Views and Reviews


The Visual Brain and the Straight Line

Tuesday, 11 February, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

The Courtauld Institute of Art

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture: How our Visual Brains Interpret Painted Lines

Tuesday, 4 February 2014, Dr Pia Gottschaller (Caroline Villers Research Fellow 2012-13)

Reflecting the focus of the Caroline Villers research fellowship, Pia Gotschaller’s work is mainly focused on technical art history. Her interests are decidedly modern, ranging from Lucio Fontana to Bridget Riley. Influenced by the work of Semir Zeki in the field of neuroaesthetics (the use of neuroscience to understand aesthetic experiences at the neurological level), Dr. Gotschaller’s research explores both art and the brain. The lecture examined how the visual brain interprets straight lines, demonstrating that there is nothing simple in them, and in their usual association with light, science, and human intelligence.

The lecture’s opening slide was Richard Hamilton emphatically figurative Swingeing London. These were contrasted with details from the geometrical paintings of Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha and Mark Rothko.

The speaker showed that ‘straight’ is the geometry of a crystal, or, in the 2012 film Prometheus, the ‘good guys.’ And yet, the real straight line – without depth or width – is only a mathematical abstraction. In human terms, the difference between the straight and the crooked is only one of degree. Whereas some artists used straight lines for their perceived semantic neutrality, others employed them to symbolise the machine aesthetic.

Straight lines as described by Dr. Gotschaller are not drawn with the help of pencil, but rather with masking tape. So that the history of the art she considers starts in 1935, the year when this type of tape became widely available. Using masking tape poses specific handling problems. For example, paint can bleed under the tape, transforming the most rigid of lines into a soft and wavy blur. Can viewers eventually tell that this hazy line was meant as straight? Or is the difference between the masking tape and the hand-drawn lines the expert’s call?

Dr. Gotschaller devised an experiment to answer this question. Her sample was a group of 40 interviewees, divided between experts – art historians, conservators and artists – and ‘non-experts’ – for example, bankers. Shown details of lines from modern paintings in quick successions, the participants had to instinctively differentiate hand-drawn from straight lines.

The images selected by Dr. Gotschaller were clearly bisected by a vertical or horizontal line. In fact, recent experiments have demonstrated that brain cells cannot interpret horizontal lines as easily as perpendicular ones. She also selected images where different colours created clear divisions. As she noted, the brain tends to interpret lines as ‘hedges’ between areas. Our eyes never fixate on monochromatic expanses, but rather concentrate on points of rupture and change, thus helping the viewer to focus on the line dividing different colour fields.

Surprisingly, both experts and non-experts scored high in Dr. Gotschaller’s test. When reading an artwork, we rely as much on our experiences of a messy children’s art project as on our formal training in higher education. Thus, the test highlighted the importance of ‘tacit knowledge’: as the philosopher Michael Polanyi explained in 1966, ‘we can know more than we can tell.’

Two days after this talk, my ‘Russian Constructivism’ class met for a seminar at Tate Modern. It is among the geometrical paintings of Tate’s Structure and Clarity Gallery that I realised how inspiring Dr. Gotschaller’s talk was, and how useful her exhortation to ‘look closer’ at every straight line will be in my future studies.

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