Art history & the brain

Christie Davies:

John Onians is one of Europe’s most innovative and wide-ranging art historians. A classicist by training and an expert on the theory and practice of Renaissance architecture, he became the pioneer of the teaching of World Art in British universities.

In European Art: A Neuroarthistory, his latest, expertly illustrated work, Onians has applied his ideas about how the workings of the brain relate to artistic expression to the entire spectrum of European art—from the very earliest cave paintings to Malevitch and Le Corbusier. The religious art of medieval Europe, including Gothic architecture, the works of Italian Renaissance, and the achievements of Velázquez, Canaletto, and Constable are all analysed in detail; here, though, I will specifically consider three of his topics.

Onians book provides a taut definition of “neuroarthistory,” and offers readers a sense of its growing legitimacy. Biological advances in the study of the physical structures of the brain, and particularly the possibility of using scanners to see which parts of that organ are involved when we undertake a particular activity, have transformed scientists’ understanding of unconscious mental processes. Art historians can now discard the once influential occult murk of psychoanalysis and also cast out the misleading idea that the structure of language is the key to explaining art.