Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel discusses the influences between Viennese art and science

Dr. Eric R. Kandel

Nov. 5, 2013 - Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Eric R. Kandel discussed how science in the 1900s engaged the arts, and how art contributed to burgeoning fields in science, illustrating his point with portraits by Viennese painters Gustov Klimt, and his protégés, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.

Kandel, the neuropsychiatrist who received the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, delivered lecture, "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain from Vienna 1900 to Present." The lecture was part of Quinnipiac University's year-long celebration of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, which opened on the North Haven Campus in August. Kandel was introduced by Hans Bergmann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

During this era, cognitive psychology, the science of the mind, was blending with neuroscience, the science of the brain, to create a new biological sciences that gave a better understanding of what makes us who we are, Kandel explained. It also made possible dialogues between sciences and other disciplines, such as the arts.  "In a larger sense, these dialogues could make science part of the common cultural experience," Kandel said.

Kandel introduced the audience to Carl von Rokitansky, head of the Vienna School of Medicine in the late 1800's, who completed or supervised more than 60,000 autopsies and accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the human body and pathology. Kandel compared Rokitansky to Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who dissected corpses to make their paintings of the human form more accurate. Rokitansky influenced Freud, who pioneered the study of the unconscious mind and looked for meaning below the surface of behavior and theorized about unconscious sexual aggression.

Viennese artists were influenced by new findings and theories. They used scientific understandings of facial expressions and body gestures, as well as new information about human perception, in their art. Kokoschka painted a number of self-portraits as a way to learn about the psyche through self-analysis. He also used color "not to convey reality but to convey emotions and certain feelings," Kandel said. Schiele used body gesture and hand position to communicate inner feelings. Klimt incorporated biology into his portraits, painting small rectangles to represent sperm and circles to represent fertilized eggs. This is particularly noticeable in his popular portrait, "The Kiss."

Unlike Freud who dismissed women, Klimt portrayed women in natural and sometimes powerful positions. "Klimt had many, many more experiences with women," Kandel said slyly, with a touch of humor that peppered his presentation.

Klimt did not pose his models. Instead, he captured them in the uninhibited positions that came naturally as part of their personality. The models were often oblivious to the viewer. In nude portraits by other artists, such as Titian, Francisco Goya and Edouard Manet, "The nude is looking out at the view, as if her function in life was to please the male viewer," and only hinted at the possibility that she was exploring her sexuality, Kandel said. "With Klimt, there is no hesitation."

Kandel's lecture was based on his 2012 book, "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Portraiture Art, Mind and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present," which won the Bruno-Kreisky Award in Literature, Austria's highest literary award.