Neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his contributions to the science of medicine and the understanding of memory and author of the seminal textbook Principles of Neural Science, has apparently spent a lot of time in my beloved Neue Galerie in recent years; his new book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, is an attempt to draw together strands from psychiatry, culture, and advances in neuroscience to underscore the importance of Modernist art to contemporary understandings of aesthetics and culture. His central “texts,” if they can be called that, are the paintings and drawings of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. In those heady days of fin-de-siècle Vienna, plastic artists like these frequently moved in the same circles as literati like Schnitzler and Kraus, musicians like Schoenberg and Berg — and, significantly, scientists like Freud. “Particularly important, in Vienna 1900, was a chain of medical scientists stretching from Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, which established a new dynamic view of the human psyche that revolutionized thinking about the human mind,” Kandel tells Jonah Lehrer in this interview appearing at the Wired science blog. “Freud’s theorizing, Schnitzler’s insightful writings, and the paintings of Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka, shared a common focus into the nature of human instinctual life. During the period of 1890 to 1980 [sic], the insights of these five men into the irrationality of everyday life helped Vienna establish a culture we still live in today. In a sense, there are very few cultures that have matched Vienna, 1900. Perhaps the most comparable example is Florence during the Renaissance.” While Modernism continues to take a drubbing in many circles, it is heartening that Kandel, at least, continues to recognize its importance not only to an understanding of the cultures of the past, but to an understanding of our own as well.
A few other excerpts from the interview worth noting:
Moreover, not only in the decorative element of his work, but also in the way Klimt represented his women – as evident in his drawings – you see that he wanted to go below the surface. He did not follow the rituals of Western art, or Freud’s naïve and incorrect teachings about female sexuality. Rather, he wanted to use his own insights, which were extensive, to give a modern view of women’s sexuality: that they are capable of pleasuring themselves – they do not need the attention of a man, and their sex lives are just as rich as that of men. Moreover, although Freud was always aware of aggression, he didn’t think it was equally important to eros until toward the end of the first world war, when he saw killing all around him. By contrast, Klimt had already incorporated, in the painting Judith and Holofernes [pictured above], his insight that aggression is as important as eroticism, and that women are also capable of aggression as well as erotic impulses, and the two can be fused. In this remarkable painting, where Judith, having slain Holofernes, fondles his head in a clearly erotic fashion.
Kokoschka picked up a theme that Freud enunciated: that the examination of the unconscious mental processes of others begins with an examination of oneself. Kokoschka, who was a bit of a self-promoter, argued that he had discovered unconscious mental processes independent of Freud, and in his paintings, he reveals a major interest in going deep below the surface to explore his own emotional life and that of his subjects. And, as with Freud, he had a fascination with childhood and adolescent sexuality that he claimed was independent of Freud. Klimt never did any self-portraits. Kokoschka did a number of very honest and soul-searching self-portraits. For example, during his relationship with Alma Mahler, he depicted himself as a helpless creature, completely in her hands. He also was the first painter to depict female adolescent sexuality – nude adolescence – and the sexual striving of children in the famous painting of the Stein children.
Schiele – the third of the trio of Modernist painters – was the master of modern existential anxiety. He was the Kafka of painting. Much of the paintings that he did were of himself, and many self-portraits were in the nude. Using himself as a model, he depicts all aspects of psychological strivings, not just in facial expression, but even more in hand, arm, and body postures. So, one can trace the influence of Rokitansky throughout all of Viennese Modernism.