Your Brain on Klimt

In his new book, The Age of Insight, University Professor Eric Kandel explores the interface of art and neuroscience through portraits by three turn-of-the-century Austrian painters. Here, the Nobel Prize — winning neuroscientist shares his own insights — into his book, his past, and our love affair with pictures.

by Eric Kandel Published Summer 2012
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Gustav Klimt’s Judith I, 1901 (oil on canvas) at the Museo Correr in Venice, Italy  / Getty / Marco SecchiGustav Klimt is essentially an art nouveau artist. He influenced Oskar Kokoschka, the first great Austrian expressionist painter, and Kokoschka later influenced Egon Schiele, who carried expressionism even further. These three artists were uncovering unconscious mental processes in their drawing and painting in parallel with Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler, who were doing so in their writing. All of them, through their connections in Vienna’s salons, were influenced by Carl von Rokitansky, the head of the Vienna School of Medicine.

Rokitansky’s motto was “Truths are hidden from the surface.” He was attempting to make medicine more scientific; it really hadn’t been before. He told his students, “When you examine a patient at the bedside, all you have to go on is the history and physical examination. You hear sounds coming from the heart, but you don’t know what those sounds mean. Does an abnormal sound from the heart come from the aortic valve, from the tricuspid valve, the mitral valve?” They didn’t know in those days. The only way they could discover the answer was to correlate their findings from the bedside with what the patient showed in his autopsy after his death. In Vienna, unlike any other city in Europe, everybody who died in the general hospital was autopsied, and the autopsies were done by one person. Rokitansky collaborated with a great clinician, Josef Skoda, and they compared the autopsy results with what they had heard and seen at the bedside. They were able to make sense of the clinical examination and began clinical-pathological correlation, which is the basis of modern scientific medicine.

Rokitansky was later elected to parliament and became a spokesman for science and a public intellectual. His belief that you have to go deep below the skin to really understand what’s going on became the leitmotif that guided Freud, Schnitzler, and the three Viennese modernist artists. Don’t immediately believe what the patient thinks his illness is about: you have to dig deeper into the unconscious mental process. Freud developed psychoanalysis as a way to understand and explain the nature of unconscious drives.

Of course he missed a number of things. For one, he had limited insight into female sexuality.

But Klimt, a painter of the unconscious, had remarkable insights into female sexuality and was able to enrich our understanding of it. He appreciated that women had an independent sexual existence from that of men, and understood that sexuality is not a pure drive that always exists by itself, but can be fused with aggression. We see this in Klimt’s 1901 painting of Judith and Holofernes, which is singular in Western art. (Top of page.) In this story from the Jewish apocrypha, Judith, a modest widow, plans to save her people from Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes, whose troops had laid siege to her small town near Jerusalem. She enchants Holofernes, he celebrates and drinks heavily, and she encourages him to take her to his tent. There she seduces him, he falls asleep, and she decapitates him. In Klimt’s portrait she hardly appears to be a modest widow. She is in a postorgiastic phase, fondling his head, which is barely visible in the corner. The picture, which fuses eroticism with aggression, is an unprecedentedly modern depiction of the femme fatale. Klimt reveals that the power of women can be frightening and, with the decapitation, anticipates Freud’s writings about castration anxiety.

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