Love and the Brain

This is the final week to see the exhibition, Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm on view through Sunday, November 15. For this blog post, we asked Dr. Juan Dominguez in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin to share a little bit about his class’s visit to the exhibition.

The topic of love and mating has been of great interest throughout human history. Yet, only recently have the brain sciences provided great insight into the biology of this most important behavior. This Signature Course in the Neuroscience Department—Love, Mating and the Brain, UGS 302—helps students explore the neuroscience of love and mating.

Why are these things important to us and how does our brain make them happen? Emotions that are involved with love and mating are often preceded by the integration of sensory information. For example, seeing a loved one or feeling the caress of someone close to you are things that elicit emotional responses. The brain is responsible for integrating this information and then facilitating an appropriate emotion.

For this class students need to understand brain mechanisms responsible for this integration. In lieu of the sight of a loved one or the caress of someone close to them, they experienced this through viewing art. In visiting Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm for the first time they were naïve to the experience. It was important that they write down as much about their initial experience as possible, and then link the experience with the neural mechanisms involved in the regulation of that experience. In their writing assignment we expected them to both describe the emotions elicited by the sight of their favorite drawing and also describe the neuroscience behind that experience—providing the students with a new perspectives into both art and science. The students were also asked to submit one question that they would like to ask to Natalie Frank, who generously answered their questions. You will find excerpts from their essays and a few of the questions below.

Student excerpts

Natalie Frank
Natalie Frank, The Ungrateful Son, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Courtesy of the artist.

Upon viewing the Ungrateful Son drawing by Natalie Frank, it was clear that she employs both vibrant colors and specific mark making to reflect the story related to the piece, and her tactics stimulate a variety of emotions. As I examined the drawing, I found myself feeling an overwhelming amount of sympathy for the subject of the piece. The person was clearly exhibiting signs of discomfort, which was evident in the contortion of his facial features. His eyes glimmer with tears, and the slope of his mouth made me experience sadness on his behalf. The reaction I experienced is due, in part, to the way the human visual system receives and translates stimulus that comes from a person’s physical surroundings.

Natalie Frank
Natalie Frank, Snow White V, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Lent by Elizabeth Sackler

After a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art and viewing Natalie Frank’s paintings of  Grimm fairy tales, I came upon a scene of Snow White’s evil stepmom as a skeleton in a room full of weird objects. When I first saw this work, I felt a sensation of fear. The skeleton is a stimulus, causing me to interpret the image as scary or terrifying. I experienced fear and tunnel vision.

Natalie Frank
Natalie Frank, Rapunzel I, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014

The work that particularly caught my eye and evoked the strongest emotional response was Rapunzel I. I experienced a plethora of emotions. The first emotion that I experienced was a feeling of disturbedness. Likely, this emotion was experienced in my right cerebral hemisphere, because this is where emotional states of stimuli are interpreted in normal people’s brains. I then felt perplexed. I was confused by parts of the drawing. Following a sense of perplexity, I began to like and take interest in parts of the picture. This sense of interest typically occurs when the viewer understands the piece of art that they are viewing, and the artwork fits into their knowledge and expectation, but still provides a new experience.

Natalie Frank
Natalie Frank, Rapunzel II, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014

Preceding the trip to the Blanton, I had already heard the tale of Rapunzel many times before, so I had an understanding of Rapunzel’s setting prior to reading the original Grimm tale. Her bright eyes reflect the amber sun and I can’t help but to feel for her. I felt empathy for Rapunzel trapped helplessly while her eyes screamed for the world beyond. Empathy is a rather complex emotion that is entirely a social emotion rather than a survival emotion. How did this emotion come about at all? The answer is actually very simple, empathy trumps rules of survival.  We rely more on what we feel than what we think when solving moral dilemmas and consequently allowing emotions like empathy to be given high status.


Dear Ms. Frank,

My question to you is regarding your style of painting. I noticed that you had a very elaborate and colorful way of expressing the images, but the messages and stories behind each painting are very dark and twisted. I was curious as to why you decided to express these images in such an opposite manner than how most people would display them, and why you decided to use these bright colors and painting style?

This is a wonderful question and a big consideration of my palette and such a bright and high-keyed one, was the chance to foil the darkness of the tales. The stories felt hallucinatory in many ways, surreal, otherworldly, and I wanted to portray this feeling through color.

How did you decide to take from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales for your inspiration, and what inspired you to make your pictures even more gory and disturbing than the stories already were?

Paula Rego, a friend and artist I much admire suggested I look at the unsanitized versions of the tales, which aren’t widely known. They struck me immediately: their humor, the beauty of the language of the stories and the many wonderful roles for men and especially for women in the tales. I don’t think of my drawings as disturbing or gory but realize others do! Truly, I drew from the stories and my imagination.

What was your intention or purpose of portraying Hansel and Gretel in such a gruesome way? What are the themes?

They push the witch into the oven. Granted, the witch was fattening Hansel in order to kill him, but to my mind, no one in this story behaved well. I wanted to show both sides of the characters’ depravity: it wasn’t just the witch who displayed poor human character.

Did the original Brothers Grimm tale, Rapunzel, seem flat in emotional depth when you first read it? If so, does Rapunzel II speak for her internal conflict in ways not portrayed in the original tale?

Yes! Exactly! Many of the heroines (also Snow White) felt flat. I wanted to try to embody them and tell the stories from their perspectives and explore or interject some humanity into these representations of women.

Why do all of your paintings include eyes that aren’t even attached to bodies? Are they supposed to represent the concept that someone is always watching the characters’ actions?

Yes! The reader, the viewer and the characters, themselves. It’s a way to link all of the actors involved and also make the figures feel somewhat human.

Who is an artist that your style/technique is inspired from?

So many! I love the color of Tiepolo, the drawing of Degas, the sensitivity and brutality of Velazquez and the assertion of self of Käthe Kollwitz. I’ve been fortunate to be able to see a lot of art in museums and churches and it all informs my hand. These artists are constantly in my thoughts.

What is your favorite fairy tale?

The Ungrateful Son. It has it all!

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