Two Cultures: The Art of Neurology Challenges the Science of Art Criticism Reign 'Mirrors in Mind' Shows Graham Farmelo That Paintings Are Experimental
Farmelo, Graham, The Independent (London, England)
You don't have to agree with Constable that painting is a science to accept his conclusion that its pictures are experiments. To get the most out of them, we have always needed good art critics, but we are now entering an era in which our appreciation of art is being given new depth by what might seem like an unlikely profession: brain scientists.
Whenever human beings look at a painting - or do anything else, for that matter - they are using the most complicated object we know of in the entire universe: their brain. Just how the ten billion neurons and the rest of the grey matter between every human pair of ears make sense of the world promises to be a mystery for some years to come, but there's no doubt that neuroscientists are now making breathtakingly rapid progress.
Only last week, the leading science journal Nature reported another advance on how we perceive colour. Neuroscientists have long known that colour itself is not out there in the world about us but is "created" in the eye and in the brain. Now two scientists at the University of California have shown that brain cells in our cerebral cortex engage in continuously dynamic cross-talk to make sense of the light entering our eyes. Research like this will soon be influencing how we think about painting. Meanwhile, thanks to the enterprise of the National Gallery, we have an opportunity to see the kind of light that well- established science gives to our understanding of art. In Jonathan Miller's fascinating exhibition "Mirror Image", the redoubtable doctor explores how painters use reflections and how we perceive mirror images in art and in the real world. Miller is at his most engaging best here. By using both his artistic imagination and his formidable analytical skills, he positively teems with insights and helps us to see old pictures with new eyes. In one of my favourite moments in the exhibition Miller analyses Jan van der Heyden's charming View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam (1660), which features houses reflected from the surface a canal flowing across the foreground. This surface has a sheen which disappears immediately if we block out the houses and leave only the water's surface exposed. What is happening here, Miller explains, is that the sheen is not included in the painting, but is "brought to" the reflected image by our sensory system. Remarkably, our brains add something to the picture it sees in front of itself. Miller delivers analysis like this with his usual engaging didacticism. One price that we have to pay is that the exhibition is decidedly heavy on words, which bombard us from both the labels and the audioguide. Miller's interpretive style is scientific not only in content but also in tone: he is much more direct and literal-minded than is usually thought seemly in art criticism. …