I recently read an article on ArtInfo about a medical student in Japan, Kazunori Asada, who wrote an essay claiming to have proven that the artist Van Gogh was colorblind. The article– entitled “Japanese Scientist says Vincent van Gogh Was Colorblind– But Does it Matter?”– discusses how Asada was inspired by an experience at the Color Vision Experience Room at Hokkaido, which is “an immersive simulator that makes it possible to perceive color the way people with different types of colorblindness might experience it.” Asada ran several images of Van Gogh paintings through a color simulator, and you can see one of the results on the right. The gorgeous reds are eliminated and the painting overall looks to be more of a cool yellow.
The author of the article, Kyle Chayka, brings up several really excellent issues/points: 1) The images Asada used were digital images, therefore subject to the color variance of the individual computer screen (i.e. his computer could have been picking up more red than another computer would), or that of the scanner which scanned these reproductions picked up more red, or that of the images themselves, which may have been printed with a higher content of magenta in the ink; 2) Asada’s judgment that the “corrected” color simulations demonstrate more “‘brilliance with very delicate shades and lines'” (as opposed to an “‘incongruity of color and roughness of line'”) is extraordinarily subjective; and 3) the question of how one judges creativity. I found the following passage to be particularly moving:
How can we argue that van Gogh’s paintings look better through a filter? To assume that the painter’s provocative artistic choices were simply the result of a medical condition is to completely disregard his own creativity. Van Gogh’s colors are meant to clash; the unorthodox pairings were part of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist aesthetic. Or were Paul Gauguin and André Derain also colorblind?
The article concludes with the question of whether genius-artists are innovative because of their biology or because they are creative pioneers, and he ultimately leans towards the latter. While I too prefer this sentiment– I personally think that the claim that Van Gogh was colorblind is absolutely ridiculous and unsubstantiated (if he was colorblind, he would have exhibited a similar color palette in his entire oeuvre, but his earlier works utilized more subdued earth tones)– a part of me wants to play devil’s advocate. What if he was colorblind? Beyond saying that “it doesn’t matter,” what can deficiencies in vision show us about our own perceptions of the world? Continue reading