European Art: A Neuroarthistory

European Art: A Neuroarthistory
John Onians

Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2016
320 pp., illus. 170 b&w and 100 col. Trade, $75.00
ISBN: 9780300212792.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
May 2020

This book is a tour de force on a number of levels. The two main ones: it is a pioneering work suggesting a new approach to studying art history; secondly, the depth of research and scholarship is simply staggering.

Far from being a dry, rather tedious slog, as some art histories can be, Onians brings many of the artists he discusses to life, creating exciting, almost psychological biographical profiles.

The book is beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated with both b&w and colour illustrations. It runs to 320 pages and it’s heavy, weighing in at almost two kilos!

There is a very informative Introduction which details the latest brain/neuroscience findings; these underpin the new neuoroarthistory approach championed by Onians. John Onians is Professor Emeritus at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. He also set up the research programmes at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA, has taught art history for many years and authored numerous books concerning art history.

This book is divided into nine parts, starting with Prehistory going through to the twentieth century, there are 21 chapters followed by Notes, Bibliography and Index. Each part discusses in detail the period concerned, the parts are as follows: Part 1 – Prehistory: 30,000-4,000 BC; Part 2 – Ancient Greece: 800-100 BC; Part 3 – Rome:100 BC-AD 300; Part – 4 Europe: 300-1200; Part 5 – Western Europe: 1200-1600; Part 6 - Early Modern Europe; 1500-1700; Part 7 – The Eighteenth Century; Part 8 – The Nineteenth Century;  Part 9 – The Twentieth Century.

In constructing the profiles of artists, as mentioned above, Onians looks into many aspects of their life such as upbringing, formative circumstances, and the prevailing social and cultural milieu. One example is his research into the lives of Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci as “Natural” (illegitimate) children (pp. 240 – 250). These children were excluded from many of society’s privileges, such as inheritance rights. Onians claims this made these two far more “opportunity conscious;” consequently, they were much more mobile and mentally flexible in their educations. Patronage and automatic acceptance of their work was not at all guaranteed, so they developed neural abilities that their legitimate contemporaries did not. Put another way, those with everything given to them and made easy tend not to fuel a “fire in the belly” approach.

A second example of how early years imprint neuronally upon ‘soon to be artists’ is the final Chapter  21, Caris and Sculpture. I have reviewed a number of books for Leonardo concerning Caris’ sculpture. In addition, I personally correspond with him, so have a good idea of what drives him and has shaped his Pentagon obsessed art. I think it was a brilliant idea to include him in this study. Ancient history is ‘perhaps’  part guesswork, but Caris is a contemporary living artist and, so, could be interviewed and “analysed,” so to speak. His inclusion in this book really supports Onian’s argument for the effectiveness of the new neuroarthistory approach as a valid research methodology. Caris’ early exposure to the ceramic Sphinx porcelain factories in his home town Maastrict is quite uncanny when seen alongside his Pentagonism drawings and sculpture––that is, the perfect row-after-row of white urinals and bidets in the factory has influenced Caris’ neuronal perception, and consequently his artistic visions.

David Smith, an American sculptor not mentioned in Onian’s study, was also deeply subliminally influenced by the Mason jars and their wooden drying poles he observed all around him as a child. These are just a few brief examples of the way this neuroarthistory process works. The book is so extensive that it needs to be read thoroughly to reveal more of these fascinating correlations.

European Art: A Neuroarthistory is essential reading for scholars and students studying art history, and I suggest a fascinating read for the lay person interested generally in the history of art.