Beautiful Brains from a Beautiful Mind

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1856-1934), widely considered the father of modern neuroscience, wanted to be an artist. An avid painter during his youth, his father instead encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine. Cajal’s artistic skill, however, was instrumental to his scientific success. An exhibition of his drawings of the brain is currently on display at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

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Cajal’s sketch of Perkinje neurons (cells in the cerebellum). Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.

Curated by an art historian and a group of neuroscientists at the university, “The Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” showcases eighty of Cajal’s drawings that are both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically significant. These drawings were far superior to photographs for representing the brain’s structure because Cajal was able to highlight aspects that were important for research. For example, many of the drawings use shading and tone to bring individual neurons (brain cells) to the fore, letting other neurons and structures fade into the background. Such a move was important in part because Cajal’s theory of the brain differed from many of his contemporaries. He hypothesized that the brain, instead of being made up of a continuous web, was formed by neurons that were separable individual entities.

The collection highlights the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and aesthetics in scientific representation. Cajal makes formal choices (like coloring, line thickness, highlighting, and shading) to construct representations that are valuable scientifically as well as aesthetically. The exhibit nicely contextualizes this relationship by juxtaposing Cajal’s drawings with both older anatomical representations of the brain by Guilio Cesare Casseri and Andreas Vesalius (ca. 16th century) as well as cutting-edge representations produced by modern neuroscientists. In the room adjacent to that containing Cajal’s drawings, visitors can see images of the brain produced by diffusion tensor imaging, MRIs, confocal micrography, and scanning electron micrography.

While we might assume the rainbow colors of the large modern images to overshadow Cajal’s humble pen-and-ink drawings, most of which measure no more that 6 by 6 inches, one is instead struck by the minute detail of his sketches. The Weisman helpfully provides visitors with small magnifying glasses to fully appreciate the painstakingly small lines and dots that distinguish one cellular structure from another. Each drawing is also meticulously labeled, as many served as diagrams in Cajal’s published works, making it easy even for non-scientists to identify important aspects of each.

In Advice for a Young Investigator (1916), Cajal writes, “The act of representing something disciplines and strengthens attention. It forces us to examine the entire phenomenon, thus preventing the details that commonly go unnoticed in ordinary observation from escaping our attention.” Cajal’s works exemplify this tight link between representational practice, observational skill, and human knowledge, and are therefore worth our close attention.

The Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” will be on display at the Weisman Art Museum until May 21st.

Upcoming events around the exhibit include a lecture on Alzheimer’s disease by Dr. Karen Ashe (Grossman Center, UMN), a lecture on “The Life and Times of Cajal” by Dr. Larry Swanson (Neurobiology, USC), and an artistic presentation on neuroscience led by Dr. John Hallberg (Family Medicine, UMN).

–Katelin Krieg

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Spring Schedule

Welcome back from winter break! We have a lot of exciting things happening this semester, so be sure to mark your calendars:

  • 1/27: Informal abstract workshop, 4pm

  • 2/24: Workshop, 4pm

  • 3/24: Guest lecture by Dr. Alan Bewell & Romanticism mini-conference

  • 3/29: Guest lecture by Dr. Helen Deutsch, “Professing Literature: Swift, Said, and Secular Criticism”

  • 4/21: Workshop, 4pm

Our first meeting will be next Friday, 1/27, and is an informal abstract workshop among graduate students. If you would like to have your abstract workshopped, please send us an email by Monday, 1/23 at 5pm.

Additionally, if you are interested in presenting your work to the subfield at one of our more formal workshops, please email us at nineteen@umn.edu.

Jane Austen Reading Room at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

In honor of Emma’s 200th anniversary, the Minneapolis Institute of Art is sponsoring an Austen exhibition in two of its beautifully restored period rooms. The installation is part of the museum’s “Living Rooms” series, which seeks to immerse visitors in historically specific settings.

The Queen Anne chamber temporarily houses the “Jane Austen Reading Room” section of the exhibition. The rich 18th century wood paneling, purchased from Charles Robeson in 1932, transforms this space into a late Baroque architectural style (MIA website). The Reading Room has a dual purpose. It brings a tiny nook off the Chawton House’s dining room to life (where Austen used to read books from her brother’s library), and it allows current visitors to experience this cozy atmosphere of reading and reflection. Visitors are encouraged to sit in the two yellow armchairs (complete with “sit” and “stay” pillows) in front of a simulated fire crackling in the fireplace. To enhance the experience, a small table and two bookshelves are filled with modern copies of Austen’s letters, works, and spin-offs that she inspired (like Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies). If you peer into the room at any point in the afternoon, you will likely find Austen enthusiasts sitting in the chairs and curiously leafing through the various editions.

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The second section, within the Georgian drawing room, imaginatively captures the world of Emma. The organizers have arranged the space in order to create the sense that its characters have just left the room. A word game haphazardly spills across a corner table, a half-finished watercolor painting leans against an easel, and a writing instrument rests on several letters. The exhibit uses these details to envision that “Emma’s father has just left his shawl behind, players have paused their word game, and Emma has been distracted from her projects of reading, writing, and painting” (MIA exhibit sign).  This in media res sensation grants immediacy to the collection of artifacts and replicas.

Even with seemingly small details, the curators used creativity and historical research to animate the design. For instance, the exhibitors wanted to show Emma’s penchant for painting. The lack of a real counterpart, however, posed an immediate dilemma. Bill Skodje, the museum’s senior art preparator, researched period- specific paper types and color combinations in order to create an original work of art (MIA website). He relied on landscape details from an existing portrait by Austen’s sister, Cassandra. Around the room’s perimeter, there are also transcripts of Austen’s letters, a reproduction of Austen’s travel desk, and first edition copies of the three-volume set of Emma. Like the Reading Room, the drawing room seeks to unite its visitors’ imaginations with historical recreation and personal experience.

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The Jane Austen Exhibition will be on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until June 26th.

-Melissa Merte

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Half in Agony, Half in Hope

Are you not sure that you understood the subtext of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Are you bored while waiting for Game of Thrones to return? Have you always thought Austen’s work would be greatly improved by more explosions? Well, my friends, Hollywood has finally made a movie just for you.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a film most prominently starring Lily James’ heaving bosom, is actually quite fun, though decidedly not well made.

The film, based on Seth Grahame-Green’s 2009 novel-zombie mash-up of the same title, has a promising enough start, and seems to fully embrace its gimmicky premise.  After a comic book-esque introduction to the movie’s backstory, in which we learn about the spread of zombies throughout England, we are quickly introduced to the movie’s principle players. Mr. Darcy, now an amalgamation of both Austen’s original Mr. Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, travels around the countryside, quashing recent zombie outbreaks, carrying with him a vial of zombie-detecting carrion flies. Meanwhile, the Bennet sisters are sitting comfortably at home, polishing their weapons and twittering about Netherfield Hall. The early tension between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is used to neatly explain the conditions of this new world, one in which Mr. Bennet (played by Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance) is more interested in his daughters’ immediate survival against the undead horde than he is in making sure their long-term marital futures are secured.

From there, the movie progresses rapidly, faithfully attempting to follow Austen’s basic plot. Darcy is haughty and offensive, while our beloved Lizzy is headstrong and sharp-witted. Mr. Bingley, this time played as a dim-witted doofus, is immediately smitten with Jane. Caroline Bingley is awful, and Lydia is eye-roll inducing. Class prejudices are still overtly present, but in this world, they are creatively manifested by what country one studied the arts of zombie-slaying in: highly fashionable Japan or less fashionable but more useful China. The first half of the movie leans into its campiness and delivers some excellent one-liners. A personal favorite: Lizzy slams Mr. Darcy (and company) for not having read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the original Chinese. Oooo, BURN!

Much of the film’s comedy derives from rendering Austen’s nuanced and satiric subtext overtly explicit. Darcy rolls his eyes at Mrs. Bennet right along with us, and well-placed looks of exasperation tell us exactly how to interpret what we see on screen. The high point by far is Matt Smith’s rendition of Mr. Collins, and, quite frankly, Smith steals the show. From his thwarted proposals to the elder Bennet sisters, and his completely oblivious social awkwardness at Lady Catherine’s, he is both riotously funny and remarkably faithful to the slimy Mr. Collins Austen created.

The movie really goes sideways, however, with the entrance of Mr. Wickham, and it is with his story that all pretense of following the source material gets abandoned. We discover that not only is Wickham a manipulative liar, but he also is an advocate for zombie rights. Yes, you read that correctly – much of Wickham’s role is convincing Lizzy, Lady Catherine (played by the always wonderful Lena Heady), and by extension the British government, that, as long as zombies only eat pig brains, they remain rational human beings and therefore should not be killed. Quite the twist.

This narrative move is odd because it is supposed to form the foundation behind Wickham’s evil machinations. He, however, plays the part too well. The film had already presented us with a very convincingly haughty and unlikeable Darcy, and had already shown us Wickham’s skewed perspective on his dispute with the Darcy family. Consequently, like when reading Austen’s novel, we, as objective spectators, already understood and knew why Lizzy initially found Wickham so easy to side with. Then, when Wickham reveals his true nature, instead of unmasking himself as the manipulative, base character Austen fans love to hate, his continued fight for zombie rights renders him too sympathetic.

The film devolves further from there and the second half of the film stumbles grievously as it tries, at the last minute, to convince its viewers that Mr. Darcy really is likeable and sends him off to rescue the now kidnapped Lydia. One awkward bridge explosion and an inexplicable proclamation of Disney-style true love later, Elizabeth and Darcy become engaged. A particular low point in the film’s drive to make us like Darcy comes from an attempt to pander to the Colin Firth fans in the room with an awkward, too quick jump in a pond by Sam Riley’s otherwise well-played Mr. Darcy. Justin Kurzel’s recent Macbeth film production paid better homage to this fan-favorite, and I suspect that when he told Michael Fassbender to put on some white linen and stand in a cold, Scottish pond he didn’t even know that he was evoking much-loved remembrances of Firth’s Mr. Darcy.

Though promising, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies loses its early footing and fails to right itself, thereby becoming more and more off balance as the minutes ticked by. Ultimately the film aligns itself with that uncomfortable type of comedy where the actors are no longer in on the joke.  This problem, combined with the strange, voyeuristic, and entirely too long camera shots of Lily James’ hyperventilation and Regency-era necklines, made for a film that frustratingly could and should have been better.

– Hannah Jorgenson

Review of An Octoroon at Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre is making an exceptionally strong statement by presenting Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon as the inaugural production in their newly renovated space. This play epitomizes the company’s commitment to socially engaged and artistically bold new work. An Octoroon begins by establishing itself as a piece with multiple creative layers. The play takes its title as well as a large portion of its plot from The Octoroon (1859): a melodrama written by Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault. Boucicault’s original focuses on a romance between a white man, George, who has just returned from France to run his uncle’s Louisiana plantation, and his uncle’s illegitimate, mixed-race daughter, Zoe. Jacobs-Jenkins’s adaptation maintains this plot but decentralizes it in favor of exploring a multitude of characters. This choice has the effect of both projecting a much broader story about the historical construction of racist ideology in America and giving more attention to a trio of slave women (played by Jasmine Hughes, Chaz Hodges, and Jamila Anderson).

An Octoroon begins with a fictionalized version of Jacobs-Jenkins (called, according to the program, BJJ and played by William Hodgson) explaining his feelings of alienation, his encounters with racism in the theatrical community, and his interest in the plays of Dion Boucicault. Boucicault (played by Jon Hegge) then joins BJJ onstage. After each writer has changed the color of his skin using makeup (in order to portray, respectively, a white man and a Native American), the scene changes from a contemporary meta-theatrical space into the nineteenth-century plantation of Boucicault’s original text. Using live piano music, an overwrought style of acting, and antiquated language, this portion of the play remains largely faithful to melodramatic conventions. The employment of whiteface, redface, and blackface (by Ricardo Vazquez, who plays Boucicault’s assistant in the opening section) also harkens back to nineteenth-century theatrical traditions. By contrast, the trio of female slaves uses African-American Vernacular English. This choice, in addition to providing a humorous juxtaposition to the other characters’ dialogue, powerfully reflects the difficulty for both historians and playwrights of faithfully representing the speech of slaves denied the ability to leave records of themselves.

Late in the second act, the division between the two frameworks established at the beginning of the play (the meta-theatrical world and that of the plantation story) breaks down. BJJ and Boucicault both step out of the melodrama in order to explain a convention of that theatrical mode: the sensation scene. This practice aims to dazzle audiences with an overwhelming spectacle. The Octoroon, explain BJJ and Boucicault, hinged its sensation scene on the use of then-novel photographic technology. Understanding that this plot twist will no longer produce the desired effect, BJJ orchestrates a scene that confronts its audience with an unflinching image of racial trauma. This moment, while taking seriously the capacity of the melodramatic sensation scene to appeal to a heightened emotional register, uses it to soberly invoke a historical horror rather than a grandiose novelty or spectacle. The scene draws a powerful connection between the present, the past, and theatrical history that unifies all the play’s dimensions.

This production boasts some very strong performances. Hodgson switches dexterously between multiple characters not only within the melodrama but also between it and the meta-theatrical world. His intensity drives the play and helps to negotiate amongst its various registers. Hodges, Anderson, and Hughes all have strong comedic talent, and their performances, in addition to their dialogue, both show their characters’ familiarity with each other and set them apart in their own theatrical milieu. Ricardo Vazquez mines his blackface role for maximum uncomfortable laughter. In the fight scenes, Nataki Garrett’s staging (along with Annie Enneking’s choreography) proves especially clear and engaging. The initial transition from the meta-theatrical world to the melodramatic one, however, does not transpire with sufficient precision. Overall, this production offers its audience a thought-provoking, haunting, and entertaining experience.

An Octoroon runs at Mixed Blood Theatre through November 15.

Sketching from Life: A Review of Mr. Turner


Mr. Turner
(2014) is a beautiful film, filled with expansive and stunning landscapes, as is appropriate for a biography of the man Victorian art critic John Ruskin called the “greatest landscape painter who has ever lived.” Timothy Spall’s portrayal of J.M.W. Turner captures the oxymoronic yoking of a rather brutish mumbler, as Turner reportedly was in part due to his thick Cockney accent, with the Romantic sensibilities of a painter who produced some of the most beloved paintings in Britain. (Indeed, The Fighting Temeraire was recently voted Britain’s greatest painting.) And yet, I exited the theatre feeling as though something was missing: the film lacked a strong central plot. Mr. Turner challenges our expectations of a period biopic, opting for brief vignettes that often feel disjointed rather than a cohesive, neatly arranged narrative of a man’s life. Balancing itself between what we might think of as an attempt to unite the viewer’s vision with that of Turner and fleeting moments of Turner’s life rather than a broad narrative, Mr. Turner is a particularly twenty-first century capturing (if pressed, one might even say ‘post-modern’) of the life of this great nineteenth-century painter.

The film opens with a shot of a Dutch windmill and two young women chatting while walking across the countryside at sunset. The camera follows the women, who pass by a stout man, quietly observing and patiently sketching. As in this scene, the landscape always precedes the man. Immediately following, director Mike Leigh brings us abruptly to a bustling London, ca. 1825. This transition, or lack thereof, prepares the audience for a focus on transient moments. It is perhaps appropriate that the young Ruskin, portrayed in the film as rather a simpering fool, commends Turner by explaining that when he “experiences a masterpiece such as yours, I am struck by the clarity with which you have captured the moment.” Leigh, too, is a master at capturing moments, whether it is a steam engine cutting across a lush, green English countryside; Turner’s rough groping of his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), mousy but bright-eyed; or William Turner (Paul Jesson) quietly admiring his son. Mr. Turner introduces us to the intelligentsia of early nineteenth century Britain, with cameos by Mary Somerville, Ruskin, John Constable, and an especially fiery Benjamin Haydon. The film easily transports us in time and space, thanks to the early nineteenth-century interiors and exteriors that have been captured with the utmost care.

The portrayal of the relationship between Turner and his father is both the most heart-warming and strangest element of this film. William is a doting father, fetching dyes for his son’s paints, managing Turner’s angry former lover and illegitimate daughters, and showing his paintings to prospective buyers. After William’s death, a bedside scene in which Turner is for the most part rather subdued, he visits a brothel. Asking the young prostitute to strip, he proceeds to pull out his sketchpad and burst into intense and unabashed weeping. The two scenes are linked only by their adjacency, which raises feelings of shock or surprise as opposed to sympathy.

Leigh plays with the distance between art and reality, as well as the painter and the audience. At times this involves setting up scenes in Turner’s life, such as a viewing of the Temeraire when a companion suggests it would make good material for a painting, before cutting to his studio, where we find Turner painting what will become The Fighting Temeraire (1849). Indeed, despite Leigh’s uncongenial portrayal, the film often feels deeply indebted to Ruskin’s account of Turner, his art, and his method. Consider, for just one example, a scene in which Turner lashes himself to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm to experience it firsthand.

It may be testament to the fixity of our aesthetic expectations that one leaves the theatre feeling perplexed and rather dissatisfied after the tour de force that is Mr. Turner’s stunning series of visuals. It is perhaps a film best suited to repeated viewings of scenes to appreciate the resplendent interiors, the magnificent exteriors, and Turner’s navigation through these spaces. The film sacrifices a strong, central narrative to capture moments, scenes, and moods, and the reaction it evokes seems strangely appropriate for the story of a man whose paintings later in life, as Mr. Turner demonstrates, evoked similar distaste in the audience for their lack of fidelity to nature. (It is this strand of criticism that inspired the tome that is Modern Painters.) And yet, as Ruskin testifies of Turner, those elements of art we at first feel to be most unlike nature turn out to be most like it. Mr. Turner’s fragmented vignettes seem to capture something more real about a man’s life, or the memory of it, than a neat narrative arc ever could.

-Katelin Krieg

                

H.M.S. Pinafore Review

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company is currently performing H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor in Minneapolis. I attended the performance on opening night, March 6th.  It is a success: a faithful presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s first major triumph, with lovely singing and amusing acting.

Most of the principals were very strong singers. “The nightingale,” sung by Ralph Rackstraw (Kai Brewster), and “Sorry her lot,” sung by Josephine (Victoria Valencour), were especially beautiful. Brewster’s and Valencour’s voices also complemented each other well when they sang together later. The crowd-pleasing introductory song by Sir Joseph (Tom Berg), “When I was a lad,” was particularly enjoyable. As singers and comic actors, Dick Deadeye (Ryan Johnson) and Cousin Hebe (Amanda Weis) added to the fun that characterized every aspect of this production.

This production is set during World War II; the time period requires the substitution of “King’s Navy” for “Queen’s Navy,” but I noticed no other changes to the lyrics.  In a nod to the setting, the second act opened with Captain Corcoran (Waldyn Benbenek) tuning into a BBC broadcast of “popular music,” which led into the ballad “Fair moon, to thee I sing” arranged in the fashion of a 1940s jazz piece; Benbenek’s performance of the arrangement was delightful. While the Guthrie’s 2011 Pinafore frustrated me because of its many changes to the orchestration (and to the plot near the end), this production struck a pleasing balance: it is a traditional rendition of a classic with a few tasteful, period-inspired adjustments.

The men’s and women’s choruses were strong in singing, acting, and dancing. There were a few brief moments when the backstage orchestra and the singers were not quite in sync, but these moments did not detract from my enjoyment of the music, and I expect that coordination will improve as the run continues. The orchestra played skillfully, under the baton of conductor Randal A. Buikema.

This Pinafore offers an enjoyable outing for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, lovers of nineteenth-century culture, and anyone who likes to laugh.

H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 29th at The Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Plymouth Congregational Church. Several of the shows are sold out already; it is advisable to purchase tickets sooner rather than later. The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company will also perform a concert version of Pinafore at the Lake Harriet Bandshell on July 11th and 12th.

-Leslie Nightingale