Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Art and medical conditions

The Times recently (July 5, 2008) published an interesting article by John Naish titled “The painter who sees through the eyes of the blind”. Adam Hahn, a visual artist, painted portraits of people affected by age-related macular degeneration (AMD) the way they would see themselves. The portraits are blurred in places, depending on the level of degeneration of the eye.

The article contains reference to famous past artists and how their medical conditions could have affected their painting.

  • Degas had retinal eye disease.

  • Monet suffered from cataracts for ten years before he had surgery to recover a clear view.

Michael Marmor, an ophthalmologist from Stanford University, argued that both Degas and Monet became more abstract in their work because of their eye problems.

The same goes for Turner:
“Likewise, Michael Lamensdorf, an ophthalmologist in Sarasota, Florida, believes that Turner's fuzzy landscapes were the result of bad eyesight. He compared the fine detailing and clear blues in the 19th-century painter's earlier work with his later work, which is limited to reds. “In my opinion, Turner developed a dense, red-brown cataract that blocked out all the blue and green colours,” he argues.”
Another comment in the article gives an excellent insight into the reaction of art critics when confronted with these theories:

“Such medical views are, however, greeted sceptically by many art historians and critics, who prefer to believe that the artists' development was driven by intellect, instinct and inspiration, rather than ocular degeneration.”

I am not surprised by the reaction of some art historians but I think they miss the point. Does the fact that Monet’s medical condition is likely to have influenced his art in a significant way make him and ordinary painter? Does this mean he was not a genius? I would say his genius transpires from how he transcended and used his medical condition to serve his art. Far from accepting the limits imposee on him by illness (although he complained about his condition), he used his deteriorating eyes the best he could to express his different vision of the world.

Artists don’t give-up in the face of adversity, they look for ways to use in their artisitic venture what life throws at them.


AngelaGrady said...

Hi Michael, your appraisal is very interesting and no surprise to me!

Jason Delezen said...

As an Art Historian and an artist, I absolutely agree with your proposition that it is faulty to dismiss ocular medical conditions when evaluating an artist's work. I've both studied and known artist with eye problems. They're adaptation to adversity is one of the things that makes their art great.