Art's unhappy eaters

September 22, 1995

El Greco, painter of tall, thin figures and Holbein, painter of shorter, stockier ones, may have suffered from eating disorders which distorted their images of body shape, a psychologist suggested last week.

This theory would displace the long-held belief that the artists suffered from astigmatism, which Stuart Anstiss of the University of San Diego, California, says he has disproved. Astigmatism stretches the sufferer's view of the world because the membrane that covers the front of the eye is distorted from a symmetrical curve to an egg-shaped curve.

Professor Anstiss's investigations of the claim that El Greco suffered from astigmatism initially added weight to the theory. He designed a simple eyepiece which stretched images vertically or horizontally depending on how it was worn. When he asked people to draw squares while looking through the eyepiece they drew them elongated or squashed respectively.

But when he persuaded someone to wear the eyepiece, El Greco style, for two days and draw squares for him four times a day, her squares gradually lost their distortion. Professor Anstiss told a meeting on vision, held by artists and scientists at the British Association in Newcastle last week: "As time goes on she adapts to this new form of vision. That suggests that even if El Greco were astigmatic he would have adapted."

But Professor Anstiss is now pursuing another theory - that the artists suffered from distorted perceptions of ideal body shape. Doctors have put anorexia sufferers in front of mirrors whose distorting powers they can alter by pressing a button. When asked to alter their reflection until it represents the "true" image of themselves, they change it until the reflection is much fatter than they really are.

Professor Anstiss said: "Maybe El Greco and Holbein had nothing wrong with their eyes but they were suffering from an eating disorder."

But Martin Kemp, professor in the art history department at the St Andrews, said that El Greco's figures could easily be explained in the context of a Spanish artist of the 16th century. "To take artists out like that and not contextualise them is deeply problematic."

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