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 Danäe, 1907–08 (oil on canvas) / Galerie Würthle, Vienna, Austria / The Bridgeman Art LibraryThis cross-pollination of scientific and artistic ideas was carried further by Klimt’s presence in the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl, whose husband, Emil Zuckerkandl, was a great anatomist and pathologist who worked with Rokitansky. Berta was an art historian, an art critic, and an enthusiastic supporter of Klimt. The Zuckerkandls introduced Klimt to biology, and he became fascinated with it. He read Darwin, attended Rokitansky’s lectures and dissections, looked through the microscope, and began to incorporate images of cells and other structures into his paintings. The oval shapes you see as decorative elements in some of the paintings were meant to represent ova, for instance, and rectangular shapes were his symbols for sperm.

Klimt, a painter of the unconscious, had remarkable insights into female sexuality and was able to enrich our understanding of it.

You see this in his painting The Kiss, and most explicitly in the painting Danaë, wherein Zeus impregnates Danaë in a shower of golden coins. Rectangular symbols indicate that the coins are really sperm. She’s like a reproductive machine; as the viewer moves from the left side of the canvas to the right, Danaë turns the rectangular sperm and circular ova into fertilized embryos, symbolizing conception.

One of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic thought is that the way to explore other people’s unconscious minds is to first explore your own. The Interpretation of Dreams is essentially Freud’s self-analysis. Klimt never painted any self-portraits or even portraits of men. He painted women exclusively.

By contrast, Kokoschka did a number of self-portraits and depicted himself in a very honest way, particularly in The Tempest. There he painted himself with his lover, Alma Mahler. She is depicted as calm amidst a storm, serene and asleep, whereas he is collapsed in rigid and helpless anxiety. This theme of vulnerability and self-exposure is carried to an extreme by Schiele, who constantly depicts himself, often nude, to explore existential anxiety — the conflicts of everyday life.

We, the beholders

These interactions of artists with medical and biological modes of thought raised the question: how do you bring artistic and scientific understanding together?

Freud tried, but wasn’t successful. The first person to succeed was Alois Riegl. One of the leaders of the Vienna School of Art History, Riegl wanted to make art history more scientific and to align science with psychology. He thought that the scientific aim of the art historian should be to explain how the beholder responds to a work of art. Riegl showed that in the Renaissance a lot of paintings were inwardly directed both psychologically and pictorially. (He used Masaccio’s Trinity in Santa Maria Novella in Florence as an example of a painting that did not attempt to bring the viewer into the picture’s narrative.) Later, in the paintings of Frans Hals and other Dutch painters, figures point outward and bring the viewer in. The psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris and the art historian Ernst Gombrich together directed themselves to the beholder’s response. They argued that any work of art is inherently ambiguous; each of us has different interpretations. We, the beholders, recapitulate in our own heads the artist’s creative steps, albeit on a lesser scale.

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