“There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 3

Part 1 Part 2

In the earlier parts of this essay we looked at the remarkable drawings of the young autistic girl, Nadia, and noted their similarity to some of the Paleolithic cave art found in Europe. We also noted the question of whether this similarity provides evidence for the similarity of Paleolithic man’s conceptual apparatus to that of modern man, or evidence for the difference between them. In short, does the significance of Nadia’s autism for her artistic ability render the ancient drawings on cave walls somehow pre-conceptual? Were they painted by people who suffered from a similar lack of social awareness as Nadia?

But we have also considered the portraiture painting of Francis Bacon which bears a certain resemblance to some of Nadia’s pictures, specifically in the rendering of the human face in both artists. It might be said that in both cases, the conventional, socially coherent sense of facial expression that we all know implicitly is disturbed, erased, or simply missing. The crucial difference between them however is that Nadia is unable to read facial expression or understand emotion, while Bacon is seeking to move beyond a representation of such expression. Nadia cannot perceive the meaning of facial expressions whilst Bacon is seeking to overcode them in order to rewrite their semiotic charge. In the former, the semiotic content is absent, in the latter it is overwritten. Continue reading ““There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 3”

“There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 2

In part 1 of this essay we looked at the extraordinary drawings produced by the young autistic artist Nadia and noted their similarity to some of the Paleolithic cave art produced in Europe millennia ago. It was also noted that some of Nadia’s drawings have a slightly spooky quality due to the suspicion that their execution must be conceptually beyond such a young child, particularly one with her developmental difficulties. But there is another aspect to the drawings that gives them a somewhat haunted, or at least odd, character. This has to do with her depiction of human faces.

Of course, Nadia is not the only gifted artist with autism. Stephen Wiltshire will be familiar to many due to the extremely detailed and elaborate drawings that he makes of cityscapes, with particular attention given to architectural details. The most remarkable thing about Stephen’s ability is that he is able to take in a vast, detailed panorama very quickly and subsequently replicate it brilliantly in a drawing without having reference to either photographs or sketches. It would appear that he is able in some obscure way to ‘fix’ an image of the scene before him and then somehow bring it to mind as a blueprint to be copied onto paper. Perhaps his skill is just a more advanced version of the attribute hypothesised by Lewis-Williams with regard to Paleolithic artists. In any case, he would seem to share with Nadia a talent for making extremely good representations of images that he has been able to retain in his memory. And the key thing in both cases is that this talent seems to operate without any real conscious thought or decision making on the part of the artists. Neither Nadia nor Stephen try to augment or improve their drawings by accentuating some of the more salient features. Stephen’s drawings seem to focus on architectural structures as though they are simply natural features of the world rather than objects constructed for human utility. And Nadia’s drawings seem concerned with the physical shape of bodies rather than what those bodies might be expressing through their posture or positioning with regard to other proximate objects. Both artists lack a feeling for the human context of their works, which is hardly surprising considering their autism. Continue reading ““There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 2”

“There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 1

In early 1974 a six year old girl named Nadia was brought in to be assessed at the Nottingham University Child Development Research Unit. She was the daughter of Ukrainian parents and was causing them some concern due to her poor development. She displayed few social skills, her language was limited to a few single words and she was slow and clumsy.  She was later to be diagnosed as autistic.  But whilst one of the Unit’s psychologists worked with Nadia in the playroom, her mother showed some of Nadia’s drawings to the Unit’s co-ordinator, Elizabeth Newson. Newson photocopied the drawings and when they were passed around in the subsequent case conference her co-workers were convinced that Nadia’s mother had tricked Newson; that no six year old, never mind one as developmentally challenged as Nadia, could possibly have been responsible for drawing them. Further sessions with Nadia, during which she was observed drawing, proved that these doubts were wrong.

All of this is documented in Lorna Selfe’s remarkable book, Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child[1] (Selfe was the psychologist who sat in the playroom with Nadia on that first visit). Nadia’s drawings are exceptional on many levels and it is easy to empathise with the psychologists’ initial disbelief that such a young girl could have drawn them. There is an obvious technical skill which is involved in rendering the subjects in such a naturalistic way. The drawings are not just extremely good, they are so obviously precocious that they have a slightly spooky quality, a quality that comes from a feeling that such work must be conceptually beyond its creator; that perhaps something else might be working through her. Continue reading ““There Are Two in Us”: Human Consciousness, Cave Art and Autism – Part 1″