Art

With a Microscope and Sketchbook, a Pioneering Neuroscientist Magnified the Brain’s Mysteries

NYU’s Grey Art Gallery is exhibiting 80 drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the “father of modern neuroscience” who used art to reveal the anatomy of the brain.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord" (1899), ink and pencil on paper, 5 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord” (1899), ink and pencil on paper, 5 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)

In 1894, Santiago Ramón y Cajal stated that the “cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, which can multiply their branches thanks to intelligent cultivation, send their roots deeper, and produce more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.” The oft-annointed “father of modern neuroscience” had a poetic, and accessible, way of describing the mysterious workings of the brain, particularly through his over 2,900 ink and pencil drawings. Created between 1890 and 1933, they are pioneering examples of scientific communication, still appearing in textbooks today.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, self-portrait in his laboratory in Valencia when he was in his early 30s (1885) (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, self-portrait in his laboratory in Valencia when he was in his early 30s (1885) (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, now at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, features around 80 of Cajal’s drawings. The traveling exhibition is the first in the United States on Cajal’s work, and was organized by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota with a catalogue published by Abrams Book last year (as covered on Hyperallergic). After it closes in New York on March 31, the show will open May 2 at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then on January 27 at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Born in 1852 in the town of Petilla de Aragón, Spain, Cajal initially wanted to be an artist, but at the encouragement of his anatomy teacher father, he studied medicine. While the label texts describe the neurological workings of each branching astrocyte or glial cell, the emphasis of The Beautiful Brain is on these painstaking illustrations as visual art. And Cajal was a master of observation and concisely combining a principle or series of events into one freehand drawing. It’s this quality that makes them even today valuable as neuroscience studies, capturing sequences and neuron pathways in a way that photographs of the brain cannot.

For instance, a drawing of neurons in the cerebral cortex succinctly illustrates the flow of information, with tiny arrows indicating how axons start in other brain areas, then connect with local neurons. It’s sketched a bit like midday traffic, the nerve-paths clearly allowing a one-way movement. These insights were gained from hours of peering into a microscope, studying thin slices of brain on glass slides. Cajal’s most significant contribution was the neuron doctrine, a concept on neurons as separate cells, rather than a web-like connection of neurons that was popular with his contemporaries. In 1906, he jointly received a Nobel Prize with Italian biologist Camillo Golgi, whose staining method he utilized and adapted to highlight these cells in brain specimens.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex" (1904), ink and pencil on paper, 8 5/8 x 6 7/8 inches (Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex” (1904), ink and pencil on paper, 8 5/8 x 6 7/8 inches (Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Installation view of <em>The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal</em> at Grey Art Gallery (photograph by Nicholas Papananias)
Installation view of The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal at Grey Art Gallery (photograph by Nicholas Papananias)

Intricate illustrations of cells from the leg of a scarab beetle, or the optic lobe of a fly, demonstrate that his curiosity for sensory anatomy did not stop at humans. Viewers of The Beautiful Brain might remark that every drawing is marred by a cataloguing stamp, sometimes placed right in the center of a sketch. As R. Douglas Fields explored in a 2017 article for Quanta Magazine, they were added as part of an essential system against theft in the turbulent time following World War II.

Cajal’s subjects were, of course, always dead, such as the drowned man whose axons of Purkinje neurons show various levels of degeneration in their darkly shaded, bulbous forms. Yet there’s a visual liveliness in their details. Cajal’s pyramidal neuron — which he called a “noble and enigmatic cell of thought” — has meticulous attention to the lightly drawn dendrites that radiate from the triangular cell, giving it a three-dimensional appearance. At the Grey Art Gallery, cases of 10 books from the New York Academy of Medicine chronicle anatomical illustration before Cajal, including the flayed heads of Renaissance physician Vesalius. Another section on seeing the brain today has examples of contemporary brain illustration, with video animations and other digital innovations. Cajal is a bridge between, both reflecting the early interest in humanity’s sense of self through an understanding of its anatomy, and using cutting-edge science to push that comprehension further.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "Injured Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum" (1914), ink and pencil on paper, 5 x 8 1/8 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Injured Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum” (1914), ink and pencil on paper, 5 x 8 1/8 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)

After five decades examining sensory structures, Cajal died in 1934. The Spanish scientist — who once asked if in “our parks are there any trees more elegant and luxurious than the Purkinje cell from the cerebellum?” — obviously had a love for finding approachable gateways to this arcane knowledge. Still, it’s only a guess if such whimsical touches like a penguin-shaped cell in the cerebellum, or the kinship between his buoyant synapses and the biomorphic art of surrealist Miró, were deliberate. What makes Cajal’s work so compelling as art and science is its gracefulness in portraying information through form. You don’t have to understand the sensory labyrinth of the inner ear, where the organ of Corti turns sound to electrical signals and the otolith detects the head’s movement, to find beauty in Cajal’s maze of delicate lines and overlapping shapes of diverse textures. However in experiencing that grace, the drawing compels the viewer to want to know more, or at least better appreciate the complex inner world of the human body.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "Calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body" (1934), ink and pencil on paper, 5 3/5 x 3 3/5 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body” (1934), ink and pencil on paper, 5 3/5 x 3 3/5 inches (courtesy Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "Tumor cells of the covering membranes of the brain" (1890), ink and pencil on paper, 6 1/4 x 5 inches (Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Tumor cells of the covering membranes of the brain” (1890), ink and pencil on paper, 6 1/4 x 5 inches (Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid)
Installation view of The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal at Grey Art Gallery (photograph by Nicholas Papananias)

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal continues through March 31 at Grey Art Gallery, New York University (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

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