on March 28, 2012
This is a splendid book both on the workings of the brain and how it can be exemplified in the art of Vienna 1900. This was after all the place and time that led to modernity making Vienna one of the pre-eminent capitals of the world. One is swept up in the feeling of being privy to the birth of the new understanding in medicine and art as it took place in Vienna 1900 in its most intense unfolding and this description is extended to later work, predominantly at US universities, often by people who derived from the Viennese school of thinking through emigration.
The work follows the tradition of the bridge-builders between the seemingly opposed subjects bringing new insights from brain-science in understanding art. It shows, in academic detail, the brain as a network that finds pleasure in the acquisition of knowledge in either field. It is rather comprehensive and learned at that.
The book is cerebral but very readable; in fact I read it in a Marathon session in preparing for a trip to New York to the Golden Adele, this Mona Lisa of the Fin de Siècle. You don't need the trip though; there are wonderful reproductions in the book of interesting work to be analyzed. You need also not read all the academic detail, there is much to enjoy by taking glimpses or by looking at shorter summaries and graphs.
In the first part we learn, in an especially engrossing section, about the general atmosphere in Vienna during its golden time, its coffee-house and theater culture, its literary, musical and salon life but another forward force was the influence of Europe's premier Medical School of the time in Vienna that established such routines as stethoscope or auscultation. It was the understanding of its research that urged the artists and scientists to look further below the surface. In fact, Klimt's ornaments often come from microscopic cell structures from Medical School. Much loving personal detail is given in this section. Freud is discussed, as are his contemporaries the writers Schnitzler and Hoffmannsthal who have looked to the unconscious. But the focus is on Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, the Austrian Modernist painters. Their work is analyzed from a Nobel brain scientist's perspective in a tour de force.
In further sections a new and trailblazing sense for artistic analysis based on brain processes is suggested in great detail and you will learn about contemporary brain criteria for appreciating art. This section does not introduce the scientific practitioners with the same loving attention and it reminds you more of a science survey article. It helps if you don't hate terms like oxytocin, as it is the chemical involved in love, and much is made in the text of these brain chemicals. You learn that caricatures work because specific brain cells exist that like to read them. This is why the exagerations of the Austrian expressionists are so effective.
Amongst the broader subject of Vienna 1900, Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900Family, Vienna 1900 gives a touching documentary of the Gallias, an art patronage family of which the author is a descendent, and Tassilo's guide to Klimt's Kiss/ Paintings of Vienna's Belvedere an erudite and witty visit with a Jewish teen-girl to the museum where much of the art discussed is displayed. It can serve as an entertaining introductory course so to speak. One of the first to point out the importance of Vienna 1900 as one of the cultural capitals of the world and as a founder of Modernity was Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, perhaps more for the academically minded. None have gone so deep into the brain so far as Kandel to make Vienna shine. Your whole perspective of looking at art will be changed, and you will learn a lot about yourself even if you may now view yourself more as a caricature.
When asked in a comment on flaws of the Kindle edition I came to realize how flawless it is. Footnotes and pictures are fully integrated and pictures are even repeated where the text returns to them.
"In conversation with Paul Holdengräber, Eric Kandel will discuss the book already praised by Oliver Sacks as 'a tour-de-force that sets the stage for a twenty-first century understanding of the human mind' in all its richness and diversity."
My relation with the Viennese milieu started with my father telling me about the dream city, the reincarnation of late antiquity Alexandria, where I was born after WWII. He took his postgraduate studies in Vienna University before it was annexed by Hitler. Sam, my younger brother was fascinated with Klimt, few of his frescos still hanging on my house walls. But I was a fan of Mozart and Freud, and later I encountered the magical worlds of Dr. Kandell; thanks to the intellectual tours of Charlie Rose.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Vienna, the pride of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire - was considered the cultural capital of Europe, by my dad and many, with its unique atmosphere and sophisticated charm. Vienna embraced a versatile mix of musicians, scientists and artists, who met in cafes and spent the evenings in sparkling salons, or gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held to amuse one another and enjoy fine taste and broaden their knowledge through conversation.
They used liberal discussions, of novel ideas that may have led to inventive conclusions, with influential results in psychology, brain science, and innovation of literature, and art. Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, among many others began exploring a charming new territory: the then mystical unconscious. The School of Medicine in Vienna University paved the way to break through of modernity, once its realization was revealed, that truth lies hidden beneath the surface of reality, which inspired and enhanced a wide spectrum of pioneers allover Europe.
That principle was the motivation behind Sigmund Freud who shocked the world with his revelations of our everyday unconscious erotic desires and aggressive reactions, disguised in symbols, and repressed into dreams. Schnitzler even discussed the taboo of women's desires within their repressed sexuality in his novels. Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele responded by creating, what was startlingly mindful, and honestly portraying that unconscious desire, high anxiety, and animal lust.
In his book The Age of Insight, Nobel Prize laureate, the gifted neuro-psychiatrist Eric Kandel recovers back to memory these crucial times, at the eruption of the Modern age, and a brand new simulation for the human brain, creativity initiated and dramatically realized. The story is dramatized and told by the inspiring Troubadour around the inventive genius of 1900 Vienna. Freud, Klimt, and the whole bunch spear headed by their School of Medicine, and how they, in turn, galvanized the pioneers of Art History into modern historiography?
In "The Age of Insight, wonderfully written by professor Kandel, one of the pioneers of creative scientific thinking, at least in his overlapping domains, exposing these Viennese innovators under today's scientific tools of examination, from Cat scan to ultra sound in an effort to expose and frame the modern era art of Klimt, et al, reflecting on its roots in the thought of Freud and school. He utilizes an enhancement in the leadership of an intellectual enquiry that began in Vienna 1900. Very well researched, and artfully illustrated. This is an extraordinarily amazing work from a celebrated leader in neuroscience whose miracle is creating the time of this encyclical essay.
on May 10, 2012
For me this book was a revelation. I took up photography after brain surgery some four years ago so as someone interested in the neurological changes in my life, AND fascinated with the impact of art in my life, I thought this was a must have. No disappointment on either count. He doesn't talk past nor down to the reader and while that can't be easy he makes it seem so. And the work of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele are perfect for a study of the huge effect Freud and other turn of the century giants had on the modern aesthetic. My attitude to my own photography has been profoundly changed.
"But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light." -- Ephesians 5:13 (NKJV)
The Age of Insight is a hard book to categorize. Professor Kandel's stated purpose is to demonstrate how a knowledgeable scientist can write clearly about science so that the interconnections between art and science can be exposed to those who know only about the art. As such, this book is more about informing those interested in the humanities than those whose interest is in science. As a necessary part of his method, there's a circumscription around a narrow set of artists and literary figures rather than an attempt to make a universal statement. To have attempted otherwise would have made a hefty book into a multi-volume tome that few would read.
As someone who reads a lot of art history, history of science, and current research on mental processes, I was impressed by the conception of the book and how deftly it was carried out in ways that deepened my appreciation for subjects I have long been familiar with. I was grateful for these new perspectives. I found the book to be enjoyable for the most part. If I got to a part that was too elementary for what I wanted to absorb, I just skipped quickly through until I got to weightier material. I didn't have to do that very often.
This book would be a wonderful gift to a budding artist or writer . . . or to an art historian in training. I'm sure that many wonderful shows could be mounted that would take advantage of the information here in ways that would delight museum and gallery goers.
Although the book will seem flawed to some, I think it succeeds in its purpose of proposing a new way to write about art and science. I'm sure that future books that attempt to do the same will benefit from having observed how this one turned out.
I particularly found the repeated examination of certain art works from different perspectives to be revealing. I think you will, too.
A few times in my younger days I had the opportunity to speak to people who were alive in Vienna during the heady days of the salons that Professor Kandel describes here. Their descriptions carried to me a similar fascination with how the leading thinkers influenced one another there and then. I was pleased to be able to expand my understanding of that unique society in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
I am not much of a fan of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. I was pleased to learn more reasons to appreciate their work. I must admit that if the subjects had been tied to artists I like better I would have enjoyed the book more . . . but don't let that stop you. This is an important book for you to read!
Bravo, Professor Kandel!
on June 14, 2012
There is plenty to question in Age of Insight: the treatment of Klimt's sexualized drawings; the discussion of autism and art; using artwork to prove artists knowledge of neurobiology. My guess is this doesn't bother Eric Kandel one little bit. Actually, I'm sure he'd like to include your /my objections in the next edition.
The book already boasts a cast of hundreds, from scientists, to doctors, to artists, to patients. Somehow Kandel has synthesized all of their contributions into a single story. Starting with an intellectual history of Vienna at the turn of the century, turning to perceptual psychology, and ending with an extended neurobiological description of consciousness, Age of Insight embodies so much knowledge that it's hard to believe a single man wrote it.
And of course this is Kandel's point all along: a single man DIDN'T write it. The master narrative in this century-long story is that the creation of knowledge, whether in the sciences or in art, is a social activity, done in groups, over time. Everyone is connected. There are no lone geniuses, only flashes of individual creativity within the larger cultural movement. In this way, Kandell's narrative mirrors and represents the workings of the brain itself, at least in the way that he has constructed it: a miraculous network of networks, interdependent, interactive, and biologically biased to find pleasure in the acquisition of knowledge.
on July 9, 2012
First, I must state my long abiding interest in psychology, fine art and more recently, neuroscience. I have also read Kandel's 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind' which is more technical. But this beautifully bound and lavishly illustrated hardback, with colour reproductions of art works is such a joy to read. It is not too technical and the biological explanations should be easily understood. Kandel uses changes in knowledge of visual perception exemplified in Art to explain the workings of the brain and the different types of cortical processes used to make meaning from input from the senses. He compares the work of Freud and other Viennese scientists of the period and how their work has laid foundations for some of the recent advances in neuroscience and man's improved understanding of himself. The book itself is a work of art and I cannot recommend it too highly.
on May 25, 2012
I couldn't resist the parody on the Wide World of Sports series from years back. I cannot really say where Dr. Kandel's wide-spanning mind might not seek to go. He starts with art, moves through history, psychology, neuroanatomy and towards neurologic pathology. Much is divertingly discussed in a manner that seems lucid, at least to my trained mind. I would hope that it would function as a clear introduction to those with less first-hand knowledge of the latter fields.
The book is an adventure in inductive logic and the synthesis of multiple fields of action. It is a good read
on September 4, 2012
As others have noted, this work is very detailed and the beginning descriptions quite interesting and delightful. However, at some point, the psychological impressions and so-called marriage to neuroscience seems to go off track and the book becomes puzzling. The argument that you can reduce the paintings of three artists into a "proof" of neuroscience activity and its connection to creativity seems curious at best. Historians of art have been going down such parallel rabbit holes for decades. Nonetheless an interesting speculative book.
In this richLY rewarding book, Nobel laureate Eric Kandel (2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) attempts to draw together two widely disparate disciplines, the visual arts and brain science. That he succeeds as well as he does is a tribute to the wide reading he has done -in neuroscience, of course, but also psychology and physiology, philosophy, history and philosophy of art (he doesn't do badly in history either)--and his openness to new ideas.
Using the art world and science world of turn of the century Vienna, and focusing on the three extraordinary artists who among them forged Austrian Expressionism -Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) - asks three questions:
*Does art have universal functions and features?
*If so, how are they arrived at and perceived?
*Are our responses to art always personal or are there general biological mechanisms within us that condition them?
Kokoschka called himself a "psychological tin can opener." He wanted to paint his subjects' inner reality. Just as Viennese writer Alfred Schnitzler invented the interior monologue, "stream of consciousness," to gain access to the inner thoughts and mood swings of his characters, so Kokoschka and Schiele especially, devised new artistic techniques to look behind the mask of a person's public persona. While they add little new to our understanding of their works, Kandel's comments on why they worked are sensible and, more important yet, given the eventual aim of the book (the book's arc) they provide a bridge to the later discussion of how in fact the brain processes visual information and, briefly, a discussion of "the brain as a creativity machine."
The discussion that follows occupies almost two-thirds of the book. After a relatively short (40 pp) discussion of the cognitive psychology of perception, it concentrates on how the brain receives, stores and organizes information, and the implications of this for the visual arts. Parts of what follows is heavy going but plodding through it familiarizes the reader for some very interesting comments.
I don't intend to summarize them, but I will give one example. Discussing the dominant role of line in art, Kandel observes:
"Artists have always realized that objects are defined by their shapes, which in turn derive from their edges. [But] In the actual world, there is no such thing as an outline: objects end and backgrounds begin without any clear line distinguishing the boundaries. Yet the viewer has no difficulty in perceiving a line drawing as representing a hand, a person, or a house. The fact that this sort of shorthand works so effortlessly tells us a lot about how our visual processing system works. ... [O]ur brain cells are excellent ... at reading lines and contours as edges. ... Each moment that our eyes are open, orientation cells in the primary visual cortex are constructing the elements of line drawings in the scene before us."
A book that ranges this widely forces the writer to move outside his or her chosen field of expertise quite regularly. There are risks in doing it but the payoff can be considerable. Kandel has done so boldly without distorting or moving beyond what current evidence has shown. He notes the achievements and observations of others, making it easy to trace where his own ideas and speculations come from. He notes what is speculation and what firm evidence. And he writes lucidly and, occasionally, very well.
Another thing I like about the book is the care that has been expended in producing it. Random House deserves applause for its support of the project, which cannot have been cheap. There are numerous color illustrations, works of art and diagrams of the brain, and black and white photographs and schematic drawings of the nervous system, etc. The cover incorporates Klimt's first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), one of his most seductive and lushly painted works, and the end papers reproduce a detail, rich in gold, from the dame work. A lovely touch: when Kandel discuses what makes a face attractive, he illustrates it with a photograph of his wife taken when she was much younger.
[This is the second book I have purchased and read this year on or about science where the presentation enhances the text. The other was George Dyson's magnificent history of the digital revolution, Turing's Castle (Pantheon, 2012).]
on May 10, 2012
A remarkable synthesis of intellectual history, the theory of art, and neuroscience. For me, it was one of the clearest explanations of expressionism and modernism, and the links between psychology, biology and perception.