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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Friday, October 11, 2013

Kandel : Conclusion

My recurring problem with Kandel’s seven chapters about art is that he always seems to be clumsily  forcing a science-relevant interpretation onto the  paintings that he examines.

He gives very little evidence of  “the ongoing dialogue between art and science that had its origins in fin-de-siècle Vienna” – beyond noting that Klimt once put some microscopic-cell-like forms into Adele’s magnificent dress.

Usually his reasoning runs something like this:

Artist-X expressed feelings
Scientist-Y studied feelings or how they are communicated
Therefore there is a dialogue between the artists like X  and the scientists like Y.

His three artists, Klimt,  Kokoschka, and Schiele were progressively more interested in themselves than anything else

He asserted that “each brought to his work a scientific curiosity about mind and emotion that was characteristic of Vienna 1900” --- but that’s only if a scientific kind of curiosity is not distinguishable from any other.  Can’t one be very curious about how various kinds of things might look and feel without any interest in making or proving scientific hypotheses ?   I certainly am.

His chapters on each of his three artists were fascinating to me – but that’s because I knew so little about them. None of them are on display in  The Art Institute of Chicago. (I'm going to the Neue Gallerie in New York next week end to check them out)

Rather than grafting them onto a history of psychology and neuro-biology, I wish he had developed a discussion that encompassed the other European modernists of the first 15 years of the 20th Century – especially those working in Paris.  But that’s really the job of an art historian, and Kandel's  expertise lies elsewhere.

So why did this distinguished neuro-biologist write so much about Viennese modernist painters, anyway?

As he explains in his preface, he feels personally connected to that city.

But also I think it’s because his soul has not been satisfied with the tedious attention to details that is required for serious scientific inquiry.

He wants to contemplate the important issues of  human experience as presented by  artist/prophets, not just  the guys with  white lab coats and  big microscopes.

Maybe  life is too short to be very good at doing both – or maybe, he just hasn't been able to devote much of his time to looking and thinking about art.  His knowledge of art seems to be painfully dependent on the Art History 101 kind of text books.


And now for a report on my trip to the Neue Galerie

Strangely enough, the above piece felt far less gorgeous in person than would be suggested by the above photograph - probably  because of the lighting applied by the photographer.

And a life size painting has a very different effect when it's seen life size:  poor Adele Bloch-Bauer's distant pale face seems overwhelmed by the massive eruption  beneath it.

A screen size reproduction makes her feel more glamorous.

While the original of this Kokoshka portrait  has such a commanding presence -- far more engaging than the reproduction might suggest.

All  three (or was it four?) of the Kokoshka paintings in the Neue jumped off the wall with the personality of the sitter -- though, like the sitters themselves, I'm not sure I'd want to live with them.

But actually, the highlight of my trip to the Neue Galerie were the four Kandinsky panels borrowed from M.O.M.A. for a special exhibit. Painted in 1914 for the apartment of Edwin R. Campbell, they were contemporary with some of the best work by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoshka, and seem, to me, to share a scientist's wonder at the kaleidescopic diversity of the natural world.

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