What Cubism is to Your Brain

Over at Nonsite, issue No. 2 is out and contains a fascinating article on cubism and the visual brain by Charles Haxthausen, which also touches on philosophy and the relationship between art and science. I’ll try to recap the argument here, but the article is too good, I recommend it be read in full.

Let’s begin with two paintings by Picasso.

Woman with Pears (Fernande) 1909

Guitarist 1910

Two things are important here. Firstly, that the painting of Fernande, from 1909, has much more easily recognizable content than the painting of the Guitarist from 1910. And secondly, that the two paintings were made a year apart. The transition that happened in that year, where Picasso’s cubism goes from distorted but still recognizable object to almost unrecognizable, is the difference between two views of cubism presented in Haxthausen’s article.

On the one hand is Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an art dealer and critic who penned his views on cubism as early as 1915 and the neurobiologist Semir Zeki who wrote on art and the visual brain in his 1999 book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. On the other hand is an art critic by the name of Carl Einstein, who published his views on cubism in 1926.

Kahnweiler understood that Braque and Picasso’s cubism was an attempt to map the way the eye sees an object. Against conventional belief that the eye is simply a lens that passively transmits signals to the brain (like a camera lens transmits light onto a sensor), the eye sees multiple things, surfaces, lines, colors in a broken down fashion and then the brain puts them together into a coherent object. Meaning that Fernande above is probably closer to what appears to the eye (before the brain puts it all together) than an identical photograph. But Kahnweiler’s explanation for why Picasso would go further (from the 1909 version to 1910 version) is that he wanted to detach Cubism from the previous language of painting by “piercing the closed form.” The object no longer resembles anything in actuality. Lines, planes, shapes, brushstrokes – anything painterly is freed from subordination to the content.

This way of seeing cubism is repeated by Semir Zeki. What the eye sees is a world in a constant state of flux. The brain fixes the elements of an object to make them cohere. But the cubists attempted to show what the eye sees, the flux, the change, the different perspectives and views, and unite them all in a single canvas. Thus the painting takes over the function of the brain, uniting the sensory data into a whole. But this only holds for the first of the two paintings. For the second one, the Guitarist, this attempt falls short of what the brain does: the brain cannot recognize the content of the painting and only knows what it is through the title. Cubism is, in a neurobiological sense, a failure.

The Architect's Table 1912

Enter Carl Einstein: failure becomes triumph. What Kahnweiler and Zeki assume in their respective analyses is that the object painted is the way it appears to the conventional brain. That the changes and flux are distortions that the eye picks up, but that the brain clears up, returning the unity to the object. In other words, some object, say this chair, is the way it is, the eye distorts it, but the brain restores it to its previous, stable, unified state.

But what if this is not the case? What if the unity of object we normally perceive in the brain exists only in the brain and not in the object itself? (What if the object is not identical to itself?) What if the eye picks up the object in the flux, changes and perspectives that the object actually has in itself, and the brain distorts that, so to speak, into a coherent object?

The transition from Ferdinande in 1909 to the Guitarist in 1910 is not a failure of cubism to unify what the brain does so easily, but a failure of the brain to see an object differently from what it is used to. In Ferdinande the content is recognizable so the distortions can be attributed simply  to the eye. But if the brain is unable to recognize an object in the Guitarist, it is not because the eye and cubism have gone too far in breaking it down, it is because the brain has not gone far enough in conceiving it.

Cubism, and this is Einstein’s radical thesis, is not just an analysis of the way the eye perceives the world, but a challenge to the subject – us, the viewer, the audience – to reconstitute itself in order to be able to conceive of seeing and recognizing the object. The world is not the stable, familiar place the brain is used to, and in order to see it in its flux and change, it needs to reconstitute itself, to render itself more plastic, more creative, more visionary. In this endeavor, cubism can help.

Man With Violin 1911-12


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