Exhibit of the week
The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Cajal’s Calyces of Held, from 1934
Grey Art Gallery, New York University, through March 31
The drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal may well put you in awe of the beauty of your own brain, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Cajal, a 19th-century Spanish pathologist who is considered the father of modern neuroscience, produced thousands of anatomical drawings during his long career, and the dozens currently on display at the Grey Art Gallery constitute “one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.” Working with a microscope that could reveal only so much, Cajal applied his formidable artistic talent to sharing his discoveries, and together his drawings present the brain as “a fantastic netherworld of floating forms, bristling nodes, and torrential energies.” His mastery of line alone “would be the envy of any modern artist.” But the great power of his work lies in how the brain’s forms recall marine life, trees, and other natural systems, suggesting their universal kinship.
Cajal (1852–1934) was a born explorer, said Gavin Francis in NYBooks.com. As a boy, he wanted to be an artist, and he collected and drew every natural specimen he could find. But his father, a rural physician, expected him to become a doctor, and Cajal found in anatomical drawing a path into the profession. He was 35 when he learned how to stain individual neurons in a slice of tissue, and he was hooked. In the brain and sensory systems he’d found a gorgeous hidden universe for which he could supply the illustrated field guide. Soon he was arranging brain cells on the page “in constellations as beautiful and wondrous as anything brought to us by astronomers.”
Grasping what’s depicted in such drawings can be challenging, said Alicia Eler in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “But who needs to understand something to enjoy its beauty?” In Cajal’s renderings, neurons in the digestive system evoke “dripping blips on the outside of a windshield,” and stellate neurons recall “delicate pieces of thyme.” It’s no surprise to learn that Salvador Dalí and other modernist masters were influenced by Cajal, or that the drawings included in the show and an accompanying book have proved so accurate that they still appear in medical texts. The worlds of art and science don’t often intersect in such inspiring ways, but Cajal’s work shows they’re “far more intertwined than meets the eye.” ■