Nobel Laureate Explores How Art Impacts the Brain

PHOTO: Death and Maiden (Man & Girl). 1915. Oil on Canvas by Egon Schiele.

Neuropsychiatrist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel's recent book on the brain, art and the creative process is a fascinating look into the brand new area of research called "neuroaesthetics." Just as fascinating is his perspective on turn-of-the-century Vienna, the city of his birth, which later expelled him for being Jewish.

Editor's note: SPIEGEL ONLINE has also published an interview with Eric Kandel about his new book, which can be read here .

When Auguste Rodin visited Vienna in June 1902, art critic Berta Zuckerkandl invited him to spend an afternoon in her famous salon. As the hostess later recalled, the great French sculptor and Austrian artist Gustav Klimt had seated themselves beside two remarkably beautiful young women -- Rodin gazing enchantingly at them. Rodin leaned over and said to Klimt: "I have never before experienced such an atmosphere -- your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music ... and round it all this gay, child-like happiness ... What is the reason for it all?"

Klimt slowly nodded and responded with a single word: "Austria!"

This is the opening scene in New York neuroscientist Eric Kandel's exploration of his native Vienna, a tome entitled "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present," published this spring in English and this month in German. It's a 656-page excursion that takes the reader all the way to the depths of the soul, the cavernous chasms of sex and the secrets of beauty. Here, in Vienna, the former capital of the Habsburg Empire, the author traces a major revolution in Western thinking.

The salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna served as a meeting place for poets, painters, philosophers, architects and researchers who were creating nothing less than a radical new perception of who we are. They abandoned the ideal of the Enlightenment and revealed, below the surface of presumably rationally-acting Homo sapiens, that human beings are driven by instincts and urges.

Sigmund Freud became the quintessential figure of this movement. But others also delved into the realm of the unconscious: Freud apparently saw Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler as an intimidating "double." In a remarkable letter written on the eve of Schnitzler's 60th birthday, the great psychoanalyst wrote to him: "I believe that fundamentally you are an explorer of the depths."

Exile During Holocaust

But Kandel is primarily fascinated by the Viennese painters' incipient interest in sexual drives and repressed desires. In his drawings, Gustav Klimt embarked on a daringly overt exploration of female lust. Oskar Kokoschka saw his portraits as "soul paintings," in which he sought to divulge the layers of an individual's inner life, which remain invisible to the naked eye. And Egon Schiele revealed himself in his self-portraits as plagued by extreme anxiety.

Kandel portrays Vienna as a hotbed of artistic creativity, a hub of intellectual activity and a cradle of modern scientific ideas -- and thus sketches a remarkably positive image of this city with which he has had a lifelong love-hate relationship.

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