Monday, April 30, 2012

Gombrich, Popper, and Eric Kandel's book-1

Just the stock portrait type of Parmenides, but that was Popper's soubriquet for Einstein
During my first year at UC Berkeley I picked up the name of Karl Popper, but no more, probably mostly in Philosophy 6b, which I took with Professor Karl Aschenbrenner, from whom I learned not only the elements of Philosophical Analysis (Hospers' textbook was then new) but to value a teacher who was by no means a showman; I wanted to get what he was talking about, so I learned to sit in the center of the room and near the front, and I learned to pay attention.  Need I add that, despite (or maybe because of) the fame of "The Open Society" I did not get around to reading Popper.  It was a little like the famous film, "The Seventh Seal": everybody talked about it and had opinions and interpretations.  Those of you who know Popper will have suspected already that my dislike of babbling interpretations would endear Popper to me, once I got around to reading "Unended Quest" and "The Logic of Scientific Discovery".  My enchantment with the attrait, reading whatever I am drawn to, in whatever order I wish, remains unabated, and, having just listened to an interview with Google's Sebastian Thrun, I have his endorsement for how to live a good Retirement.  How I wish I could join in his Udacity, but I hope my blogs may offer some germ of his attitude to any who care to follow them.

But no, it was trying to find out when I had first seen drawings and paintings by Egon Schiele that made me read Karl Popper.  It might have been Gombrich, who like Hayek in London was Karl Popper's friend, and whose books I knew, but it wasn't .  Kandel, "Vienna 1900", illustrates more Schiele than I had seen since the show in the old temporary art gallery (once a boiler house, as I recall) at UC Berkeley, but when was that?  I searched every shelf and hanging file in the house until I found my copy of Professor Herschel B. Chipp's article in the catalogue for the show he brought to California; it was in 1963.  Luckily, I hadn't lost that catalogue.  Chipp's article is excellent.  There were several works in that show that belonged to another Popper, named Hans (I have not been able to learn whether he was some sort of cousin to Karl, but I found nothing, so even if he was it wouldn't matter, except that the coincidence had prompted me to find out what I could and download three books onto the Kindle).  Somewhere, too, I must have the large catalogue brought home from a big show that I saw later in Olbrich's famous Sezzession museum, I guess in the early 1980s.

The upshot was that I had to re-read Gombrich's Art and Illusion and read it more thoughtfully.  Kandel put me onto Gombrich's teachers, Ernst Kris, Emanuel Loewy, and Julius von Schlosser, to whom, behold!, Art and Illusion is dedicated.  No wonder Kandel could rely so heavily on Gombrich; theirs (with Helmholtz before them) were the studies that were epochal at the beginning of the 20th century.  Popper comes in because in The Logic of Scientific Discovery he had discussed the epistemology of Gestalt theory.  But right down to 1976, when Popper's Unended Quest was published, and 1972, when Gombrich wrote his Preface to the latest printing of Art and Illusion, brain scans could add nothing much that was new about the living brain.  I was relieved (though I felt silly about careless reading) that Karl Popper had not collected Schiele.  Even his taste in music was conservative (if late he added Chopin to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven I suspect it was because of Gödl).  In Unended Quest, 1976, Kindle loc. 3595-8, he said:
“I personally have only vague visual imaginings; it is usually only with difficulty that I can recall a clear, detailed, and vivid picture before my mind (It is different with music.)  Rather, I think in terms of schemata, of dispositions to follow up a certain “line” of thought, and very often in terms of words, especially when I am about to write down some ideas…”
and all his writings are consistent with this insight.  By this time, he knew that Gombrich did think visually and could understand visual sketches—not just optical illusions!  Even Gombrich, however, who did appreciate Klimt and his disciples, was stymied by Jackson Pollock's work of the 1950s.  Now, Kandel is not really an art historian, though his appreciation is not confined to subject matter (he likes the erotic figure studies but knows intuitively, I think, that the style is essential to conveying the intensity of Schiele's life).  That is why I turned back to Chipp for the extra-Viennese connections.
For me the approximate birth-dates (and so the movements that they were involved in) are important.  I understand Kandel's insistence on focusing on portraits, not that he doesn't include compositions with more than one figure, and whole figures, when he wants to, and I understand both his and Gombrich's judgement of Kokoschka's portraits; that of Herwarth Walden of 1910, in Maurice Raynal's Skira Modern Painting (1950), was one of the loves (in art) of my adolescence, and it still is.  But throughout his long life Kokoschka strove for expression that Schiele could not avoid.  They were nearly the same age, both too young for Jugendstil to have meant to them what it did to Klimt.  Kokoschka still had 30 years to live when Raynal's big picture books were published.

Now,  Gustav Klimt was seven years older than Henri Matisse (and the latter was not a precocious artist); he was two years older than Richard Strauss and twelve years older than Hofmansthal.  He had passed through three phases and was painting wonderful landscapes, both formal and poetic, when the infamous influenza of 1918 took both him in fine middle age, 46, and, a terrible loss, Egon Schiele at only 28.  It is not very fanciful to suppose that had he been vacationing in the Alps (but it was just at the end of World War I) and escaped the flu, he might have lived, as Richard Strauss did, to the middle of the century (1949).  Of course, Kandel does not discuss music, except for Schönberg and his pupils, because of the patent modernity of serialism.  He might have other reservations anyhow about Richard Strauss and, certainly, Hofmansthal.  Very well, but at least a note in passing is called for when the author is so drawn to Klimt's Salome (Oscar Wilde and not premiered in Vienna) but what about Elektra, 1909 (which is Hofmansthal and as Freudian as anything can be), and what about the ballet, Joseph's Legend of 1914, which needs no libretto to spell out its Freudian meaning.  And I do not mean "Freudian" in only the limited sexual sense, either.  What about the explicitly Viennese character of Rosenkavalier, 1911, with its prime Hofmansthal libretto and its exploration of feminine sexual psychology?  No one is asking Kandel to like the libretto of  Die Frau ohne Schatten.  So far as Vienna 1900 is concerned, in the same year as Strauss's Salome, 1905, Lehar's Merry Widow, with its Meilhac French libretto, and two Viennese Jewish librettists for the German, was a smash hit, and it is every bit as naughtily feminine as any Klimt Kiss littered with ovum and spermatozoa signs.  Female sexuality pervades all of these alike.  As for the now famous drawings showing women masturbating (I blush for Kandel's pretty "pleasuring themselves"!), they are indeed interesting, but I cannot agree that what they are doing is new ca. 1900.  Making a point of representing it so explicitly (not that any female artists did so) is indeed novel.  Hokusai shows labia, clitoris, and the opening of the vagina as an object on display.  Klimt and Schiele show the women as real women, presumably prostitutes.  It helps to invoke Schnitzler, as Kandel does.  He, too, is just Klimt's age, and considering the work that I know, via the Max Ophuls film,  La Ronde, it is easy to imagine the women in that play, first published in 1900, talking about this "pleasuring" (and perhaps enjoying using one of those Viennese dialect words for it) among themselves.  In other words, for a decade of so, and war not yet looming, and with some of one's friends talking to Dr. Freud and an elegant obscenity taken for granted, the feminine subject of female masturbation may have been so fashionable that even the arty and cosmopolitan males may have been in on the conversations.  How could they avoid it?
Now, I doubt whether young Egon Schiele thought that female sex, any more than his own, was merely chic.  He belonged to the next generation, that of, say, Alban Berg.

(I think I'll publish this marked "-1" and continue with the bridge between figural content (Kandel's choice of this subject matter) and neuroscience in a day or two; of course, putting Parmenides as a heading is because of copyright and subject matter that some might not like.  But Popper and Einstein did enjoy an element of whimsy in their amicable arguments about uncertainty.)