The search for the bigger picture

In 300 years our horizons have expanded hugely: first the New World, then the Moon, now the stars. Cosmos, in Venice, charts artists' understanding of our place in the universe
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The Independent Online

For Turner, the sun is a divine presence: life-giving, source of light and colour, he sets it in the centre of the canvas and watches how the material world dissolves into it. Kandinsky juggles with the planets as if they were so many coloured balls, overlapping the forms to create abstract colour harmonies. For Fontana space is a concept, that's to say a blank canvas slashed rhythmically with a cutter ( Spatial Concept - Expectations, 1959).

For Turner, the sun is a divine presence: life-giving, source of light and colour, he sets it in the centre of the canvas and watches how the material world dissolves into it. Kandinsky juggles with the planets as if they were so many coloured balls, overlapping the forms to create abstract colour harmonies. For Fontana space is a concept, that's to say a blank canvas slashed rhythmically with a cutter ( Spatial Concept - Expectations, 1959).

"Cosmos", an exhibition now on in Venice, sets out to offer something for everyone on the theme of man's vision of the universe. Subtitled "Art in pursuit of the Infinite", it charts the way that vision has evolved over the last 200 years, using not only paintings and sculptures but also photographs, drawings and installations.

With about 400 works on display "Cosmos" is something of a visual encyclopedia. Great works of art stand next to others which are mainly of documentary value, the aim of the exhibition being to place art in its social context, and to show how artistic vision is influenced by historical events and scientific discoveries. So, for example, we find a second-rate painting of a hot-air balloon alongside two intensely poetic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich; while in a section devoted to exploration of the Arctic region in the second half of the 19th century, much of the work shown is by amateurs, the interest lying more in the choice of subject painted than in the way it was interpreted.

"Cosmos" presents the exploration of physical space such as the voyage to the Arctic as complementary to an artist's search for the infinite in life and nature. The colonialist impulse of the 19th century, which led Europeans to the ends of the earth, is seen here as a counterpoint to the Romantic aspiration towards the universal, which painters and poets expressed in a spiritual, almost mystical, language.

The 20th century offered a similar situation. Space, as viewers of the television series Star Trek were reminded at the beginning of each episode, was "the final frontier" (a clear reference to the conquest of the Far West in the 19th century). "Cosmos" offers an interesting documentation of the space race, including some memorable photos taken by astronauts on the surface of the moon. The artistic response to that adventure veered between enthusiasm and disenchantment, the latter stemming in part from the sense that the moon had lost its mystery and magic. Man's desire to think of the universe as limitless (and by extension, to feel that life was infinitely rich) was shown to be at loggerheads with his insatiable curiosity; and the only way to resolve that tension, both for scientists and for artists, was to push further forward, to create new frontiers, whether real or imaginary.

As scientists focused their attention, and their telescopes, on ever remoter planets, it became clear that artists could no longer hope to compete in the representation of infinite space. In any case, the avant-garde had long since turned its back on the empirical tradition of 19th-century painting, declaring that artists should be free to create as and how they wanted. Nonetheless, painters were happy to make full use of the new imagery that science offered them, the more so in that the weightless and almost abstract world of outer space allowed them great freedom of interpretation.

The exhibition offers numerous examples of such work, from the geometrical motifs of the Futurists and Suprematists, via the metaphysical fantasies of the Surrealists, to contemporary Conceptual Art. Here the intellectual element is dominant at every stage of the creative process. Whereas the 19th century had seen in nature images that spoke of the human soul, 20th century art proposed the universe as a metaphor for the human mind, itself immaterial and seemingly limitless in its potential.

The mind vs the soul, the thinking head vs the feeling heart? Such comparisons are of course simplistic, and say more about the itinerary chosen by the curators, than about art itself. Indeed this exhibition is often superficial in its analysis, and raises more questions than it even tries to answer. Yet the theme is, or should be, of interest to us all: after all, we live in an age of global markets and global warming, and we are more aware than ever of the fragility of our planet. Any reflection on man's vision of the universe, and of his place in it, can only be welcome.

'Cosmos' at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until 23 July, every day, Sundays and holidays

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