Book Review: Eric Kandel’s Age of Insight

In his The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, Eric Kandel takes the reader along on a personal quest to his birthplace, Vienna, to a time in its history when it was an intellectual and artistic hub of Austria. Although the book’s focus is on the late nineteenth century and the turn of the century, its trajectory extends to the present day. Kandel also includes an overview of extraordinary advances made in the field of neuroscience, an impossible undertaking for anyone other than this Nobel laureate scientist who has been recognized for his groundbreaking findings in neuropsychiatry and memory.

Kandel begins the book by “curating” an exhibit of the portraits by key Viennese Modernists and guides the reader on a virtual gallery walk of selected drawings and paintings. He does this to demonstrate the way in which painters of that period penetrated the depths of the mind and subjective feelings, ahead of their counterparts in the medical field. The “exhibit” features painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, with Kandel interpreting the expressionistic approach they used to render the psychological qualities of their sitters on the canvas and in the process examine themselves.

The centerpiece of the exhibit and the book’s frontispiece is Klimt’s 1907 dazzling portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer the 25-year-old wife of an Austrian industrialist who embodies the spirit and allure of salon life during this time. These distinguished gatherings brought together in one place the intellectual and artistic geniuses from the fields of art, literature, and medicine. This is the idealized setting for Kandel’s own fascination with the intellectual history of Vienna 1890 to 1918, Austrian modernist art, psychoanalysis, art history and, of course, the brain science that is his life’s work. The reader-viewer is led through an art historical analysis of the selected works that provide signposts of pre-war Vienna, marked by explorations of the seamier underside of daily life that is a precursor of Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking psychoanalytical research and publications and the avant-garde novels by doctor-turned -novelist Arthur Schnitzler. In Part II, the contribution of the Vienna School of Art History.
Link to Klimt’s painting of Adele:

Adele Bloch-Bauer I

by Gustav Klimt

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