On Jan 31, the Berkeley Art Museum offers a show intent on spanning the art-science divide that British scientist/novelist C.P. Snow identified half a century ago as a source of societal problems.
Other museums bridging the gap between art and science include the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, which feature a show and a discussion about the museum collection with members of the English and physics departments along with the Institute for Molecular Engineering.
And get this, looking at art is part of a course called “Enhancing Observational Skills,” which every first-year Yale medical student is required to take. And the Stanford School of Medicine is teaching hand anatomy using Rodin’s sculptures from Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
Such attention to our team sounds good, doesn’t it, art lovers? But there’s a pitfall, particularly when paintings and sculpture are used to improve diagnostic skills. As this column reported four years ago, some ophthalmologists contend that the art of Impressionism is the result of poor eyesight and that the hazy skies of, say, 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner – credited as the forerunner of Impressionism – were due to cataracts.
British ophthalmic surgeon James McGill, for example, who claimed to study Turner’s work for years, sees the artist as a potential patient for surgery. As he told the British daily Guardian, “I have no doubt that later in life he had untreated cataracts, which would have made the center of his field of vision very blurred, with some objects at the edges in focus – and with exactly that effect of dazzling shimmering light we see in the paintings…With the type of cataract which I believe Turner had, it is quite possible to see foggily through the cataract, until you are looking in directly into bright light. Then you’re in trouble, because all you can see is the dazzle – and that’s what we get with Turner.”
If you follow Dr. McGee’s logic, it follows that all Impressionists suffered cataracts and that Pierre Bonnard was delusional when he said, “What I am after is the first impression –what my eye takes in at first glance.” And unless all Impressionists were born with cataracts, what explains Claude Monet saying, “I didn’t become an impressionist. As long as I can remember I always have been one.”
You may also remember this column commenting on a diagnosis made by Japanese medical scientist Kazunori Asada that Van Gogh’s vivid palette was the result of colorblindness. Clearly Dr. Asada didn’t know that Van Gogh’s palette started out dark (he began as a social realist) and brightened only after he saw Rubens’ work. The doctor based his diagnoses on Van Gogh’s painting “Night Café,” clearly unaware what Van Gogh wrote of the painting: “I have tried to express with red and green the terrible passions of human nature.” Seeing Rubens exuberant brushwork, bright palette and curving lines was a turning point in Van Gogh’s painting. Yet there have been medical doctors who argue that Van Gogh’s use of wavy lines and large amounts of yellow was due to glaucoma. This is like saying that Rubens’ feverish brushwork was due to the gout he suffered in his painting hand.
The list of such cautionary tales is too long for this space. Suffice it to say, all you medicos out there, when you diagnose dead artists, it’s not enough to look at their work. You also need to look at their history – you know – like you do with living patients. Odd that doctors need to be told that.