Ways of Seeing

“Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain”

Professor Margaret Livingstone, Tuesday 22 October 2013.

For the second Frank Davis memorial lecture of 2013, the Courtauld community and guests were given a privileged glimpse into the workings of our own visual processing by Margaret Livingstone of Harvard Medical School. Applying developments in neurobiology to a study of pictorial reception, Professor Livingstone’s research in recent years has explored the evidence that artists also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we see. Along with plentiful information on the finely tuned operation of neurons within the visual pathway, it was the interactive experience – facilitated by red-green cinema specs – which cemented for the audience the evidence of how the brain processes retinal responses to pictures, faces, and pictures of faces.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Those who had turned up to hear the big neurological reveal on the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile were not to be disappointed, but first we needed the basic picture. Through diagrams illustrating the opposing actions of ganglion cells on the retina, which can both fire or repress signals depending on the area receiving light, Professor Livingstone demonstrated the dominant principles of luminance and contrast at the base line of vision. This evidence helps to access the employment of light and shadow throughout the history of art, from the uniform brilliance of haloes in a Duccio altarpiece to Impressionist experiments with movement created by subtle variants in light value. Such effects were further explained by a diagram of the primate brain showing the division of two distinct functions: the ‘what system’ which has developed to recognise objects, colour and faces; and the ‘where system’ which takes the more general role of detecting spatial relations of depth, distance, figure/ground, and movement. These separate functions are behind the puzzling effects of optical illusions and those red-green patterns familiar from optical examinations; and, as illustrated with works by Monet and Mondrian, are expertly manipulated by visual artists. Correspondingly, we were shown how it could be the difference in acuity between central and peripheral vision which is behind the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

Returning to the visual peculiarities of artists themselves, the lecture concluded with an intriguing insight into the properties of stereovision and the likelihood of ocular misalignment or of dyslexia as a contributing factor in the artist’s particular facility in translating volumes into flat pictures. A graph based on Rembrandt’s depictions of his own eyes in a series of painted and etched self-portraits provided a convincing argument in favour of the research, as of Professor Livingstone’s parting comment; namely, that ‘if you can make a graph of the unlikeliest thing, you can get published’. The background to this science and its application to artistic vision are explained in Margaret Livingstone’s book, Vision and Art (2002), available in the Courtauld Library.

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 www.gestaltrevision.be.