I intended to leave for the Museum of Modern Art by 3pm, but time slipped past until I had to rush to the museum before it closed. Navigating New York’s crowded streets while running late is an activity sure to make my blood boil, but today was a rare exception; the sun filtered through the early yellow and reds of changing leaves, and the air was so crisp it tasted like sweet apple. I entered the museum to a curt greeting from the man at the ticket counter: “The museum closes in one hour.” Long strides brought me to the elevator, which I rode to the fifth floor. Outside the elevator, a mounted sign read, “Collection Galleries: 1880s – 1950s.”
At the time, I was looking for a specific painting by Cézanne, but as so often happens another painting found me first – Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, a Picasso work of epic proportions. In the scene, five prostitutes loom above the viewer, their faces mask-like and their bodies angular. One of the women peaks from behind a curtain, her face shrouded by darkness. For the viewer, there is no curtain behind which to hide. The art critic Hilton Kramer once described the painting as, “a netherworld of strange gods and violent emotions1.” The subjects of the image are at once passive and confrontational. No matter where I stood, I could feel their eyes upon me.
I first saw this piece four years ago when I was in college. I had an assignment to visit the MoMA to see some Picasso works for an art history course. It was Autumn then, too, although not quite as chilly as today. Again, I was running late. I can remember rushing through the New York crowds as the minutes ticked away. I missed my train by less than a minute and waited an hour for the next to come.
Viewing this painting again flooded me with memories and emotions, but my emotions did not precisely mirror my feelings four years prior. Later, I would discuss the experience of viewing paintings multiple times with Barbara Mangum, President of a Boston-based art conservation firm. She echoed my sentiments. “We have a tendency once we’ve seen something to say, ‘I don’t have to look at that again,’ when in reality every moment is a new moment,” Mangum noted. “It’s always a new experience if you’re open to it.” Changes as small as the light or appearance of a gallery can dramatically alter the experience of viewing art.
Because my background is in neuroscience, not art or art history, in many ways my enjoyment of art is filtered through the lens (forgive my pun) of my knowledge on the visual system. When neuroscientists were first beginning to question how the brain represented the world, the primary senses – touch and pain, taste, smell, sound, and sight – were obvious points of entry. Our “sensing organs” are apparent, easily accessible, and similar to those of other species. Can we say the same for complex emotions, memory, and advanced cognitive functioning?
Formal study of the eye began as early as the sixth century BC with the descriptions of seventy-six ocular disorders by the Indian surgeon Sushruta2. It wasn’t until the invention of hand lenses and microscopes in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, that our current understanding of the eyeball’s structure and function was established3. It would be another century before the nerve of the eyeball would be traced back to the occipital lobe of the brain.4
Along with studies of the eye and theories of optics and vision, many basic understandings about how humans interpret an objects’ shape, form, light intensity, and color arose from the work of artists. For instance, in 1898 an artist and art professor by the name of Albert Munsell developed a “rational way to describe color” called the Munsell system, which classifies color according to decimal notation rather than color names5. The Optical Society of America and the International Commission on Illumination both expanded upon Munsell’s foundational ideas to generate the current authorities on light, illumination, and color that are used today by artists and scientists alike6.
Despite the knowledge contributed by artists about vision, the fields of neuroscience and art have mostly remained isolated from one another. Recently, interest in the relationship between art and neuroscience gave way to a new field of study: neuro-aesthetics. This field represents an effort to unite the thinking of artists and scientists to generate new insights into vision. Of course, reductivism and circular logic plague some of the neuro-aesthetic conversations: “This artwork is beautiful or intriguing because one’s brain thinks this artwork is beautiful or intriguing.” Neuroscience cannot fully explain someone’s visual experience when viewing a powerful piece of art. Nevertheless, there is certainly knowledge for artists to learn from neuroscience as neuroscience has learned, and will continue to learn, from art.
To create a better understanding of how we view and experience art, I will be writing a series of essays that break down the visual system into its component parts and relate these parts to stories, people, or creative pieces from the art world. Future pieces will examine color vision, visual illusions, the relationship between psychiatric illness and art, and the link between vision and memory or emotion. Whenever possible, I will augment primary literature sources with statements from art conservators and artists. I will also make an effort to answer any questions posed by readers about their experiences viewing art or the nature of the visual system.
Keep an eye out (pun intended) for next month’s article, where the journey will begin with an exploration of the shape of the eyeball and the myopia of Paul Cézanne.
- Kramer H. “Reflections on Matisse.” The New Criterion. 1992; 11(3).
- Singhal GD. Diagnostic Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery: Based on Nidana Sthana of Susruta Samhita. 1972.
- Wheeler JR. “History of Ophthalmology Through the Ages.” British Journal of Ophthalmology. 1946; 30(5): 264-275.
- Munk H. Ueber Der Funktionen der Grosshirnrinde. A. Hirschwald Berlin, 1881, pg. 28-53; translated in: Von Bonin GI. Some Papers on The Cerebral Cortex. CC Thomas, 1960, pg. 97-117.
- Munsell AH. A Color Notation. Boston:Geo. H Ellis, 1905, pg. 7-8.
- “Color vision.” Handprint: modern color models, http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/color7.html.