The Art and Science of Embarrassing Art

Neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel explores the flourishing of culture in Vienna

Eric Kandel
Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel's expertise in the realm of neuroscience is unsurpassed. Herbert Pfarrhofer / epa / Corbis

German Expressionist art is not easy to appreciate. It can be embarrassing, which is probably the point. Three artists living in Vienna at the turn of the century (~1880-1920), Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, were instrumental in moving art away from the goal of producing something beautiful towards the goal of expressing and evoking thoughts and emotions that were (and usually still are) considered inappropriate for public display. Not coincidentally, the same milieu also produced Sigmund Freud.

How Western Art gradually approached realistic representationalism is not inherently interesting, but why and how a group of artists living at the same time and in the same city as Freud undertook to portray unconscious emotions is. To comprehend this movement in art, it helps to appreciate the intellectual climate of fin de Siècle Vienna, understand the neurobiology of emotion, and know how we perceive both art and emotion. This is a huge challenge, but Eric Kandel, in The Age of Insight, has undertaken this task, with very satisfying and enlightening results.

Kandel’s expertise in the realm of neuroscience is unsurpassed: He wrote an excellent textbook on neuroscience and won a Nobel Prize for his neuroscience research. He was trained as a psychiatrist. He is a professor of neuroscience, not art history, but his personal connection to Vienna inspired him to explore the cultural and artistic ideas out of which Viennese Modernism emerged. He was born in Vienna in 1923 to a Jewish intellectual family: “I was forced to leave Vienna as a child, but the intellectual life of turn-of-the-century Vienna is in my blood," he writes. "My heart beats in three-quarter time.” This book is thus a synergy between the passion and the intellect of a great mind.

To whet your appetite: Berta Zuckerkandle’s salon regularly brought together artists, scientists and writers. She was a writer and an art critic, married to Emil Zuckerkandle, the Chairman of Anatomy at the Vienna School of Medicine. Klimt invited Emil to give a series of lectures on biology and anatomy to a group of his artist friends, in which he was reported to have wowed his audience by projecting lantern slides of microscopic sections of tissues and cells. So those decorative things in Klimt’s portraits that look like cells, sperm and things from embryology, really are.

Kandel traces the cross-fertilization of ideas among the intellectual circles in Vienna 1900. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Chair of Psychiatry of the Vienna School of Medicine, put forward the idea that sexuality influences everyday behavior. Later Freud developed his theory that powerful forces of aggression and sexuality can influence behavior without entering conscious awareness. Freud himself tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to understand the art of both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in terms of their relationships with their mothers and their adult erotic attachments; his attempts nevertheless encouraged others at the Vienna School of Art History to formally develop a cognitive psychology of Art. Simultaneously with Freud’s publication of On the Interpretation of Dreams, the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler introduced the interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness, by which a protagonist’s innermost thoughts and feelings are exposed.

Margaret S. Livingstone, PhD, is a Professor of Neurobiology Harvard Medical School

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