The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Through Sunday, Apr. 7 

Ackland Museum of Art, Chapel Hill 

Eighty turn-of-the-century drawings by the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal are currently on display at the Ackland, offering a unique vantage into the intersecting fields of art and science. His drawings are a form of neurological cartography—an atlas of the human brain—which poetically captures how beauty can make scientific discoveries more legible to a large audience. In the second part of the exhibition, microscopic slides from the UNC Neuroscience Center are juxtaposed with Cajal’s delicate ink renderings of analyzed data, putting the work in conversation with contemporary academic research. 

Initially organized by a group of neuroscientists from the University of Minnesota in conjunction with the Instituto Cajal, a distinctive aspect of The Beautiful Brain is that it was arranged by scientists, not museum curators. Consequently, the exhibit is less concerned with the method and materials of Cajal’s drawings or their context in art history than it is with the importance of the work to his award-winning research on the structure of the nervous system, for which Cajal received a 1906 Nobel Prize. Specifically, his research was concerned with how diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s damage the anatomic form of a healthy brain. 

Cajal made major contributions to the science of neuroanatomy, particularly regarding how neuronal circuits transmit information. His intricate pen lines mimic flora and fauna, acting as a kind of topographical map of the constellations of the brain. 

“Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies,” Cajal wrote in his autobiography, Recollections of My Life, “My attention has chased the grey gardens of matter, cells with delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind.” The work calls to mind later Spanish surrealists, like Joan Miró, whose experiments with automatism allowed the subconscious to generate dreamlike, biomorphic forms. As Cajal’s illustrated diagrams were widely published in his time, it is even possible that Miró had seen his drawings and been affected by them. 

The most striking contrasts in the exhibit are between the drawings of healthy cerebral cortices and injured neurons. Structural shape, pattern, contour, and shadow all reveal the internal health of the organs. In his drawings of injured neurons, viewers can observe, and even diagnose, the cell’s communication issues, whether they stem from scar tissue, nerve damage, tumor cells, or paralysis. Even if one is unable to understand the biological severity of cellular trauma in the image, the darkness of the shapes and fractured lines convey an emotional gravitas and provide a visual foil to the other sketches.  

In the second half of the exhibition, “Contemporary Images: Seeing the Beautiful Brain Today,” Mark Zylka, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center, organized a range of digital and multimedia images that echo Cajal’s micrographs, offering a kind of high-resolution counterpart to Cajal’s drawing. By employing twenty-first-century technology, the pairing demonstrates Cajal’s uncanny accuracy a hundred years ago, as well as the continued importance of his work to the scientific and medical communities. Often, these digital images employ color manipulation, presenting a more aesthetic version of the research to the viewer. “Mother and Child,” a 2015 MRI scan by Rebecca Saxe, which shows her holding her two-month-old child, even acts as a kind of contemporary Madonna silhouette. 

The Beautiful Brain suggests that the Cajal’s images are a visual language that can speak to viewers, even if the scientific ramifications are beyond them. They not only demonstrate the aesthetic intricacies of the brain itself, but also champion art as a way for the public to better understand neurological complexities that might otherwise be inaccessible.