Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki

Julian Bell writes:

John Onians, who originally studied under Gombrich, says he felt academically ‘lonely’ and ‘insecure’ when, in the early 1990s, he began attempting to tie art history to biology. His Neuroarthistory proclaims that nowadays he has come to realise he is in very good company indeed: for the line of theorists who have explored how eyes, brains and artworks might relate stretches back to Aristotle, taking in Leonardo, Kant and Freud. The book is a chronological survey of 25 such thinkers. Or in fact more than that, a neurological survey: Onians, a would-be physician to the physicians, sets out to examine the brain workings of these brain-explorers. As an intellectual historian he is brisk, incisive and highly inquisitive; besides the canonical figures, we get introduced to the seldom aired ideas of Apollonius of Tyana (first century ce) and of Adolf Göller (1846-1902). Onians is also, for better or worse, irrepressibly inventive, knocking up homespun explanations at every turn.

(LRB 8 October 2009)