Magritte, The Lovers, 1928
If you’ve ever visited a gallery in a less-than-chipper mood, you’ve probably found that the artwork speaks to you in a different way than it would if you’d walked in on a beam of sunshine. This is pretty much common sense – deep, dark feels lead to deeper relationships with art.
A recently published study, “Ceci n’est pas la mort: Evidence for the recruitment of self-reference from surrealistic art under mortality salience”, found that there’s a neuroscientific correlation between those deep feels and a heightened understanding of art, namely surrealistic painting.
The paper, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, observed that participants found surrealistic paintings more “reassuring” than realistic paintings after being asked to contemplate their own deaths. Two more groups, asked to think about either neutral experiences or dental pain, found both genres reassuring.
It’s not a huge surprise that the study’s participants were able to better relate to surrealistic paintings after thinking about their own demise – after all, this sort of “heavy” subject matter is the foundation of surrealism’s dreamy melancholia. Modern art grew from some pretty traumatic experiences; finding reprieve from a glum mood in a Rothko painting is akin to talking to a friend who understands what you’re going through. We know this, artists know this, and science now knows it too.