Eyes of the Creators

Eyes of the Creators

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century share one curious trait: misaligned eyes.

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The source:  “View Masters” by Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil R. Conway, in Skeptical Inquirer, Nov.–Dec. ­2006.

Even a partial list reads like a Facebook of 20th-century art: Marc Chagall, Gustav Klimt, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Man Ray, Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Andrew Wyeth, Pablo ­Picasso.

What unites this collection of originals is the likely diagnosis of ­stereoblindness—­a misalignment of the eyes that prevents stereopsis. Ninety percent of the population automatically masters stereopsis, which is the ability to take the slightly different image recorded by each eye and merge the two images into a seamless ­three-­dimensional scene. But about 10 percent fails. Margaret S. Livingstone, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, and Bevil R. Conway, a junior fellow at Harvard, write that misaligned eyes of the kind that can cause torment to a child on the playground may actually be an asset for an ­artist.

Livingstone and Conway studied photos of 53 famous artists and found that 28 percent of them were slightly ­cross-­eyed or walleyed, or had otherwise mis­aligned eyes. Photographs are frequently used to study stereopsis. The two researchers compared the relative positions of light reflections in the eyes and found that misalign­ments were nearly three times as common among the famous artists as in the general ­population.

They suspect that the poor depth perception caused by stereo­blindness might have enhanced the artists’ efforts to flatten a three-dimensional scene onto a two-­dimensional surface. “Someone who cannot perceive depth from stereopsis may be more aware ­of—­and therefore better able to ­capture—­the other, monocular clues to depth and distance, such as perspective, shading, and occlusion,” they ­write.

Picasso, Hopper, and Wyeth generated depth using precisely those techniques, while de Kooning, Klimt, and Stella accentuated ­flatness.

Maybe, the authors say, certain traits that seem like handicaps might be advantageous in other circumstances. It may not be necessary to be ­cross-­eyed to be a great artist, but perhaps it can ­help.

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