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Posts Tagged ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’

One of the themes in these past few posts has been the challenge to look critically at much admired paintings by much admired artists.

Giovanni Bellini is one of the celebrated Venetian painters of the 16th century. At first glance, his Madonna of the Trees seems harmonious, pleasing and perfect.

But look again.  First, the woman has no right shoulder. Her right arm would have to be attached to that (missing) shoulder.  Therefore, quite a bit of anatomy would have to be visible behind the baby.  Second, the drapery over the right forearm abruptly stops behind the baby’s ankles. You would expect it to circle around, but no, it mysteriously breaks off behind the baby’s crossed ankles. This abruptness would be more obvious if the legs were separated, so he makes this plump newborn stand up straight and cross his ankles. If you consent to the missing shoulder, why not also accept absurd drapery and a posturing newborn!

As I’m writing this, I keep looking at the reproduction of this painting in a book.  Even after my analysis and my full realization of Bellini’s trickery, I find this painting totally appealing.

Once that happens, I have to figure out why that happens, of course.  The appeal of this painting, I think, comes from the rational organization of the composition. It’s as if your brain said, how can something so carefully laid out not make sense?  As for the interrupted drapery around the arm, notice how the curve of that cloth is echoed in the left elbow’s drapery, forming a perfect ellipse.  There you are, your brain says, I rest my case.

For more on how your brain accepts trickery like this, including optical illusions, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  Readable, relevant, highly recommended.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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