Throwing shapes in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre

Tuesday 8 October 2013, First Frank Davis lecture on ‘Part-Whole relationships in Vision Science’, given by Professor Johan Wagemans, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Science, KU Leuven


Michael Baxandall commented that perception is 95% hardwired and 5% cultural; with most of our interest falling into the latter segment. Launching this term’s Frank Davis lectures on the science of vision, Professor Johan Wagemans of Leuven University in Belgium gave art historians an opportunity to contemplate that neglected 95%. With associates in a team of experimental psychologists, Wagemans is running an ambitious project to develop methods of mapping the role of perceptual organisation in the composition and appreciation of visual art. Demonstrating both general principles of the Gestalt psychology that underlie the multi-layered project, and technical data gained through targeted experiments, this lecture on part-whole relationships in art and vision presented a wealth of detail at a pace that was perhaps demanding for a non-scientific audience; but in a good way!

Beginning by testing our response to a series of visual puzzles, including surrealist illusions and artful cows, Wageman promised further dynamic moves when he offered to ‘throw some shapes’ on the screen. These resolved themselves into an illustration of the lecture’s central argument; namely, that vision is organised according to wholes which are not only greater than, but different to, the sum of the parts. While many might have been familiar with the general principles, it is the hard science behind pictorial observation that is new here; and the results demonstrate impressive progress in quantifying what happens when we look at pictures. The specific focus of this lecture concerned the perception of volume in planar designs, in experiments which recorded observational patterns relating to a series of line drawings of female nudes by Picasso.

Perceptual ambiguity of figure-ground organization in vision science and visual art. Stimuli from Kogo et al (2011); artwork by AMVK.

Through a range of computer graphics designed to register different perceptual features – including a convincing contour map showing depths of relief (see first photo) – it was revealed how the perception of 3D features on a flat surface, and the meaning of individual line structures, depends on the viewer’s apprehension of the pictorial space as a whole. What the research aims to isolate in such experiments are those workings of the biological matrix within the brain which seek out meaningful patterns; a function referred to as the ‘creative microgenesis’. What was less clear to many in the audience was how far experiential and cultural associations could be ruled out of the equation, especially when the lines concerned represent aspects of the familiar female form. To the question of how these experiments perform in relation to abstract art, the answer was an honest ‘disappointing’. Nonetheless, there is no doubting the robust potential of these developments for analysing pictorial perception, as was illustrated at the close of the lecture with a series works by contemporary artists created in parallel with vision scientists in the dynamic interdisciplinary project known as ‘Parallellepipeda’. For more on this and a range of articles published by the Leuven project, go to