern.

In addition to giving the viewer an insight into the subject’s mind, painters allowed them an occasional insight into their own mind. In Velazquez’s Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) of 1656, the artist appears for the first time as the central figure in his own painting—not as the subject of a self-portrait but as the focus of a large  portrait that he is in the act of painting. Velázquez takes the dominant role in the picture, proclaiming that it is he who has made the picture possible. He also uses a mirror, in this case to reveal people who would not otherwise be visible to the viewer and to make the viewer conscious of the artifice involved in pictorial representation.

As I see it (and as Kandel then describes it)  the young princess, Margarita Teresa is the center of attention in this tableaux, surrounded by attendants and presented to her loving parents who, as reflected in the mirror, are standing where the viewer is positioned. 

The artist is off towards the margins on  one side -- a chubby dwarf and a dog complement him on the other.

Isn't this a rather humble estimation of his role at court ?

 This remarkable painting is a prime example of the technique that Alois Riegl so admired in group paintings—the incorporation of the viewer into  the work.

Velázquez uses the mirror to introduce ambiguity into the painting Are we seeing a reflection of the canvas that the artist is painting? Or are we seeing a reflection of the king and queen themselves, standing outside the space of the picture? Velázquez confronts the viewer for the first time with both an artistic and a philosophical question: What is the role of the beholder? Does the beholder take on the role of the king and queen when standing before this painting? What is reality and what is illusion? Irrespective of what it actually reflects, the mirror is one step further removed from reality because it is a depiction of a reflection:
is an image of an image of an image.

How could the mirror possibly  be reflecting Velazaquez' painting without also showing us the back of the artist who is standing between the painting and the mirror ?

That's why it never occurred to  me that it was reflecting anything but someone  who is directly facing it.

We might also consider that this painting  was not made for just any viewer -- it was made for the king and queen.  They are the intended beholders - and there's no ambiguity about that. The painting and everything in that room, including the artist, belongs to them. 

We see emerging in Velazquez’s painting questions that would come to dominate modern thought and that are of special importance to the  Austrian expressionists and their concern with conveying physical and psychic reality. Through the ambiguity of what the mirror represents and his own dominant presence in the painting, Velazquez brings the act of representation to the forefront of the viewer’s mind.

Ouch! Those two interpretations ( the importance of the artist and the ambiguity of what's in the mirror) are precisely  the ones I find least credible.

He makes the viewer conscious of the process through which art conveys an illusion of reality—the illusion that the painting is the real world rather than an artistic representation of it........ This extraordinary painting, with its several levels of ambiguity and its artistically brilliant depiction, is considered one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art. It marks the beginning of self consciousness, an emblem of modern philosophical thought and a turning point between classical and modern art.

This painting has come to carry a mighty burden!

But is there any evidence that these ideas were current in the court of Philip IV ?  Kandel does not offer any -- instead he retreats to the passive voice to proclaim the judgments of Art History.

While examining mirrors in paintings, we might go back another 200 years to the 1434 Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck.

Above, the image to the right is a magnification of the tiny image in the mirror shown against the back wall to the left.

It appears to be an accurate reflection of the entire scene -- except that the little dog is missing!

Various theories have the dog depicting wealth, loyalty, or lust ---- but whatever it is, the mirror doesn't reflect it - so perhaps Van Eyck introduced ambiguity and artistic self-consciousness into one of the earliest oil paintings ever made.

This theme recurs powerfully in the Austrian expressionists and is particularly notable in Schiele’s 1910 Nude in Front of the Mirror.   The fully clothed Schiele depicts a nude model standing in front of him but facing away from him, looking into a mirror that is not shown in the drawing. Both Schiele and the model are reflected in the mirror, so the viewer sees the model from behind and the reflection of both figures from the front.Like Velázquez, Schiele introduces himself the artist into the painting, but  rather than depicting royalty and power, as Velazquez did, Schiele depicts eroticism and lust. The model is nude except for her stocking, boots, hat, and makeup. These several items emphasize the clothes she is not wearing and enhance her erotic appeal. By covering parts of the body that are not usually considered necessary to cover, Schiele emphasizes those that are uncovered. Moreover, the model's posture is a perfect caricature: it exaggerates one aspect of a woman;s body that is inherently erotic, her hip. As Vilayanur Ramachandran has pointed out, erotic art enhances the features that most distinguish women from men, such as breasts and hips. The hips of Schiele’s model are brilliantly drawn. They are beautifully cocked, her waist is thin, and her buttocks are generous, as are the curve and the length of her torso. Her thighs are invitingly open, and there is enough of a suggestion of her pubic hair that the viewer’s eyes re irresistibly drawn to it. Schiele enhances this suggestion by putting strong vertical line that runs from the model’s face to her pubis.

All of the above seems  accurate

 Schiele appears to be drawing his model from the back, which seems Innocent and not particularly seductive. But by placing her before a mirror, he is also, indirectly, drawing her nude body from the front and depicting himself sketching her. Seen in the mirror, it is unclear whether the woman is unself-consciously posing for the artist or whether she is engaging in a seduction. Her hat is stylish, and she is posing suggestively while Schiele, sitting behind her with his drawing pad, looks at her intently. Schiele’s gaze is voyeuristic, but the model seems oblivious to his intensity and playfully poses while looking at herself in the mirror. Yet both artist and model look erotically charged, and the interaction between Schiele’s intense gaze and the model’s seductive eyes in lie mirror adds to the sense that we are experiencing a lustful relationship.

But here Kandel and I see this image quite differently, possibly because I've spent so much time myself drawing attractive nude models.

The figure of Schiele seems to be completely focused on making the drawing - which is, by the way, wonderfully composed. The figurative design appears to be emerging from his frown, and frowning is what you do when you're drawing/composing as if your life depends on it.

Meanwhile, the model seems to be in dreamland as she looks at herself in the mirror. When a model is posing for a serious artist, she is quite alone, even if she's nude and the artist is only a few feet away.

 It's as if she's posing for herself, not the intense, cranky little guy behind the drawing pad.

I can understand how a non-artist like Kandel might feel that the scene is erotically charged - but isn't this a drawing that Schiele was making to record his own experience for himself?

 Moreover, the model’s seductive pose and her reflection create a lustful reaction in the viewer as well as in the artist. This parallel reaction to the model creates an intimacy between Schiele and the beholder. Like Vermeer, Schiele uses a mirror to express his interest in the direct and indirect image, the outward appearance and the private theater of the mind, the demure and the sensual. But Schiele’s double depiction of the model literally uncovers her: in the mirror she is both a sexual object and a fascinating woman with a rich inner life of her own. Her attitude toward the artist is distinct from that of Arthur Schnitzher’s Fräulein Else, for the nude model is as attracted to the dressed artist as he is to her. Thus, Schiele makes explicit the unconscious desire that Freud argues is present but below the surface in everyone. It is interesting that both Schiele and his model have fixed their gaze on themselves rather than on each other or on the viewer, thus indicating their inward-facing sexuality

Just to note that Kandel notices, above,  that the artist is looking at himself in the mirror - while in the previous paragraph he told us that Schiele's gaze was voyeuristic.

In Austrian Expressionism the physical characteristics of the artist and of the subject no longer result from the artist’s attempt to create an illusion of real life. Instead, they stem from his attempt to convey his inner feelings through his psychological insights into his subject and through artistic techniques he uses to create the image.

Here's an alleged self-portrait drawing by Poussin (1630) which Kandel might say has attempted to "create an illusion of real life"

But doesn't it also "convey his inner feelings through his psychological insights into his subject" ?

And though it is more interested in  illusions of volume and textures-- does it feel any more life like than Schiele's sketch ?

Note that the artist has also shown himself with an intense grimace -- the consequence, I think, of looking at himself while working. (in his oil self portrait, he presents himself as more of a gentleman)

In an analogous but very different way from Velazquez, the Austrian expressionists Kokoschka and Schiele highlight the emotions of their subjects and bring them to the center of the painting, thereby also bringing them to the forefront of our attention. That they could accomplish this, we owe to the exquisite interaction of the brain pathways we have already seen—and to some we shall consider later that are even more finely tuned to our own emotions and those of the people around us.

Giotto, "Lamentation" (detail)

Here's a painting from the early 14th C. that also "highlights the emotions of his subjects and brings them to the center of the painting, thereby also bringing them to the forefront of our attention."

Is there anything that any human (or any vertebrate) does that does not depend on the "exquisite interaction of the brain pathways." ?

No comments:

Post a Comment