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Although artists and scientists may view nature and the physical world in different ways, there are many parallels between how they interpret key ideas relating to time and space.
In his recent blog titled “Who Said Engineers Can’t Think,” Martin Rowe lamented the appalling attitude of some professors and liberal arts majors toward engineers. In my mind, perhaps the worst of all are some of those involved in the art world. Not the artists and painters themselves. The artists I met, like the engineers, were down-to-earth people who were usually focused on the job at hand and eager to find the best way to express an idea.
If you want to get a stimulating education in important trends and themes in painting and the relationship between important ideas in art and physics, I recommend reading Leonard Shlain’s book
First published in 1993 and reissued in 2007, some chapters are also available online. But if you’re like me and the process of reading for information involves a lot of underlining and commenting in the margins, I suggest you buy the print version. There are many copies on Amazon to buy..
According to the author, surgeon and professor of medicine at the University of California who has always had an interest in physics and art, the inspiration for his book came during a trip to New York with his daughter in art museums. During this trip he got the idea that great painters and scientists are remarkably similar in the general pattern of how they get their ideas, although they operate with different mindsets when looking at nature. When studying art history, Shlain thought he saw a rough parallelism between the great ideas of physics at particular times and the themes and techniques pursued in the paintings of great artists.
To prove his thesis, Shlain delves deep into what has happened in Western art since the time of the Renaissance. He compares the art of painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cézanne, Matisse, Monet, Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Magrite and Duchamp to what emerged from the work of physicists and mathematicians such as Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei , Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, James Maxwell, Hermann Minkowski, Bernhard Riemann and Albert Einstein.
Perhaps the simplest case of this parallelism is that of Leonardo da Vinci, who was both a natural engineer and a scientist as well as a gifted artist. Shlain describes in detail how phenomena that Da Vinci studied in nature as a scientist often found their way into his art. For me, these chapters in Shlain’s book are perhaps the most entertaining and insightful. Besides his examination of the parallelisms he found in both the works of Da Vinci at the start of the 14th century and of Newton 150 years later, the book is full of goodies that were worth the price of the book.
Tidbit #1: It was Da Vinci through his observations of nature who understood and succinctly described what we now call Newton’s First Law of Motion. Unfortunately, Da Vinci wrote about this in his Secret Left Hand Writing Code that no one else could read until recently. Who knows what might have happened if this had become more widely known 150 years before Newton!!
Tidbit #2: At the same time that Newton was developing his theories of gravity, optics and calculus, he was also studying and writing intensively on now bizarre and magical subjects such as alchemy, transmutation, stone philosopher and the elixir of life. . Dude, talk about bothering. (Newton’s transmutation theory?)
Shlain is most provocative in the chapters he devotes to the different schools of modern art since the mid-nineteenth century and their relationship to what was happening in theoretical physics: surrealism, cubism, dadaism, expressionism, futurism and abstraction. . artistic, to name but a few.
Discussing Einstein’s first unsuccessful attempt with fellow physicist Leopold Infield to write a book that made his ideas comprehensible to ordinary mortals, Shlain notes that “While Einstein lamented the lack of a vocabulary with which to communicate his theories remarkable, he had only to turn to modern theories. the art of finding the appropriate images.
One example he cites is the work of Cubist Marcel Duchamp and his ‘Nu Descending a Staircase No. 2’, in 1912. achieved a more lucid representation,” writes Shlain. “The only place in the universe where this observation would have been possible would be aboard a beam of light.”
Commenting on the relationship between Edouard Manet’s painting “Bateaux (1873)” and Riemann’s research into non-Euclidean space, Shlain draws attention to the artist’s manipulation of what had hitherto been l conventional horizon in a straight line and replacing it with a horizon that bends slightly in a subtle arc. “The elucidation of the concept of curved spacetime and its place in the physical world was still 50 years away, but by the 1860s it [Manet] anticipated this idea and wowed its puzzled viewers.
It’s a rich book with countless examples from art and physics to support Shlain’s thesis, which you may agree with and some may not. At times he had to push his analogies to the breaking point in order to reach the two audiences he was aiming for.
“My intention has been to reach artistically inclined readers who want to learn about new physics and scientists who would like a framework for appreciating art,” writes Shlain. “Because the language of physics is so precise unlike the evocative language of art, I have sometimes had to expand the meaning of scientific words and sometimes stretch them into poetic metaphors.”
Shlain undertook the difficult task of reconciling two different ways of seeing the world: the artistic one where image and metaphor are the language, and the physical world where numbers and equations are primarily used. And for that alone it deserves to be read, and re-read. His book was extremely helpful to me in broadening my understanding of both worlds.