Abstract versus representational painting: here are some some thoughts on this topic by Eric Kandel, an old colleague of mine, and Sarah Mack.

While artists are now wondering whether they are doing something important, scientists are all talking about art – Margaret Livingston, V.S Ramachandran, Robert Shapley and, as discussed here, Eric Kandel. Neuroscientist have invented the new discipline – neuroesthetics. This trend of neuroscientists getting interested in the arts reminds me of an earlier trend when molecular biologists, such Francis Crick, switched to the neurosciences.

Eric Kandel with his interest in learning and memory, studied a form of learned fear, in Aplysia, a seaslug, for nearly three decades.


Subsequently, he verified that the biological principles discovered in Aplysia also hold true for the mammalian brain: A seaslug with only 20,000 neurons stores its memory as we do with our estimated 100 billion neurons.

In his article, Eric Kandel argues that a reductionist approach is not only fruitful in science, as in his case, but also in art, taking J.M.W. Turner and Mark Rothko as examples.

Turner, early in his career, portrayed ships realistically as seen in Calais Pier: an English Packet Arriving (left picture). In contrast, his later paintings of ships in stormy weather were highly abstract, e.g.: Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbor’s Mouth (right picture).

Mark Rothko, Eric argues, is an artist who takes this reductionist approach even further. Rothko’s early work in 1938, he judges to be figurative and fairly unremarkable (left picture). But, Eric suggests that Rothko’s work in 1948-49 shows that the human drama, which is evident in the painting, now has become detached from the human form (right picture).

In the fifties, Eric continues, Rothko limited the number of forms and colors even further (left picture) until, in the sixties, he says, the reductionist approach is taken to the extreme by the artist shifting his focus from contrasting colors to the absence of colors (right picture).

Interesting is the final picture in Eric’s article, a pen and ink drawing on a scroll by Jean Magnano-Bollinger, undated.

Eric now suggests that a reductionist approach in art may serve to forge a bridge between art and science:

Much as Leonardo and other Renaissance artists used the revelation of human anatomy to help them depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner, so contemporary artists are likely to benefit from insights into brain processes that inform them about the critical features of emotional response. Indeed, some artists who are intrigued by the workings of the mind have attempted that already. One such artist is Jean Magnano-Bollinger, who uses pen and drawings on a scroll to record what is going on in her own mind. She seeks a direct communication between brain and paper, without the intervening processes such as feelings, sensations, and aesthetic judgments.

Jean Magnano-Bollinger herself says

“The most important note about these scrolls is that they were recorded with my eyes closed. They were not drawn to create art; they are recordings of my attempts to understand process and movement of mind to focus as deeply as possible on brain.”

What Jean Magnano-Bollinger does sounds like fun. However, the late pictures of JMW Turner and Mark Rothko, shown here by Eric, are sad choices for illustrating the power of a reductionist approach in art. I see the mental decline of both of these artists manifested in these late paintings. It is tragic that these two great artists sacrificed their lives to reductionism.

In my opinion, better examples of the power of abstract art are seen here on A&P. David Palmer, MJ Illingsworth and Syau-Cheng Lai express a beauty in their abstract paintings that reminds me of music. Rather than making me feel dissolved into misery, as the late Turner’s and Rothko’s do, these contemporary examples of abstract art convey to me a joy of life.


In contrast to Turner and Rothko who did not or could not return from abstract to representational art, Eric Kandel applied his findings from the seaslug to the complexity of our limbic system, our substrate for learned fear.

Wouldn’t his scientific approach be akin to going back and forth between abstract and representational art?