Why Do We Fall in Love With a Work of Art?

Smadar Reisfeld
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Smadar Reisfeld

In June 2006, Ron Lauder – heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire and a co-owner of the Israeli commercial television network Channel 10 – paid the highest amount ever (at the time) for a painting: $135 million. The painting in question is titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and is the handiwork of Gustav Klimt.

That sum of money could have been spent on many other things: feeding the hungry in Africa, speeding up the discovery of a cure for cancer or even salvaging Channel 10. But there is no rationality when it comes to love, and Lauder was certainly head over heels in love. From the time he first saw the painting when he was 14, at a museum in Vienna, the figure of Madame Bloch-Bauer had a hold on him, and in the years that followed he returned to her, summer after summer. At age 62 he decided to follow his heart − or to be more precise, his brain, since it turns out that our infatuations with works of art – as with people – originate in what happens in the mind.

What makes a person fall in love with a work of art to the point where he decides to spend such an astronomical sum on it? What causes ordinary people to be excited by a painting or a book or good music? What is it about works of art that makes them have such an effect on us? How do our souls echo that of the artist who created the work? And what role does the unconscious play in all of this?

A new book recently published in the United States tries to answer some of these questions, and does so magnificently. “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain; From Vienna 1900 to the Present” ‏(Random House‏) is a spectacular attempt to combine the seemingly uncombinable: to bridge what at the time were termed hostile cultures – art and science. The author of the book is one of the intellectual giants of our time, a Nobel Prize laureate for physiology or medicine, Eric R. Kandel, whose biography embodies nearly every word of his book’s title.

‘I’m a reductionist’

Eric Kandel was born in 1929 in Vienna, and one of his most powerful memories is of a particular day, two days after his ninth birthday when his parents gave him a toy car. He maneuvers the car back and forth through the small apartment, over the carpet and under the legs of the furniture. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. Two Nazi policemen are at the entrance. They order the family to take a few items and leave the apartment. It transpires that this was the Kristallnacht, in 1938, when rioters carried out a pogrom among Jews throughout Third Reich.

The family fled to America to start a new life, but the memory was forever etched on Kandel’s mind. Sixty-two years later, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the neural basis of memory. But researching memory was only part of a deeper and more general interest that he had in the processes that take place in the unconscious. Questions such as how civilized people could have turned into monsters overnight, or where the insane demons came from that continued to haunt him.

When it was time for him to go to university, Kandel majored in history and explored the response of German intellectuals to the rise of the Nazis. Then he fell in love with a young woman whose parents were among the leading psychoanalysts in America, and they persuaded him that if he wanted to know something about the human unconscious, he would have to study psychoanalysis. That discipline, which attempts to uncover what lies beneath a veneer of culture and progress, they argued, holds the answers.

Kandel consented. The study of psychoanalysis back then required medical school, so he began studying medicine, became a psychoanalyst, and along the way discovered the brain and was enchanted by the possibility of exploring it directly. Kandel became a neuroscientist. In his new book, he adds yet another discipline to his multifarious areas of interest: art. He brings all of those fields − psychology, science and art − together in an effort to plumb the depths of the human unconscious.

A few days after the book came out in March, I conducted a telephone interview with Kandel, in his lab at Columbia University in New York.

Your book aroused a fierce desire in me to go to Vienna. It would be good if I could travel back in time to the turn of the 20th century, to the magical time you describe in the book, but I’d settle for what remains there today. Why did you choose Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century as the starting point for understanding the unconscious?

“The year 1900 and the years surrounding it − the late 19th century up to the beginning of the 20th century − were a wondrous period, in which everything we had known about man up until then changed. Before that, man was perceived as a rational being, different from all other living creatures and superior to them. Darwin changed all that. He showed that man is nothing but another animal that developed in the course of evolution, and that he does not operate necessarily in a rational manner but rather out of impulses and urges, like any other creature. Freud, who was starting out then as a scientist, was influenced greatly by Darwin, and began to study these impulses and how they unfolded. The era of investigating the unconscious had begun.

“Vienna was small but lively, and everyone in the city knew each other. Painters and scientists, writers and doctors met at the cafes and the intellectual salons hosted by the matrons of Vienna. In these places, a real dialogue took place between the fields: science, medicine, psychology and art, and ideas and insights were regularly exchanged.”

On the one hand, the book has broad scope and covers an enormous range of areas. On the other, it is highly focused, on a particular period, a particular place, just three painters − Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele − and a single mode of painting: portraits. Why?

“I am a reductionist. In other words, I try to understand complex phenomena by focusing on simple examples and the most basic components of a phenomenon. That is also what I did in my study of memory: I went to a very simple creature, a sea snail, and that was how I managed to discover something about the complex phenomenon of memory. Others, who dealt with mice and monkeys, were delayed by the complexity of the systems.

“In general, that is what neuroscience today is trying to do to the mind: study it in a reductionist manner; in other words, in terms of the basic biological mechanisms. This, in my opinion, is the great challenge of the 21st century. So I chose Vienna, I focused on painting and on the three major Expressionists, and I turned the spotlight on portraits, because we have quite a lot of information today from neuroscience about how we treat a human face.”

You concentrate in the book on five giants that dealt with the unconscious: Sigmund Freud, [writer] Arthur Schnitzler and the three Expressionist painters. They all explored different aspects of the unconscious and influenced each other, but you claim they were all influenced by one man.

“Carl von Rokitansky was an exceptionally brilliant man, and his influence on the culture was immense. It went far beyond what you’d expect from someone who was the chief pathologist of the Vienna hospital and later also headed the medical school.

“During his years in office, he took advantage of the hospital’s policy − that an autopsy had to be performed on every person who died there − and performed tens of thousands of autopsies, sometimes with his own hands and sometimes merely under his supervision. He amassed tremendous experience that enabled him to connect the patient’s clinical symptoms − for example, a certain heart sound − with the pathological findings he saw when he autopsied the body, such as a problem with the valves. He thereby placed medicine, which had been primitive up to that point, on a scientific footing, but also drafted what can be called the leitmotif of Viennese modernism: that the truth is lying beneath the surface.

“He had an enormous influence on Freud, who studied at the medical school during Rokitanksy’s final years there. I mean, that is the main theme of his theory: that you can understand the patient’s symptoms only by exploring and clarifying the deep layers of the mind, which are beneath the surface.

“Since Rokitansky worked with the husband of the hostess of one of Vienna’s important salons, his ideas influenced many of those who attended that salon. Such were, for instance, the painters Kokoschka and Schiele, who proclaimed that their object is not to represent beauty alone but rather the truth, which lay hidden beneath the surface. Through the portraits they painted, they examined the components of that truth: sexual desire, aggression and anxiety. These, too, were the beginnings of exploring the unconscious.”

Three-phase dialogue

In many respects, turn-of-the-century Vienna is the cradle of modern culture: It’s where Freud’s psychology began, where medicine became a science, and also where a completely new discipline later came into being – the psychology of art. In what way did the latter discipline advance the study of the unconscious?

“In 1930s Vienna, a second phase of dialogue began between art and science, this time from the direction of Vienna’s prestigious art history school. Ernst Kris − the father of the girl I fell in love with in the United States and who influenced me to transfer to psychoanalysis − and [art historian] Ernst Gombrich approached art and applied psychological insights and tools to it. They too were influenced by Freud, and tried to connect cognitive psychology, which deals with internal processes like perception, memory and language, with art. They wanted to understand the effect art has on the mind.

“Gombrich argued that the person looking at a work of art is not merely a passive observer, but rather is involved in the creative act through unconscious processes taking place in his mind. The more ambiguous the work of art is, the greater becomes the role and involvement of the observer.

“Gombrich liked optical illusions as an example of the observer’s involvement. We are well acquainted with these illusions − for example, the picture in which you can see once a white vase on a black background, and once silhouettes of two people on a white background. In both cases, the information the eye receives is the same: The lines are the same lines, the colors are the same colors. The picture does not change, and yet each time the brain experiences it differently – once as a vase and once as people. The same goes for the illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle – that drawing in which we see two upside-down triangles, even though in reality there is not a single triangle – demonstrates that the brain is not merely a passive observer but rather invents a story from bits of information it perceives from the world.

“‘There is no innocent eye,’ Gombrich claimed, and he meant that man does not perceive reality and works of art as they are. The eye and the brain are a creative machine that processes the reality and art, and interprets them. The interpretation is also influenced by the internal baggage that each person carries − the concepts, memories and personal associations − and that is why different people are affected differently by works of art. All of this takes place in our unconscious and determines our emotional experience of art.”

Gombrich said, “Psychology is biology.” He believed that ultimately everything is in the brain.

“And he was right. Gombrich was ahead of his time, just like Freud, in the sense that they did not have the tools yet to study the brain directly and test their theories. But both of them believed that the mind and the unconscious reside in ‘the nuts and bolts of the brain,’ and hoped that someday they would be discovered. And indeed, in the past 30 years a third phase of the dialogue began, this time between psychology and art and biology and neuroscience. This dialogue laid the foundation for a new field called neuroesthetics, which tries to understand art and its effect on us at the level of what goes on in our brains.

“Slowly we are reaching insights into the way that we perceive reality and respond to it emotionally, and at the same time are beginning to understand what happens in our brains − and Ron Lauder’s − when we look at a work of art. We are examining the activity of neurons in the brain and monitoring the connections between them, and what we are seeing biologically proves what Gombrich said – that there is no ‘innocent eye.’ The eye is not just a camera that captures reality as it is. It turns out the brain takes the picture of reality, disassembles it into its components and then reconstructs them in new contexts, according to the previous baggage we carry, which is stored in the memory.”

The hungry seagull

So what happens inside our brains when we look at a painting? Kandel’s book focuses on portraits by the three Expressionist painters and he demonstrates his claims in those contexts. Expressionism is very different from its predecessor, Realism, in that the Expressionists tried to be accurate not in copying the features of whoever was sitting before them, but rather in capturing the emotional depth of the person they painted − i.e., by depicting what was going on in his mind, below the surface.

Take for example Egon Schiele’s 1915 drawing “Act of Love.” The painting inspires in us a variety of emotions ranging from cringing to curiosity, alienation to compassion. It expresses an exhausted sexuality, troubling eroticism and anxiety. What, in terms of what is happening in our brains, impels us when we look at this picture?

The answer to this question is complex, and still very partial, but here are a few simple points. First of all, we look at the face. As social beings who depend on other people for our existence, great importance is attached to our ability to locate a human face in the world around us, and it is also vital that we be able to recognize its expressions. We have to understand who is standing before us: decipher his emotional state, health and intentions toward us − whether friend or foe.

For this reason, the region in the brain that is dedicated to facial recognition is larger than any part of the brain that handles the identification of other objects. If you know people who have a problem recognizing faces ‏(they constitute more than 2.5 percent of the population‏), they apparently have a defect somewhere in this area of the brain.

How do we recognize expressions? For example, by looking at the eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and indeed when we gaze at a face − in a work of art, as in reality − we tend to scan the area of the eyes for much longer than any other part of the face. That is how we try to grasp the emotional world of whoever is standing before us ‏(the fact that people with autism scan the lower part of the face, the mouth area, can explain, if only partially, their inability to understand their surroundings‏).

Deviations in characteristics related to the eyes draw our special attention. Studies have found that when monkeys are shown a drawing of a face with particularly large or small eyes, the neurons that recognize them react strongly. The cells are also activated when the eyes in the drawing are of ordinary size, but the distance between them is much greater or smaller than the norm. In fact, these neurons react strongly to any deviation from average facial features. In other words, the neurons in our brain like caricatures. Show them a photograph of a person or a cartoon drawing of him, and they will react more strongly to the cartoon.

“Displaying the preference of certain neurons to the exaggerated and the extreme,” Kandel says, “is only a small example of the ability of neuroscience to begin to explain biologically why Schiele’s picture, and Expressionist art in general, are so effective at stimulating us.” To a certain extent, Expressionist painting is caricature: the eyes of the couple in “Act of Love” are relatively large, and the distance between them is significantly greater than average, and therefore they draw our attention and trigger something in us. But obviously the response to this picture, and to art as a whole, involves more than just the ability to diagnose “exaggeration.” Something must occur in our brains to trigger an emotional response to these exaggerations − in other words, for our preference for certain characteristics in the picture to take the form of an emotion. Scientists have begun in recent years to understand these aspects of the brain as well: how the characteristics in a painting affect how we feel.

In this respect it is worth noting the connection between the region in the brain that recognizes faces and the amygdala, an area that is part of our “emotional brain” − i.e., that is involved in creating the emotional experience. Of particular interest is the discovery of nerve cells called mirror neurons, whose activity apparently allows us to identify with whomever is standing before us. They were first discovered in monkeys, where it was found that they are activated whenever the monkey performs a certain motion, but also when he is merely looking at someone else perform the motion. There are cells that switch on even when it only seems to the monkey that someone is about to perform a motion ‏(for example, when the scientist’s hand disappears behind a barrier, where the monkey knows there is food‏).

Researchers have theorized that cells like these are what enable us to identify with whoever is standing before us − a person or a portrait − and feel an emotion toward him. It has been suggested that defects in this system in individuals with autism are responsible for their failure to grasp what is happening in the mind of another individual, or to feel empathy for him.

Schiele’s painting arouses a powerful emotional response, a kind of oppressive discomfort, because there seems to be something very distilled about the depiction of the figures in it.

“That is indeed what art does: distills things,” Kandel says. “It takes reality, extracts the essence and concentrates it, and therefore art can sometimes be more powerful than life.”

A great experiment conducted in the 1950s demonstrates just how successful exaggeration is at stimulating a reaction. It is known that gull chicks beg for food by pecking at a red spot on their mother’s yellow beak. This behavior causes the mother to regurgitate her food and feed the chicks. When scientists showed chicks an “exaggerated” beak − a yellow stick with three red stripes − they pecked at it even more excitedly than they had pecked at their mother’s beak. One of the world’s leading brain scientists, Vilayanur Ramachandran, said about this: “If seagulls had an art gallery, they would hang the long stick with the three red stripes on the wall, worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso.”

So good artists simply know the “shticks” that work on the neurons in our brain?

“Yes. Intuitively they understand them, and use them to activate our unconscious.”

When I read the gull chicks experiment I was truly excited, as happened with other experiments described in your book, which are simple yet offer deep insights into the structure of the mind. It was just like looking at a painting or reading a thrilling book.

“I identify with you completely. Cognitive, intellectual understanding of a phenomenon can give us excitement and deep pleasure, just like a work of art. Above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was engraved the maxim ‘Know Thyself,’ and that is what literature, economics, art, psychology and science try to do. And every time we reach an interesting insight, from any field whatsoever, it is exciting. Why do people think you can only enjoy football or a dance performance? Science can be incredibly pleasurable, if you are attentive to it and if it’s told well.”

The writer is a doctor of molecular biology and an author.

Egon Schiele’s “Act of Love” (1915).
Eric Kandel.
Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907).