A fascinating book, written and published by Australian ophthalmologist Dr Henry R Lew, explores the way in which the human visual system interprets art, and how some artists have intuitively painted accordingly.
In Imaging the World, Dr Lew, a passionate art collector with a self-confessed “obsessive nature”, describes the painterly approach of artists that include Veal, Hals, Munnings, Manet, as well as Claude Monet and our own Ben Quilty, among others. In doing so, he demonstrates the way artists from impressionist, expressionist and contemporary movements, have intuitively painted in a style that anticipates the theory of neurophsyiological engineering of human vision expounded by Hubel and Wiesel during the 1960s.
Dr Lew explains that human vision is, to a considerable extent, “a conjectural, contrived and creative illusion”. In other words, our retinas discern lines in our visual field and, depending on the length, width, orientation, colour, tone and position of those lines, our retinas send “numerous and varied impulses” to our brain. By drawing on past learned experiences, our brain is able to fill the spaces and make sense of what we’re seeing.
Relating this back to art, Dr Lew says the artists he describes in the book had the intuitive ability to create realistic scenes by using undisguised brushstrokes as opposed to drawing. By putting the right lines of the right lengths and widths and orientations – in the right colours and right tones, in the right places – on a flat surface such as a canvas or a panel – they could produce an image that we can immediately recognise.
To demonstrate this, one of the paintings that Dr Lew uses as an example is London in the Rain by Veal. When held vertically (as intended by the artist) the painting clearly represents two figures walking along a street in the rain towards the viewer. When held horizontally, the painting merely looks like a series of lines, colour and tone that make no sense.
Dr Lew argues that so-called art connoisseurs without an understanding of the neurophsyiological engineering of human vision, have misattributed many works by significant artists throughout history. He describes, with a mixture of humour and frustration, several under-valued works he has purchased, and in some cases sold, which he believes have incorrectly been catalogued as being ‘in the style’ of a particular artist, rather than being by the artist him/herself. He also reflects on several paintings explored by the BBC television series Fake or Fortune, the authenticity of which have been rejected by connoisseurs, despite considerable evidence.
Dr Lew’s book includes numerous beautifully reproduced plates to demonstrate his succinctly articulated argument. While he goes into some detail about the neurophsyiological engineering of human vision, describing the role of central vision including cones and rods, peripheral viewing, and stereoscopic viewing, this book is not an academic tome. By interspersing descriptors of our visual anatomy with examples of artworks that support his argument and anecdotes of his own experiences collecting and selling art, he entertains, educates, and inspires us to look at art with fresh eyes… and perhaps even start collecting.
Dr Henry R Lew’s book, a signed and numbered limited edition, can be purchased from www.henryrlew.com.au… it’s an ideal Christmas present!