by John Onians. Yale University Press, October 2016. 320 p. ill. ISBN 9780300212792 (cl.), $75.00.
Reviewed March 2017
European Art: A Neuroarthistory is a survey of European art, from the prehistoric wall paintings in the Chauvet Cave to the modern designs of Le Corbusier and Gerard Caris. In it, renowned art historian John Onians, emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia and founding editor of the journal Art History, takes a neuroscientific approach to European art history, a concept that he introduced in his 2007 book Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. In this new publication, Onians applies neuroscience to carefully selected case studies in order to reinterpret the creation of Europe’s most beloved paintings, sculptures, and monuments.
Onians argues that neuroscience explains the development of certain designs and architectural forms by identifying artists’ unconscious visual responses to their environments. For example, he suggests that the regimented form of the phalanx and the mountainous terrain of the Greek mainland inspired the angular, systematic design of ancient Greece’s Doric temples. In contrast, the circular lakes and volcanic craters of the Roman countryside directly influenced the more rounded forms of Roman architecture. According to Onians, the visual cues that Greeks and Romans experienced every day unconsciously influenced the forms of their architectural designs.
The major flaw in this argument is that neuroscience cannot actually prove these connections. Onians himself writes that this comparison establishes merely “a general connection” between the geology and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. The application of neuroarthistory to Greek and Roman architecture offers enticing comparisons, but since we cannot actually study ancient Greek and Roman brains, there is no real neurological evidence to support (or, admittedly, to disprove) Onians’s theories. These examples, and others throughout the book, are appealing but ultimately not convincing.
The publication itself is handsome and well organized. It presents Onians’s arguments in chronological parts, and each part is divided into chapters with headings and sub-headings. The high-quality illustrations are in color or black-and-white and include descriptive captions. The end matter contains notes for each chapter, bibliographies, and an index. The prose focuses on neuroarthistory, so a prior knowledge of European art is essential to comprehend fully the sophisticated arguments.
Despite its experimental approach and methodological imperfections, European Art: A Neuroarthistory remains a pioneering work by a distinguished art historian and is an important addition to libraries that house collections on the discipline of art history. It is recommended for academic libraries that support graduate-level art history programs.