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Sunday, 8 March 2009

An Experiment

I am hoping with your help, O good and faithful friends of the blogosphere, to test a pet theory of mine. It was revived for me when I recounted in my previous post the odd anecdote of Kandinsky finding in his studio what he at first took to be an unknown masterpiece.

You may, alas, not qualify to be a participant in my experiment. To do so you must be UNfamiliar with Marcel Duchamp's painting of a A Nude Descending a Staircase. If you are at all familiar with it, I would still appreciate knowing what you think of the experiment.

I will make the theory apparent after the experiment. For now It is enough to know that below are tow versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, only one of which is as Picasso painted it.
I would like you to say which you think is the true version. Simple as that. The ideal would be to make the decision at the instinctual level. Not to puzzle it out, but to respond in that way would really require the images to be larger yet to see them together. I will leave you to make the necessary accomodations. Depending upon your browser, the ideal may not be possible.

Please do not scroll further than the bottom of the second picture until you have decided.

The correct version is to be found HERE

The pet theory I was hoping to test is that the way we "read" pictures is very much influenced by the way we read - i.e. from left to right in the case of western traditions.

(It would perhaps be too much to hope that some visitors might stray on to the blog who were brought up reading other than left to right.)

The theory here was that a slant thus / would be taken as ascending, whilst \ would indicate descending - as per our "steep hill" road signs.


acornmoon said...

I got it right without knowing much about the painting. I sometimes find that I can draw something which looks ok, only to find that it looks very weird in reverse. Maybe it is something to do with the configuration of our brains?

Purest Green said...

I had wanted to say the first one because I was drawn to the clean lines, but my instincts told me it was the second one. The start of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink begins with a story in a similar vein to this.

jinksy said...

Gut reaction said the first one...

delphine said...

Again I chose the second one as it wasn't as boldly presented . Very thought provoking. Thanks for an interesting first visit.

Shadow said...

well i picked the wrong one... based on that i'm left-handed...

Jeanne said...

The problem for me with the "steep hill" theory is that the figure's femur isn't at the right angle to ascend, rather than descend.

(I suspect that's what you meant by your instruction not to "puzzle it out." Sorry -- I spent 35 years working on computers and analysis is instinctive at this point.)



Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I chose the first one because the image is clearer than the second. But my eye still sees the second woman descending (on a left-handed spiral stair!). The angle of her head would be wrong otherwise.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Another interesting post Dave. I had to disqualify myself since I've seen Duchamp's painting reproduced many times, plus I've seen the original. Nonetheless, things of this nature can fool me and my memory is easily tripped up. I would read the figure as descending in either case because of some other clues that seems to indicate this; the natural movement of the figure’s knee as it steps down the stairs, the buttocks (on the correct side of the figure for a descent) and the angle of the head looking down watching her steps. As abstracted as the painting is, these features are discernable to me and also confirmed by the title. I would think that your theory is correct about the correlation between how we read and how we see but for me, at least in this painting, I see too many other clues.

Jim Murdoch said...

Very familiar with the piece but it's an interesting theory. The second one just doesn't look right and there's really no good reason why it shouldn't - it's simply what you would see from the other side as she came down the stairs. Very interesting.

Roxana said...

I chose the second one because it seemed closer to me, in the sense that the woman was descending towards me rather than going away as in the first picture :-) fascinating!

Ken Armstrong said...

I instinctively go for the first picture. The second looks like a left handed golfer on TV, something seems amiss. :)

Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

I chose the second. Maybe the fact that I read both English and Hebrew?!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I guessed the first picture, Dave - I don't know the picture at all and I still haven't looked to see which it is!

willow said...

I was familiar with it, so I knew the top was the original. Interesting how it doesn't look "right" reversed. Interesting concept, Dave.

Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting exercise, the way we read, the hand we use?

btw I've tagged you with a meme about influential writers, you can find out more on my blog, if you want to play along!

lakeviewer said...

I got it right; but, for a different reason than the one you proposed in your anticipatory set. I chose the second one because it had more perspectives at once; it asked the viewer to take in both the object and the movement at once.

Conda V. Douglas said...

I knew this painting, but got it WRONG...it just looked better! Go figure? Fun test and fascinating example of how our (or at least a lot, apparently not mine) minds work.

Adrian LaRoque said...

I got it right, (based on my instinct), in my way of seeing, painting with the right hand sounds better for the first one.

Sorlil said...

Not being familiar with Duchamp's work at all I wrongly picked the crisper first one as the Picasso!

Lady Glamis said...

I chose the second one. Wondering what that says about me. I chose it on the assumption that it wasn't as boldly represented. Interesting post, Dave!


I chose the first one. This was a clever experiment, Dave. :)

Lucas said...

I agree with Jim - the second one just doesn't look right. I'm not familiar with the painting yet think I must have seen it some time and retained some of it.

Art Durkee said...

I'm disqualified because I know the painting very well, and have seen it in person.

What your theory says to me, multiculturally aware and multilinguistic as I am, is that's another instance of observers taking cultural norms as natural laws. In other words, people often take what they grew up learning as normative within their language and culture to be universal, even when it demonstrably is not. A lot of what we take as natural perception is culturally determined, and comes to seem natural primarily from the weight of history and repetition.

More than half the world's population, for example, reads their written language from right to left. And artists who are spatially aware, many of whom in my experience tend to think in more than two dimensions (as Duchamp as a sculptor certainly did) give evidence that their art is not "handed" in the sense that the movement of form is not right-dominant nor left-dominant; rather, its expressive in rotational 3-space rather than flat 2-space, even if it's a flat piece of plastic art. What does Mondrian have to say about your theory? Or Henry Moore? For example.

I would have see an opportunity to test this theory with Chinese and Japanese viewers, too, in order to give it much credence.

Kilauea Poetry said...

I chose the first, just because it does look more clear to me- but thinking the second one was probably it?

D.Bell said...

My gut said, right to left (which only proves I grew up in the far east) but I knew or remembered from art classes that the correct painting was left to right.

hope said...

Gut level said,"choose number one"...probably because of reading left to right, so the figure looks more correctly descending in that one.

If only my brain would shut off...because my second thought was, "why is the second one reversed?"

As always, it's fun to come and play here.

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

I chose the top picture. Thanks...this was fun.

The lady in Red said...

Dear Dave, I prefer the first one.
Take care,

Artist Unplugged said...

I thought it was the first one. Interesting experiment. Catching up on your site, you've had some really interesting posts....as usual! Thanks for stopping by mine. By the way, the image posted on my site IS the painting and not my cloud photo.

Self-Proclaimed Mistress of Nothing said...

I chose the first one. The second one is... hard to look at... if that makes any sense.

Dave King said...

I have always "checked" compositions by turning them through 45 or 90 degrees. They very often do look awkward another way up... the interesting question is whether that denotes something amiss with the composition or not. Sometimes it has enabled me to see what was bothering me.

Purest Green
I must look up "Blink". I have heard of ot, of course, but have not read it.

There's a lot to be said for gut reactions!

Interesting reason for the choice. Thanks.

I hadn't considered that as an influence. I wonder...

If analysing is instinctive, I guess it qualifies! Thanks for an interesting response.

I think I've got that!! Thanks for the response.

Interesting, very interesting. That is absolutely correct, of course.

Again, an interesting response. Impressively thorough. Were you able to discern all those points from the reproductions? or do you recall them from the original? Thanks for that.

The analysis is spot on, but this business of looking awkward when reversed or whatever is a fascinating one. It is quite a common experience, which is why I think the clue must somehow be in the way we scan or analyse. Thanks for the feedback.

And another fascinating reason for the choice. Thanks.

I like the analogy! Thanks Ken.

Cecile Dreams Create Repeat
Ah! I wonder... Could be. Thanks.

Weaver of Grass
Right on! Congrats - for controlling your curiosity.

Thanks for the reply. It all helps.

Crafty Green Poet
Thanks for that. Shall be along before long.

Lake Viewer
I think I follow that.

What fascinating creatures we are - or what a strange thing art is! Thanks.

Yes, I follow that. Thanks for playing.

Understandable. Thanks for responding.

Lady Glamis
And an interesting response. Thanks - I don't think it says anything about you except that like the rest of us you are an individual.

Thanks. Good choice.

Thanks for that. All grist to the mill.

That "a lot of what we take as natural perception is culturally determined, and comes to seem natural " seems inevitable to me. Artists often develop tricks and strategies to overcome this, but the perception remains skewed in the viewer - though in many individuals and more so in artists generally there is not this bias because the brain has developed slightly differently and there is a less distinct handedness. I don't think Moore or Mondrian do anything either for or against my theory. The way the artist visualises it and the way we scan what he has created may not be the same, and in many cases cannot be.

Kilauea Poetry
Interesting... thanks.

D. Bell
Welcome to the blog. Again, interesting. Thanks for that.

Just testing, that's all. Thanks for coming.

K. Lawson Gilbert
Welcome. And my thanks for responding.

The Lady in Red
Thanks a lot.

Artist Unplugged
Thanks for those remarks. The painting was truly impressive. I am a great admirer.

Dave King said...

Self-Proclaimed Mistress of Nothing

Welcome. It does make sense, yes. Very much so. Thanks.

Elizabeth said...

I knew the painting...in fact just covered it with my high school homeschoolers. I do love that particular work, though I am not a fan of Duchamp in general...now Kandinsky...that's another story...
On a related note, I have always wondered if the fact that track races are run counter clockwise may not affect runners/ race horses/ etc from the southern hemisphere...after all the water runs down the drain in "reverse" below the equator, maybe there is something "natural" about the way we run or skate here in the north ...just a little question that has interrested me for a long, long time :)

Jenn said...

Excellent experiment! its amazing how perception truly has so much to do with what we actually "see". I did choose the first one but when inspecting for brush stroke, etc I noticed the signature in the second one was backwards and marveled that the painting had been flipped horizontal. It looked so different!

Comedy Goddess said...

Hey, that was fun! Mostly because I guessed correctly having not seen the painting before which makes me feel a little less cultured than I did before I got here. So it's a break even for me.

Art Durkee said...

"I don't think Moore or Mondrian do anything either for or against my theory. The way the artist visualises it and the way we scan what he has created may not be the same, and in many cases cannot be."

I mostly agree with this. What's interesting to me are the assumptions that people make about reality that are based on their upbringing. Most people rarely look at those, but I think artists often do. Art is often perturbing because it does just that. The way the viewer scans things, as you rightly say, may not be the same as the way the artist does. But the very fact that there IS a difference points out how arbitrary the viewer's habitual scan can be.

Do non-writers ever think about the way they usually scan things? I wonder.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Cool experiment.

I failed.

Neither weird robot thingy looked like it was descending... both appeared to be stepping up.

I like your idea, but the painting is so alien, I am put off by it, so maybe that influenced my failure to perceive a difference.

Do it with some other painting! I promise to forget the experiment, so it will be fresh and new to me. Trust me, with my memory lately, that is one promise I KNOW I can keep!

maeve63 said...

I decided on the first one, but only after looking at them both for a moment or two. My first reaction drew me to the second, but then I thought that it really depends on which way you're envisioning the stairs. I don't know, but after that thought I decided on the first because it felt like the artist's stairs were postioned in a way that would allow for the descent to work. I guess what I'm getting at is that I looked more at the stairs than at the body.

Karen said...

Dave - I chose the first one, as it appears to me to be descending, just as you state beneath the pictures.

Your posts are always interesting and educational. Thanks.

Dave King said...

I think that would ne the natural tendency. Thanks for the info.

Thanks a lot for that.

Jacky said...

Hi Dave, I chose the second. I think my choice was more based on the fact that it didnt have the clarity of line of the first one (yes, I know... I shouldnt have thought about it too much).

Thanks for that mental stimulus!

Dave King said...

Welcome and thanks for the feedback

Kelly said...

Very interesting, Dave! I'm not familiar with the piece but I picked the correct one. That was my gut instinct. I am left handed. Wonder if that played a part?