Van Gogh’s paintings have have been found to precisely depict the deep mathematics of air turbulence. Though other artists also have swirling patterns of air in their work, Van Gogh is the only one whose work shows Kolmogorov scaling in luminance probability distributions. And only in the art he painted during his psychotic episodes.
BioEd Online says:
The swirling skies of The Starry Night, painted in 1889, Road with Cypress and Star (1890) and Wheat Field with Crows (1890) — one of the van Gogh’s last pictures before he shot himself at the age of 37 — all contain the characteristic statistical imprint of turbulence, say the researchers.
These works were created when van Gogh was mentally unstable: the artist is known to have experienced psychotic episodes in which he had hallucinations, minor fits and lapses of consciousness, perhaps indicating epilepsy.
“We think that van Gogh had a unique ability to depict turbulence in periods of prolonged psychotic agitation,” says Aragon.
In contrast, the Self-portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear (1888) shows no such signs of turbulence. Van Gogh said that he painted this image in a state of “absolute calm”, having been prescribed the drug potassium bromide following his famous self-mutilation.
Scientists remain unsure as to why this might be. One speculates that brain activity during periods of inner turmoil may have dynamical features similar to those of turbulence.
Another possibility is that air turbulence can be detected as changes in light. The researchers note that “The eye is more sensitive to luminance changes than to colour changes and most of the information in a scene is contained in its luminance.”
Gerardo Naumis, one of the lead researchers also says that:
“Art sometimes precedes scientific analysis. This is not the first time that this happens, other examples are the theory of tilings and fractals, which were observed by artists before scientists. Certainly this says something about the deep powers of observation of artists. We think that this work shows that we can quantify certain terms used by artists, and measure to what extent an artist is able to capture nature’s complexity.”