Saturday, December 22, 2012

Colorblindness and Congested Nose

Recently, I read an article online on a Chinese newspaper, Global Times, speculating that the great Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh's unique vision might be due to his possible colorblindness.  The theory was hypothesized by a Japanese medical scientist, Kazunori Asada.  It published several photos of Van Gogh's original painting and filtered version of them, simulating what colorblind people would see, and several scenery photos as well, both "normal" and "colorblind" versions.

Further search online yielded a more comprehensive article, Was Vincent van Gogh Colorblind?, which gives a fuller account of Asada's research:
Kazunori Asada, a Japanese medical scientist, has hypothesized that Vincent van Gogh was colorblind — a theory that would explain the artist’s use of clashing, often discordant colors.
Asada was incited to explore the theory after visiting a “Color Vision Experience Room” in Hokkaido, which provides visitors with the opportunity to experience vision as a colorblind person does.

To test his theory, Asada used a piece of software that filters light to simulate various degrees of colorblindness. Asada settled on a midrange spectrum deficiency to apply to several of van Gogh’s paintings, a process which subtly  but significantly changed the overall color effect of each work: the reds became softer, the blues less notable, and the yellows muted to the point of drab.

Kyle Chayka at BLOUIN Artinfo challenges the theory, reminding Asada that one of the commonalities among Post-Impressionist artists, including Paul Gauguin and André Derain, was an “unorthodox” pairing of colors. 
Furthermore, I found a Tumblr blog by Kazunori Asada, The Day I Saw Van Gogh’s Genius in a New Light, where the scientist pointed out that the simulated view of Van Gogh's paintings were actually closer to "normal" vision:

Left: Original / Right: Protanomal simulation (60%)

Left: Original / Right: Protanomal simulation (60%)

Below are those scenery photos from Global Times as mentioned in the beginning of this blog post.  Again, the right column images are of the simulated colorblind vision:




These are very interesting images.  For those scenery pictures, I actually prefer the "colorblind version" for their otherworldly poetic atmosphere.

However, I cannot deny that those pictures are only shadows of the real thing and miss a huge dimension.  This realization in turn reminded me of an intense experience I had recently regarding olfactory sense.

One day, despite struggling with a cold, I made a chicken stew, with a large array of spices.  Through my congested nose, I was satisfied with the lovely smell emitted from the stove top.  A nice stew of intense flavor and smell.  Satisfied.

Yet, not until midnight that I realized what I had smelled earlier was only a shadow of the reality.

In the middle of night, my nose suddenly got cleared up and an ever more intense smell of delicious cooking crashed into my bedroom and every cell of my body was stirred by the fortissimo olfactory symphony.  The flavors danced and clashed in the air and I was both amazed and irritated, thinking that one of my neighbors must be cooking in the ungodly hour.  Slowly, with my head got clearer, I realized that it was the remaining smell of my own chicken stew, prepared several hours earlier, from my very own kitchen.

It was a very strange experience.  Yes, while cooking, I knew my stew smelled great.  Only later that I realized I was only smelling the shadow of it.  What glory the reality was, comparing to some filtered ones!  By extension, our little understanding of the universe we live in is only the shadow of shadow of shadow, perhaps.  And that's very optimistic.