The Beautiful, Abstract, Surreal, Brain

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I was thrilled to see an exhibit of scientific drawings on display at an art gallery, “The Beautiful Brain, The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal,” currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery. Unlike the drawings of his predecessors, he did not include a circular framing device as a referent to the microscope he relied on to view the spectacular details of the brain. The absence of the circular frame emphasizes that his abilities allowed him to make visible these otherwise hidden parts of the human anatomy, with the microscope playing only a minor role. Ramon y Cajal, unlike other scientists, did not compose his drawings directly from what he viewed in the microscope but rather a combination of different forms of knowledge, making visible and legible information that did not always appear directly in a single microscopic viewing. His drawings, produced over decades, have stylistic elements of expressionism, symbolism, surrealism and abstraction. Another dimension to the exhibit, and to understanding the visual culture informing Ramon y Cajal’s perception of the brain, could have come from the inclusion of work by Salvador Dali, Wassily Kandinsky, and Vincent van Gogh.

The exhibit brilliantly included anatomy books from the late Renaissance demonstrating a long history of illustration within the medical profession. Ramon y Cajal, of course, did not operate in an ivory tower and the history of science has presented some excellent scholarship on the extensive visual culture produced and used by turn of the twentieth century European scientists. A brief list can be found below.

NYU wisely used this as an opportunity for several events to bring together both artists and scientists. These events have not only encouraged dialogue between the disciplines but also demonstrated how difficult such dialogue is, when each is working from different understandings of history and different vocabularies. I was disappointed to watch how frequently the sophisticated observations of (MacArthur Prize winning) artist Teresita Fernández went right over the head of (Nobel Prize winning) neuroscientist Eric Kandel. While Fernández was ready to engage critically with science and Kandel was inspired by artists, Kandel held fast to a conception of absolute objectivity that left no room for the work of a woman artist of color.

But these events are an excellent start! And  I would argue that the best way to to support actual dialogue between artists and scientists would be to include some people from the humanities and social sciences since we do try to be literate, at least nominally, in all these disciplines.


Nick Hopwood, Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution and Fraud, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015; Robert Michael Brain, The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-De-Siècle Europe, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2015;   Omar W. Nasim, Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Dawson, Gowan “Paleontology in Parts : Richard Owen, William John Broderip, and the Serialization of Science in Early Victorian Britain.” Isis 103 (2012): 637-667;  Güttler, Nils. Das Kosmoskop: Karten und ihre Benutzer in der Pflanzengeographie des 19. Jahrhunderts. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2014;  Klamm, Stefanie. Bilder des Vergangenen Visualisierung in der Archaeologie im 19. Jahrhundert: Fotografie – Zeichnung – Abguss. Berlin: Mann, Gebr., 2015; Pearl, Sharrona. About Faces : Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010; Julia Voss, Darwin’s Pictures: Views of Evolutionary Theory, 1837-1874, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010;  Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer (eds.), The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture, Hanover, N.H: Dartmouth College Press, 2009;  Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007;  Jennifer Tucker, Nature exposed: photography as eyewitness in Victorian science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

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