Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was a Dutch abstract expressionist painter, one of the best of the 20th century. Starting in the 1940s, de Kooning became well known for painting women figures, which he represented in agitated, dense, and dark tones.
Woman, I (1952)
A shift in artistic style, however, occurred in the 1980s. Suddenly, the busy and aggressive paintings of figures changed to light, carefree, and airy abstract paintings. The dark tones turned into lighter, mainly primary colors.
untitled XXIV (1983)
What caused this drastic change in style?
de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. (Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes memory loss in addition to deficits in language, judgment, reasoning, among other cognitive abilities; Kontos, 2003).
This diagnosis was controversial. Some people did not believe that de Kooning’s shift in aesthetic style was due to his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, their argument being that de Kooning should not even be capable of creating such beautiful art when affected with such a severe cognitive disorder… these people were basically implying that someone else was painting the works under de Kooning’s name. This argument is terribly intriguing, as everyone loves a good conspiracy theory. Others, however, argue that de Kooning is “intrinsically painterly,” and that the body in its purest form is a source of creativity, called bodily knowledge (Kontos, 2003). In other words, intention and the ability to create artwork persist despite cognitive impairment. Although Kontos is somewhat abstract and philosophical in his argument, he may have a point – perhaps de Kooning’s ability to paint beautiful art post-Alzheimer’s is due to sustained procedural memory, an unconscious cognitive memory storage that is responsible for knowing how to perform motor skills. I’ll come back to de Kooning a little later.
de Kooning’s narrative leads nicely into the topic of neuroaesthetics, which is the study of how we process beauty and art – basically understanding how we cognitively process aesthetic experiences and the underlying brain mechanisms (Chatterjee, 2014). Brain damage in artists offers a lot of information to the field of neuroaesthetics, as it pinpoints which parts of the brain are responsible for artistic ability – researchers can compare deficits, improvements, and/ or modifications in creativity due to damage in particular areas of the brain. de Kooning was not the only artist whose aesthetics changed due to some type of brain damage – Katherine Sherwood, a 44-year old artist, was paralyzed on the right side of her body as a result of a hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. Before her stroke, Sherwood painted angsty, strange, and cryptic artwork. Besides the fact that after her stroke Sherwood learned how to paint in her wheelchair with the canvas on the floor, her entire style of painting changed to a raw, vibrant, and very abstract manner, which is reminiscent to that of de Kooning’s artistic transformation (Sohn, 2011). Sherwood’s new artwork gained critical acclaim after her stroke. Other artists, like Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) and Zlatyu Boyadzhiev (1903-1976), also experienced strokes that completely changed their paintings, but nevertheless produced artwork just as beautiful as before…
Salome, II (1900) – Corinth before stroke
Self-Portrait (1924) – Corinth after stroke
Shepherds in Brezovo – Boyadzhiev before stroke
Boyadzhiev after stroke
How can the artists continue painting despite major brain damage? And why does the artistic style change? Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at University of Pennsylvania, theorizes that artistic ability is part of a complex cognitive system that has a set equilibrium, and when this equilibrium is disrupted, the entire system readjusts and shifts to a different equilibrium. This results in different artwork, but the intention, creativity, and beauty still exists (Chatterjee, 2014). So for de Kooning, Chatterjee speculates that degeneration of particular areas of the brain due to Alzheimer’s freed up different neural circuits (previously used differently or not used) that caused the artwork to become more abstract (Sohn, 2011).
This complex system involves the coordination of many different brain regions that are not specific to artists, but also to viewers of art. Unsurprisingly, viewing artwork that contains faces activates the fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain that responds to faces. What is interesting is that the more aesthetically pleasing and beautiful we find the artwork, the more the fusiform gyrus is activated. Not only is the fusiform gyrus activated, but the ventral striatum – the brain region that codes for pleasure and links to the autonomic nervous system – is active as well. Additionally, parts of the brain that engage emotions, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, activate when viewing emotionally-moving art. Lastly, we even have empathetic responses to art – mirror neurons, which are responsible for motor functioning, activate when viewers infer the intent of gestures and movements in artwork (Chatterjee, 2014).
Although it is difficult (at the moment) to pinpoint the exact neural circuits that code for beauty because it is so intertwined into different webs throughout our brain, we can rightfully believe that even when parts of the brain are permanently damaged, its plasticity allow us to make beautiful art and view art as beautiful.
Boyadzhiev, Z. Shepherds in Brezovo [Painting]. Retrieved from http://alchetron.com/Zlatyu-Boyadzhiev-1331763-W
Boyadzhiev, Z. Unknown title [Painting]. Retrieved from http://alchetron.com/Zlatyu-Boyadzhiev-1331763-W
Chatterjee, A. (2014, May 1). Neuroaesthetics: Researchers unravel the biology of beauty and art. The Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39802/title/Neuroaesthetics/
Corinth, L. (1900). Salome, II [Painting]. Retrieved from http://artcontrarian.blogspot.com/2010/06/lovis-corinth-before-and-after.html
Corinth, L. (1924). Self-Portrait [Painting]. Retrieved from http://artcontrarian.blogspot.com/2010/06/lovis-corinth-before-and-after.html
de Kooning, W. (1952). Woman, I [Painting]. Retrieved from https://moma.org/learn/moma_learning/willem-de-kooning-woman-i-1950-52-2
de Kooning, W. (1983). untitled XXIV [Painting]. Retrieved from http://ahlam-cultural-studies.blogspot.com/
Kirsh, A. (2009, October 30). At the national gallery of art: Selections from the Meyerhoff collection and ‘arts of privacy’. Artblog. Retrieved from http://www.theartblog.org/2009/10/at-the-national-gallery-of-art-selections-from-the-meyerhoff-collection-and-arts-of-privacy/
Kontos, P. C. (2003). “The painterly hand”: Embodied consciousness and Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Aging Studies, 17: 151-170. doi: 10.1016/S0890-4065(03)00006-9
Sohn, E. (2011, May 20). After brain damage, the creative juices flow for some. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/20/health/la-he-diseases-art-20110516/2