The bridging of the medical, psychological, and artistic worlds has been the focus for many art history experts for some time, but concretely linking the three is a daunting task. Narrowing the focus to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century is Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a professor at Columbia University (his other credits include Director, Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University, Co-director, Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Senior Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Neuroscience, and finally, Nobel Laureate). At his keynote speech at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit last week in New York, he guided the audience through the historical links connecting Charles Darwin, Carl von Rokitansky, Sigmund Freud, and the artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoshka. The connections between science and art are, in a word, remarkable.
Kandel noted that the modernism movement in Vienna around 1900 is a prime example of the overlaps between biological science of the mind and figurative art. The artists were influenced by contemporary scientific medicine and analysis, starting with Darwin.
Darwin argued that the human race was not uniquely created, but evolved, and is driven by sexual selection. The primary function of a biological organism is to reproduce. Sex is central to human behavior. (Kandel pointed out that this discovery came in the mid-19th century, decades before Freud.) We know now that facial expression and the emotion it emotes is a key element of sexual attraction. These notions were very much the focus of the Vienna-based painters, as evidenced by their portraiture work.
These artists were also influenced by Carl von Rokitansky, the head of pathology at the General Hospital of Vienna in the mid 19th century and a doctor who performed thousands upon thousands of autopsies in his lifetime. His approach to medicine was based on incorporating information obtained at a patient’s bedside, and analyzing the patient’s body upon death to correlate illness with anatomical malfunctions. “Unless you get below the skin, you don’t really understand what’s going on,” was Rokitansky’s motto, and one that Freud subsequently adopted.
Freud was one of the “great anatomists of his time,” according to Kandel — a fact that is often ignored when discussing his more famous work in psychology. And he was a student at the Vienna School of Medicine under Rokitansky’s last year in deanship. Freud theorized that mental events adhere to scientific laws; there is no mental event that occurs by chance.
But for all his knowledge, Freud failed to understand female sexuality — famously so. And that is where art comes into play.
Klimt’s drawings depict an extraordinarily sensitive understanding of female sexuality; masturbation, eroticism, graphic images, and explicit renderings of genitalia are all a part of his archive. He and the other Vienna modernists were committed to understanding human, specifically female, sexuality, in part due to the growing interest in anatomy and psychology at the time.
Kandel made the point that Klimt (and ultimately Schiele, his mentee, and Kokoshka) was influenced by Rokitansky because there was a salon in Vienna run by the wife of esteemed anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl, Berta Zuckerkandl. Emil was Rokitansky’s right-hand man, and Klimt’s relationship with Emil fostered his great interest in biology and the science of the human body. (Kandel reminded the audience that Klimt had four volumes of Darwin in his library.) Klimt used color to depict emotion, and in many paintings depicted sperm and ova with specific squares and globes. His fascination with the burgeoning scientific and medical work of his era translated into his artistic renderings.
The web of anatomical, psychological, and artistic creation is as complex as it is fascinating — particularly when it comes to shedding light on how these fields have influenced modern art and science. There is little doubt that the two fields are inexorably connected.