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Vision and Art


Vision and Art

 by Kenneth Lyen

The French artist, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) once said that "The source of genius is imagination alone, the refinement of the senses that sees what others do not see, or sees them differently." Great artists have this gift of seeing what we see, but differently.

Why is this so?

There is a mundane explanation doled out by doctors and scientists. They suggest that the reason why artists see things differently, is because they have something wrong with their eyesight.

My first reaction to this is to ask, why aren’t all of us with eyesight problems, artists? Duh!

Professor Noel Dan, a neurosurgeon, wrote in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, suggesting that Impressionist painters like Monet, Renoir and Degas, were all short-sighted. Hence their paintings were a blur. He said that myopia "can explain the characteristic soft lines, lack of detail and the vibrant color of their works." He added, "Another consequence of myopia is an emphasis on red, as the blue end of the visual spectrum is focused shorter than the red, resulting in the myopic seeing red more clearly than blues." Apparently, artists like Cézanne and Renoir refused to wear spectacles.

Art historians have denounced this theory as being too ludicrous, stating that "artists know exactly why they are doing what they are doing." They do not need to be short-sighted to paint out-of-focus images. Does Professor Dan really mean it when he suggests that every one of the impressionist painters were myopic?

Undeterred by such criticisms, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist, and her collaborator Bevil Conway, both from the Harvard Medical School, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine of 16 September 2004, that the Dutch painter, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), suffered from a problem with three-dimensional depth perception. They came to this conclusion by showing that in 23 out of 24 self-portraits, he painted himself with a divergent squint. This may have been present from birth, and as medical technology of that period was not sufficiently advanced to correct it surgically, the result would be a "lazy eye," which means a loss of stereoscopic vision. Livingstone said, "An inability to see the world with normal depth perception can be an advantage to an artist, who must flatten a view to render it accurately." Indeed, you may have observed that many painters squint or close one eye when they are painting.

The problem for me is that I find it difficult to believe that an inability to perceive depth can enhance one’s painting abilities. Are we going overboard to ascribe disabilities too readily to anybody with talent? Indeed, must we have a disability in order to be talented?

You might extend the argument to other disciplines. Are musicians better musicians if they have a disability like deafness, which inflicted Ludwig van Beethoven and Gabriel Fauré, or blindness, which affected Frederick Delius, Joaquin Rodrigo, and Ray Charles?

Or are writers better writers if they were afflicted with, say, dyslexia, as Edgar Allen Poe is said to have suffered? At this juncture, I wish to state that I'm against labeling long-dead people with fashionable diseases like dyslexia, attention deficit, or bipolar disorder, because there is no way you can prove whether you are right or wrong. We should stop ascribing diseases to Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and other geniuses.

I would suggest that out of a cohort of creative people, there will inevitably be a small minority who, by chance, may happen to suffer from a disease. Aren't we blowing it out of all proportion to say that these diseases are critical to the artist’s genius?

Admittedly it is very tempting to dish out some diagnoses. For example, when you look at Picasso’s distorted pictures of women, wouldn’t you want to suggest that he suffered from astigmatism?!