Interview with Eric Kandel

American Neuropsychiatrist, 2000 Nobel prize on the Psychologycal Basis of Memory Storage in Neurons

In his book „The Age of Insight“ the quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain from Vienna 1900 to the present, New York 2012, Eric Kandel develops a fascinating picture of the cooperation of psychoanalysis, neuroscience , medicine, literature and the arts.This book may give artists another insight into the role of the arts and the dynamics of perception in art. Therefore I would like to give a short summary, which then is continued with the personal interview with Eric Kandel on video.

To begin with, Eric Kandel draws our attention onto Carl von Rokitansky (1804-1878). He was at the beginning of the so called Vienna School of Medical Science. Rokitansky’s success was to bring medicine on to a scientific basis. He tried to start a systematic research of the phenomenons to be seen on the outside of an ill body and what is happening inside the body. As director of the Allgemeine Krankenhaus in Vienna, he insisted to do the autopsy of all patients having died in the hospital personally so he could start a scientific research between the outer phenomenon and the inner observations.

This relationship between the outer phenomenon and the inner actual process became the main paradigm of the science in the coming years, leading to enormous success of medical research.

Another very important person quoted is Emil Zuckerkandl (1849-1910). He was working at the Anatomische Institut der Wiener medizinischen Schule and together with his wife Berta Zuckerkandl are examples of the intense communication between medical sciences and the arts. In the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl famous artists and scientists met and exchanged the ideas. The result was a development where the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud has been extended by the literature of Arthur Schnitzler and at the same time expanded by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka.

This can be seen on the example of Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler, which is the same case as Sigmund Freud’s Fall D. Sigmund Freud reduced the power of the woman to a very far extend but Klimt showed the enormous richness of the female world, exemplified in the painting of Judith, showing the last sexual feelings of a woman after intercourse dominating all the other feelings of the brutality of murdering Holofernes.

This developed an intense contrast to paintings of Judith and Holofernes of earlier ages, for instance Caravaggio’s.

There were the drawings and paintings of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka showing masturbating women and men which went far beyond Freud’s perception of female sexuality.

Another example is Oskar Kokoschkas portrait of Auguste Furel (*1910). The right eye has in contrast to the left a frozen gaze and the hands are as if they would hold each other. When Forel saw the painting he refused to take it, because it showed him as if he would have had a stroke.

And indeed two years later Forel had a stroke.

These examples show on the one side the great importance of the face and the hands for portraying people and on the other hand the intense relationship between psychoanalysis, medicine, literature and painting.

After having shown this intense capacity of painters like Kokoschka, to look into the faces Eric Kandel goes on to the next step of art, reductionism and abstraction. While Cezanne believed that all nature forms can be reduced to three types of figurative prototypes: the cube, the cone and the sphere leading to cubism, Piet Mondrian continued this process of deconstruction and developed a new language of non-figurative forms of abstract painting. During this time neurologists started to research the intensity of emotions while our brain perceives different figurative and non-figurative forms. In the example shown here, reduced form of faces are leading to even stronger emotions than the physical face.

Alois Riegl and Ernst Gombrich developed the concept of attentiveness. The painting is incomplete without the beholder. The biology of the beholders reaction is based on his social brain. The history of the development is psychology and its present circumstances; all these are leading to different intensities when looking on pieces of art.

If there is ambiguity in art, the same beholder can react differently under different circumstances. A great variety of different reactions on art under different circumstances of the beholder are analyzed by Kandel in his further chapters relating this to his neurological findings. In brain analysis, all these observations lead us to a very specific model of art perception, based only on the relationship between the piece of art and the beholder.

This model is definitely different from the model where the piece of art itself is not understandable except if explained by art critiques what it intends to say. Then the question arises, are comments of art critiques also part of the piece of art?

To summarize the two most important points in this important view of art seem to be:

1.    That art, specifically in the area of Vienna 1900 has played an integrative role with sciences literature and psychoanalysis where each has been stimulating and expanding the other and we may pose the question: do we find this role of art in today’s development as well?

2.   A very specific way of relationship between art and the beholder by measuring the physical response of emotionality in the neural system of the brain, leading to Riegls and Gombrichs concept. 

The interview with Eric Kandel and Wolf WErdigier took place at the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna on October 11th 2012.


see: the article metioned in the interview is "A Parallel Between Radical Reutionism in Science and in Art" reprinted from: The Self: From Soul to Brain, Volume 1001 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, October 2003, Eric R. Kandel and Sarah Mack

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