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In the Eye of the Beholder

October 21, 2010 By:
Rachel Vigoda , JE Feature
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Dr. Richard Goldberg
French artist Edgar Degas, at age 36 in 1870, was serving in the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian war when he picked up a rifle, sighted it and realized he couldn't aim because of a blind spot in his right eye.

His vision grew worse. Between 1886 and 1905, Degas drew three similar pastels of a woman, titled with variations of "After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself." Comparing them, the style shifts from realistic and refined to coarser and striated, with heavy reds dominating the last of the three.

Late in life, Degas gave up on paints and pastels altogether, and turned to sculpture.

"Looking at the three 'After the Bath' pastels, it's very striking to see the deterioration. And all the reds -- if you have a problem in the center of the eye, the macula, you start losing your blues," says Dr. Richard Goldberg, 74, an artist and retired ophthalmic surgeon who lives in Huntingdon Valley, referencing the book The Eye of the Artist on comments about the artist.

"The question that's always raised is whether Degas was changing his style over the years, or whether his vision was just so poor they all looked as perfect to him as the first one," he says.

For his upcoming symposium, "Visualizing the Visual Arts," scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 9, at Villanova University, Goldberg has gathered a group of experts from Wills Eye Institute to discuss specific parts of the eye, such as the macula, and how a change could alter an artist's work. (Legendary artists like Claude Monet and Francisco Goya also faced visual-impairment problems.)

Goldberg is set to speak at the program, along with Matthew Palczynski, a staff lecturer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Roger Weiss, a professional photographer who is blind; and sculptor Carol Saylor.

Palczynski plans to talk about the intersection of art and medicine throughout history, using artists like Thomas Eakins and Leonardo da Vinci as examples.

"There are many works that show an obvious interest in medicine on the part of the artist," says Palczynski. "It makes people curious: Was the artist interested for a particular reason?"

The symposium coincides with an exhibit of oil paintings by Goldberg and sculptures by Saylor on display at the Villanova Art Gallery, starting Oct. 22 through Dec. 6. Saylor, a former patient of Goldberg's, is blind and mostly deaf.

Based on similar programs Goldberg has set up at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, he expects attendees to include art therapists and teachers, members of the medical community, people with visual impairment and those with a general interest in the arts, and broadening much more, "anybody who has an interest in what it means to be a human being," he says.

Saylor, who lives in Roslyn, Pa., is on a committee that helps organize the Michener events, which is how she and Goldberg reconnected 25 years after they first met. The title of their exhibit, "Together Again," refers both to that and to the artwork itself.

"There's a tendency for people talking about Carol and myself to lean heavily on the medical issue -- on the fact that I was a retinal surgeon and she had visited me as a patient. But the real force of this exhibition is the similarity of our work," he says.

His oil paintings are quiet and soft, and slightly mysterious, though Goldberg prefers "thought-provoking." One work, "Her Hat," shows the ocean, a rowboat on the shore and a girl's hat at the edge of the water.

"Now, where is the little girl?" he asks. "Maybe she's just getting an ice-cream. Maybe she was caught in the undertow. It makes you stop and look and think."

'In Your Mind's Eye'
Likewise, there is more to Saylor's sculptures than first meets the eye. Saylor was a painter for much of her career. She enrolled at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in her early 30s, after having children, and graduated in 1976 at age 39.

Shortly after, she developed a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. It took several years for her to lose her eyesight completely -- a time she used to switch, slowly, from watercolor to sculpture.

"I started to develop techniques to be able to work as a blind person. It was exciting when I realized I could see with my hands and fingers," she explains. "It's similar to if you read or hear about something you've never seen, but have a visual picture in your mind's eye of it. The way I do with my grandchildren."

Saylor's sculptures capture the female form, both abstract and realistic. Some include the face of her daughter Alice, who died of cancer at the age of 34.

Many of them are "touch sculptures" with hollowed-out crevices and hidden parts that invite the viewer to reach in and see with his hands. That's one difference between her work and Goldberg's: Whereas Goldberg tries to eliminate any evidence of the brushstroke, removing himself entirely so nothing stands between painting and viewer, Saylor wants her audience to know where her hand shaped the clay.

"I want that connection, for them to feel where I touched. They might even see something I didn't know was there," says Saylor. "Everyone relates to it in their own way. It's all in the eye of the beholder." 

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