Mondrian original is simply picture perfect

Steve Connor
Wednesday 11 September 2002 00:00 BST

There is more to a Mondrian than meets the eye. A scientific study of one of the world's greatest abstract painters shows that he had an unnerving ability to make people feel that his paintings were perfect.

Chris McManus, a psychologist from University College London, told the British Association Festival of Science at Leicester that most people could tell whether a Mondrian was genuine or a fake when given the choice between the real thing and something very similar.

Furthermore, if anyone was tempted to believe that they could paint "that old rubbish" then think again. A Mondrian seemed to tap into a subconscious pleasure centre in the brain that made most people believe that the artwork just cannot be improved.

Dr McManus ran a series of studies in which people were asked to choose between a computer-generated image of a real Mondrian and a similar image based on the same painting but with the patterns digitally distorted.

"We took a Mondrian painting, put it into a computer and then just moved all the black and white lines slightly up and down so that they were all in slightly different proportions. The simple question is, should people care for them; can they tell the difference?" Dr McManus said.

The results revealed that most people with no knowledge of art easily spotted the fake. "People can distinguish a real Mondrian from an adjusted, pseudo-Mondrian given the chance," he said.

"This is a normal judgement, not something that only rarefied art critics make. We also know that some Mondrian paintings are much easier to detect when they are modified a bit than other paintings. I suspect that Mondrian had good days and bad days. There are also good and bad people.

"There are one or two people in all of the studies we've done who actually got it systematically wrong. As far as I can ascertain they are completely lacking in taste and we must accept that that is a real possibility. We probably all know somebody like that."

Paul Locher, a psychologist from Montclair State University in New Jersey, told the conference that people found copies of some paintings were just as pleasurable to view as the originals.

El Greco's View of Toledo and Bruegel's The Harvesters were two examples of paintings that people found were more pleasurable to view as copies on slides or a computer screen than as originals in an art gallery.

"In Rembrandt's work, however, the original was seen as much more pleasant and interesting than either slides or computer images," Dr Locher said.

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