Eyes for art: Bad vision makes for masterpieces

Q: If you were a famous painter and developed eye trouble, would that doom your art?E. L. Greco

 A: Not necessarily, says physicist Sidney Perkowitz in Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art. Paul Cezanne, Monet, and other artists saw a world interpreted through imperfect vision. Degas was afflicted by age 36 with a right eye so bad he couldn't see a rifle target. He also suffered from photophobia– extreme sensitivity to bright light– plus blurring and a blind spot. A number of Degas' American scenes from a trip to New Orleans are set in interior lighting, which was about all he could tolerate then, but are in turn "enriched by the inclusion of external light or outdoor views."

His nearsightedness may even have served him, as photos show he rarely wore his glasses, possibly out of desire to tame hard-edged reality and see a "softer world" (author Richard Kendall). Cezanne also rejected eyeglasses. "The link between poor vision and valid art persists," says Perkowitz. There is evidence some contemporary painters can't see stereoscopically (3-D), making the world seem flatter and easier to commit to two-dimensional paper!

Perkowitz comments that as for his own idiosyncratic vision, "Magic happens if I let my myopia emerge at night. Every street lamp, every neon sign and automobile headlamp is surrounded by a lovely halo. The less well I see, the more the world seems filled with light."

The un-bespectacled spectacle.


Q: For fans of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, based on notorious Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein, there's this reality-check: Could Norman Bates' mother truly have mummified naturally as depicted in the movie? ­B. Karlof
A: Absolutely; it's happened numerous times to bodies kept in homes in very low humidity and protected from insects and other carnivore activity, says Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., in Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? (galenpress.com). Forensic pathologists encounter natural mummies that have been kept in warm dry places, such as the corpses of infants in drawers, cupboards, or boxes near fireplaces or heaters.

Essentially, a mummy is a corpse preserved (poorly) through complete dehydration, its skin, muscles, and bones (especially ribs) becoming so dry that any disturbance may cause disintegration to dust. Or the skin may become hardened to the point where a scalpel will barely cut it.

Many mummification processes, natural or deliberate, have marked history. The ancient Egyptians had an elaborate version, and, before the pharaohs, burial in hot dry sand. Corpses have been mummified via smoke-drying and shrinkage, icing, sun-drying, smoke-curing, or salt-packing.

It is claimed that contemporary man can be mummified using modern methods– and kept in much better condition than Egyptian mummies, says Iserson. Freeze-drying bodies is one such approach, plasticination is another. But these are not cryonics, with its dreamed-of freeze-and-thaw resurrection after a cure is found. In all these approaches, "the person is dead and will remain dead."


Q: When you hear a sonic boom, does this mean the plane just "broke the sound barrier"? ­C. Yeager
A: It may have exceeded the speed of sound hours ago. As a craft approaches Mach 1, sound waves racing out ahead can't get away fast enough so they "pile up" at the nose and trail off in the shape of a huge, high-pressure rearward cone. When this shock wave extends down far enough, groundlings hear it as a boom, but this may be long after the crossover point, like the wake of a ship touching shore.

When World War II aircraft neared Mach 1 during dives, they encountered buffeting and instability that led people to believe a "sound barrier" stood in the way of supersonic flight, says physicist Louis A. Bloomfield in How Things Work. This was dispelled in October 1947 when Capt. Charles Yeager, flying with broken ribs from a horse-riding accident, took his XS-1 rocket plane to Mach 1.06 on a flight so uneventful he could only tell he had "slipped through" with the aid of instruments.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at their email address.