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Delicate relationship

More and more often scientists are making use of art in their analysis and artists are making use of science to understand their creations

In 1935, the poet Fernando Pessoa summed up the reasons for which art and science have lived in distinctly different worlds for generations and generations. For him, while science describes things as they are, art describes things as we feel them. In the light of the new millennium, nevertheless, the poet would certainly be looking at a new scenario, in which science and art began to have common objectives.

The most evident symptoms of this confluence spring forth in the academia. Works by Picasso and Munch, for example, are being used to better understand headache. Sculptures and paintings of Olden Times can be used as material for the history of illnesses that cause facial paralysis. Works of the Renaissance are being used for studies on human development and to investigations with respect to relationships between the brain and the fine arts. In Italy, the painter Canaletto is a source of information for researchers in identifying the advance of the sea at Venice. On the other hand, comic stories, video-art and theater plays have been created starting with research into chemistry. In Chicago, the Brazilian modeling artist and professor Eduardo Kac created a transgenic white little bunny rabbit as a type of artistic installation.

“There is a willingness between scientists and artists to reach a fusion between art and science. Over the last few centuries, the scientist was very restricted in his area of working. With this, he lost the opportunity of widening his knowledge into other spheres. We were latched on to the dichotomy of the Cartesian vision, which opposed reason to emotion”, suggests Norberto Garcia-Cairasco, professor at the Medical School of the University of São Paulo (USP).

With the support of FAPESP, Garcia-Cairasco directed and developed research into neorosciences at the Experimental Neurophysiology and Neuroethology Laboratory of USP. Being both an artist and a scientist, he has dedicated himself to investigating the relationship of the brain with visual art. And he has found space for his studies. For him, today the world is experimenting a type of neo-renaissance, in which the scientists and artists admit to the contributions that the union of the two camps can offer towards mutual development.

Evidence that this movement is on the increase lies in the creation of the Art Science Research Laboratory, founded by no less than Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor, who died last month. His proposal was that art and science should unite all of their potential for the development of common methodologies, critical thinking, the search for innovation and a historical perspective.The work of Garcia-Cairasco moves in this direction, bringing together a historical perspective with new proposals of research and artistic production “I’m trying to identify how the artists viewed the brain throughout these centuries. This is a mystical and mysterious region”, he comments.

The importance of this approximation can be summed up in two examples of immense value: Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, both geniuses of renaissance art. “Many of the versions, some magnificent, others not always precise, about the brain, nerves and muscles, were consequences of this period of humanity’s history. Great works on anatomy happened during this epoch and subsequent to it”, he observes. “Perhaps Vesalius would not have been so recognized as an anatomist if it had not been for the important contributions of Titian’s studio in his work”, he suggests.

Last year the debate on the theme heated up with the publishing of the book The Secret Knowledge, by the English painter David Hockney. In the work the author suggests that in the 15th century painters used lenses, concave mirrors and cameras to obtain greater realism in their paintings. Detail: they carried this out above all with the utmost secrecy. Amongst the adepts of these techniques are relevant names such as Van Eyck, Caravaggio, Lotto, Vermeer and Ingres.

Hockney’s thesis goes against the view of historians who had pointed to the realism of the Flemish and Renaissance painters to the invention of perspective and to oil painting. The resources described by the English painter, nonetheless, would have created the conditions for the representation with reliability of depth, brightness, shadow and volume. Shortly after the publication of the book, the outcry against it was general. Many critics considered Hockney’s theory a smear on the image of these great masters. However, Hockney’s response emphasized how the art-science partnership can be important. In his view, optical instruments don’t make art. His defense to the accusations is that he is presenting a thesis in which artists discovered instruments before everyone else.

Garcia-Cairasco does get involved in the discussion. However, he believes that the coming together of scientific and artistic tools is fundamental to the development of both fields. For him, the advance in the electrophysiological techniques and of molecular biology, for example, have brought with them the paradox between deeper and more sophisticated knowledge in models of the neural micro universe and of the apparently unfeasible task of placing the pieces correctly in their place. A proposed solution is in the fusion of art and science. “It’s necessary that researchers into contemporary neurosciences highlight, in a crystal clear manner, the need for new artist-scientist associations, with the objective of allowing for a more realistic interpretation of molecular dissections, for an analogy with the dissections of the Renaissance”, he believes.

The contemporary tools for the models, nonetheless, are others, different from those used by the Renaissance painters. It is the computerized, electronic and even virtual apparatus. “The huge project of the National Library of Medicine of the United States, The Visible Human, illustrates the historical fusion of art with contemporary technology”, he suggests. Its logo is the fusion of an anatomical picture of Vesalius with one of structural magnetic resonance.In his studio, Garcia-Cairasco also works with this theme and elements. His proposal is joining the digital design of nature and human and animal behavior, with relevant situations for neurosciences. A synthetic work could be Poeta de Gaveta: Inspiração para Estudos Cerebrais, (A Poet of The Drawer: Inspiration for the Brain Studies). “My work recovers the Renaissance idea of mankind with nature but now with new tools “, he evaluates.

Another aspect of the interaction brain-art also discussed in his laboratory is the relationship between human performance in aesthetical tasks in individuals with brain illnesses. In the investigation, the professor considered two types of universe: the geniuses who show a maniac – depressive state of mind (Tennessee Williams and Erza Pound) and those who suffer from epilepsy (Van Gogh). The team began with studies on model animals with this neurological alteration, which has allowed for them to study analogously the behavior modifications in the epileptic patient.

In the opinion of Garcia-Cairasco, the first and incontestable finding by the researchers in this area is that these mental restrictions do not hinder the artistic performance and creativity of these people. The second point still has a question mark hanging over it. Are these artists geniuses because of the pathologies that inflict them? “We are all interested in knowing how the brain processes the esthetic information and regulates the execution of artistic performances”, he explains.

In the line of historical recovery, the professor of medicine at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) Maria Valeriana Leme Moura Ribeiro is also making use of two renaissance artists to develop her academic work. She has just finished writing the book Neurologia e Desenvolvimento [Neurology and Development], in which she deals with the observational and qualitative methodology of children, according to painting’s great masters. “The interweaving between human development and its alterations, in the physical-physiological aspect as well as social and the works of art depicted during the 17th and 17th centuries passes through observations, analyses and correlations involving concepts and important advances in neuro-psychology”, she stated.

These painters had as an objective the search for a work that would reproduce the image with the greatest possible fidelity, taking into consideration the proportions. “The painters called upon the professionals in other areas, such as mathematicians, to help in the resolution of problems referring to body segments, muscular volume, proportions, perspectives etc.”, she says .In this context, names such as Da Vinci, Gerard David, Michelangelo and Rafael emerge. All of them portrayed the evolutionary development of the child with sharpness and precision. For the professor, the procedure adopted by them is the same as that of the scientific process. “They traced out the objectives and developed methodologies”, she explains.

Beginning with the instances of artistic production, the professor stated that it is possible to identify in pictures important aspects for neuro development, such as the reflexes of newly born babies, the appreciation of the characteristics of the cranium and the face, capture of the characteristics of evolutionary motor control and even observations of psycho-affectionate communication between mother and child. The medical professor at the State Paulista University (Unesp) Luiz Antonio de Lima Resende also looked towards the fine arts for his associate professorship thesis with respect to the Romberg syndrome, which brings on atrophy and the deformation of one side of the face.

In his research Resende identified that, though the illness had only been documented in the 19th century, it must have shown itself much before. His analysis included works of art from the 16th and 17th centuries. According to him, the first painting to register the illness was The Mocking of Christ, by Grunewald in 1503. Resende points out, nevertheless, that it is in the Portrait of Gerard Lairesse, of 1665, painted by Rembrandt Van Rijn, that the syndrome is more evident and expressed with precision. The medical professor at USP José Geraldo Specialli is another scientist was seduced by the fine arts as a source of research. He also went looking towards them for his study on migraine headaches.

In his lectures he presents reproductions of famous art work in which the expression of the personalities characterize their headaches. “There are illnesses that are identified by physical aspects, but the headache is not expressed in this form. Even though, some painters manage to reproduce the discomfort of the migraine headache. The pictures register the imponderable of pain”, he advises.

One of the pictures used by him is The Crying Woman, by Picasso. According to the professor, in the center of the painted woman there is a white mark that zig-zags, the correct sensation for those who suffer from migraines. “Before a crisis, the migraine sufferer has this symptom”, he adds.Just like Specialli, the biochemistry professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) Leopoldo de Meis defends that the union between art and science is an important didactic resource. He realized that children and adolescents look upon the scientist as a lonely man. “These characteristics are very strong and generalized. We cannot discover the reason”, he says.

It was through this concern with this isolation and fame in academic communication that de Meis aimed to take hold of artistic resources to unmask the scientific world. The first initiative took place in a partnership of the professor with the graphic designer Diucênio Rangel. With the support of FAPESP and of the Vitae Foundation, the two of them produced a history in comic-strips entitledO Método Científico [The Scientific Method], which has already had two editions of 8,000 copies each. “I want to teach the science of beautiful and emotional form”. The second step was the creation of a theatrical play, interpreted by researchers, also baptized as the Scientific Method.

The spectacle, presented at various scientific congresses in the country, substitutes the old slides for dramatization done by the scientists themselves. Presently de Meis is involved in a video project called Mitochondria in Three Acts. The work explores cinematographic language as a didactic exposition on mitochondria. “The artists use a scientific fact to express themselves with an artistic language”, summarized the researcher.For him, artistic language is important for introducing into the scientific universe more emotion and creativity.