Dr. Joe Schwarcz speaks about ART & HEALTH


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Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society kept us engaged in a very spirited and entertaining session on Tuesday, November 26th at the McCord providing magic tricks (in the style of Houdini !) to boot.

Some of the tidbits I learned:  that when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, the shape of God as it appears turns out to be the shape of the human brain.

: that the Pieta has Christ with bulging veins which does not happen when a person is dead, reaching the conclusion that Michelangelo was in fact projecting the resurrection.

: that Da Vinci’s Last Supper is questionable because of the condition in which it was found and later restored, leading us to wonder how accurate the restorations actually are.

: El Greco.  It was surmised that his elongated faces and animals were due to his having severe astigmatism.  In fact, this was not the case.  Sketches and drawings show that his faces were realistic and that he deliberately extended them upwards, symbolizing the union between man and heaven !

: Goya’s Reclining Maya and Reclining Nude were the same woman, his wife, but the clothed figure was for public display while the nude stayed safely in the confines of his bedroom.  As Goya aged, it seemed that the use of lead carbonate in the white he used was so toxic that it affected his later paintings, which took on a troubled stance.

: Van Gogh was a smoker, drinker, womanizer.  His early paintings were sombre (The Potato Eaters) but strangely when he moved to France, the colors lightened and changed to yellows.   We have learned that this was due to his intake of digitalis, an extract of the foxglove flower, which can cause serious side-effects, one of them being seeing yellow haloes.  Van Gogh sold only one sunflower painting in his lifetime leaving the conclusion “that if you are an artist, it pays to die”.  A recent sunflower painting sold for 95 million dollars.   Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin also ingested the green beverage absinthe,  obtained from the  wormwood tree, which they would enjoy with the sugar ritual.  It also contains thujone which causes hallucinations.   One of their quotes was “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder ……”

: Edvard Munsch was apparently cured of mental illness and his paintings changed greatly in style as he got older.

: De Kooning too changed his style towards the end of his life  He had Alzeimers disease but continued to paint until he died.

Dr. Schwarz stressed that there is inherent toxicity in the art world and that reasonable precautions must be taken.   Seems that the colors that are the prettiest are the ones that are the most dangerous,  lead white,  cobalt and cadmium.  Care must be especially taken with solvent vapours.

He concluded with a story about Houdini’s last lecture given at the McCord while it was still the McGill Student’s Union and he served up some magical tricks with ropes, a deck of giant cards and some colored CDs.

All in all, a very enjoyable afternoon.

- Cheryl Braganza