Three wise men, two worlds, and one idea

In recent weeks Lewis Wolpert has argued in his column that art and science are very different disciplines. This seemingly modest belief has caused a fierce debate, with many insisting that art and science are joined at the hip. Over the next three weeks, we present both sides of the debate, starting with Professor Arthur I Miller's essay on Einstein, Picasso and Braque

Professor Arthur I. Miller
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:35

What did Albert Einstein, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso have in common? All of them were artists in their own ways who passionately searched for new means to express the inner beauties of nature that lay beyond the immediate senses. While Einstein expressed himself in mathematics, Braque and Picasso applied paint to canvas.

They pursued their adventures in abstraction at almost the same time. Einstein, in Bern, discovered relativity theory in 1905, Braque and Picasso, in Paris, formulated Cubism between 1907 and 1909. Was this by accident? The answer is no. A fuller reply requires our taking on a much bigger puzzle: Why was it that both art and science became increasingly abstract at the beginning of the 20th century? What emerges is a fascinating story that swirls about a juxtaposition between art and science.

To set the stage we turn to science toward the end of the 19th century when the fin de siecle mood was exploded by three momentous discoveries: the X-rays in 1895, the electron in 1897, and radioactivity in 1898. Scientists burst into the 20th century with heads held high and full of enthusiasm to explore this cache of riches.

Artists, too, crashed headlong into the new century, led by the Impressionists who emphasised colour and light rather than objects. In order to understand Braque and Picasso, we must turn to Paul Cezanne who went beyond the Impressionists. Cezanne explored how to represent differences in a scene over time while shifting his own viewpoint as well. Eventually Cezanne realised that the way to proceed was to integrate surface and depth in such a way that foreground and background merge. He called this process "passage". Cezanne's passage was a means for transforming the everyday garden variety viewing of previous painting styles into one based on taking account of perceptions gathered over long time periods. An astounding spin-off is the disappearance of the perspective point, that great innovation of 15th-century Italian art. Of key importance to Cezanne were the latest scientific theories of colour and the mathematical means to produce a scene with several perspective points, depending on where you view it.

Painters began to realise that ordinary viewing or perception can be misleading because it chained them to a single viewpoint, which prevents a deeper conceptual understanding. In this instance, artists stole a march on scientists who (until the consequences of Einstein's relativity theory were understood) would not begin to learn the lesson that reasoning based heavily on perceptions can mislead. In order to explore the ramifications of Cezanne's paintings we turn to the intellectual scene in Paris at the turn of the century.

Avant-garde was the term loosely applied to the various art movements discussed in Paris which included the Impressionism of Claude Monet, the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne, the pointillism of Georges Seurat, the Fauvism of Henri Rousseau and Henri Matisse, to name but a few. Not unexpectedly, avant-garde was taken to be synonymous with experimentalism. The notion of experimental was intentionally used because artists were being influenced, or at least inspired, by startling new scientific and technological developments such as X-ray imaging, which seemed to eliminate any difference between inside and outside; cinematography, with its multiple- frame exposure; and radical changes in space, time and speed with the introduction of telephones, automobiles and aeroplanes. Young French artists discovered Primitivism through studying African and Polynesian art. If you didn't hear about these developments at your local cafe then you probably did through newspapers. Ideas were everywhere and so was the desire for change.

In 1907 the intensity of intellectual activity in Paris was rivetting. In cafes on the Left Bank, past, present, and future intellectual styles were debated heatedly. The atmosphere was highly charged. The lightening stroke was a 26-year-old Spanish artist at the vortex of all currents, Pablo Picasso. Since first coming to Paris in 1900, Picasso had mimicked all of the popular artists. In 1906 he fell under the spell of Cezanne, referring to him as "my one and only master." What happened next in Picasso's creative life is the result of many intellectual and artistic currents.

By the middle of 1907 Picasso completed what is considered the first painting of the 20th century, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It is the borderline between old and new. It is strikingly transitional in its sweep from the mask-like Egyptian face of the demoiselle on the far left to the savagely distorted and geometrised primitive faces on the far right. It is an ingenious folding together of Cezanne's geometrical-like forms and the conceptual quality of primitive art. It is in Picasso's own style, in which he painted as he thought things were. Cubism was an intensely intellectual adventure.

But the adventure was only beginning because the Demoiselles is not yet a truly Cubist work of art. Rather, it is the seed of the most influential art movement of the 20th century, brought to completion by Picasso and Georges Braque, who met in November 1907. The two men worked so closely together from 1907 to 1909 that Picasso recalled "it was like we were married". At first, however, Braque was horrified by what Picasso had done to space, a concept over which he literally obsessed. Picasso had fractured the Demoiselles so much that all internal consistency was lost. At least while Cezanne had pushed all figures up against the canvas's plane, he maintained their integrity: squares remained approximately squares and so forth.

To get some idea of Braque's obsession with space, he would try to imagine himself moving around a canvas in order to feel the spaces behind and between objects. Braque liked to refer to these spaces as "tactile" spaces. In order to come to terms with Picasso's Demoiselles, Braque returned to the scenes of Cezanne's art in southern France. The results were startling because Braque pushed Cezanne's technique of passage to almost dizzying ends. As a result of what he considered to be his "research into space which is the governing direction of Cubism", Braque invented what he called "a new space". He chopped up receding distances into two-dimensional planes or layers that, in the end, are reassembled to comprise the picture itself. It is as if you constructed a picture layer by layer with the computer software in a drawing programme. Tactile space is squeezed out and the image is produced without a single perspective point, thereby opening new vistas for conceptual explorations. Picasso immediately adopted his colleague's version of passage to which he added his own stamp of genius. Cubism was born.

Braque's quite special concepts of space, it turns out, have a scientific basis almost certainly derived from conversations with members of Picasso's circle in Paris. Starting in 1904, Maurice Princet, an insurance actuary and member of the circle, began a series of informal lectures on the exotic new geometries being explored by mathematicians. Princet's lectures were based on the great French polymath Henri Poincare's best-seller Science and Hypothesis. Poincare's writings were immensely popular, and to artists in France he was particularly well-received owing to his emphasis on the intuitive aspects of creative thought. Certain of Braque's terminology, such as tactile spaces, are in Poincare's Science and Hypothesis. Poincare is a common denominator in our story because Einstein also read his book in 1904 and was inspired by it.

What about the new notions of space and time emerging from Bern, in 1905, where the 26-year-old Einstein was working as a patent clerk? No cause and effect relation is being claimed here between Einstein's 1905 relativity theory and Braque's and Picasso's early researches into Cubism. Change was in the air. The Zeitgeist cannot be disregarded. The same winds of change affected Paris and Bern, where Einstein met frequently with friends and discussed science and culture. The path to Einstein's 1905 theory of relativity is as complex as the one leading to Picasso's Demoiselles of 1907.

The main lesson of Einstein's new theory of space and time was that we cannot trust our senses, according to which space and time are not relative quantities. Up until Einstein's relativity theory, lengths and times were assumed to be independent of who is observing them. And so all observers measure the same lengths and times regardless of their motions relative to one another. This is the way things seem to us owing to our inability to sense phenomena occurring at speeds close to that of light. Direct viewing deceives, as Cezanne already knew by 1905.

Just as the relativity theory of Einstein removed the absolute status of space and time, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso removed the absoluteness of perspective from art. In words applicable to science, too, the poet and commentator on Cubist art, Guillaume Apollinaire, wrote in 1911 of a "scientific Cubism as the art of painting new structures out of elements borrowed not from the reality of sight, but from the reality of insight."

Cubist art represents subject matter simultaneously from different perspectives. How it is viewed affects its interpretation. Relativistic to be sure. In 1912 Apollinaire referred to this intrinsic property of Cubism as exhibiting a "fourth dimension". The three spatial dimensions give depth, while the fourth is motion in time. Apollinaire's description rests on the realisation revealed through relativity theory that the spatial and time dimensions are connected, so that we ought to speak of a four-dimensional space-time, and not of space and time.

By 1911 many artists were familiar with Einstein's relativity theory and Poincare's essays on geometry, both of which influenced their practice of Cubism. An excellent illustration is Marcel Duchamp's groundbreaking Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, which exhibits the effect of emergent technologies, too. No nude figure is evident in Duchamp's painting. But what we do see is motion. Change of position with time is portrayed on a single canvas. Additionally, we notice the unmistakable affect of the French physiologist and inventor Etienne-Jules Marey's pioneering cinemagraphic images, which had an enormous impact on all artists. Then, there is the importance to Duchamp of X-ray photographs wherein figures are stripped of clothes and flesh, and only the skeleton remains.

The fact that no clearcut nude is recognisable on Duchamp's canvas alerts us that something else has occurred in art, namely, trends away from any connection with living forms or designs from nature as we perceive it whatsoever: a true abstract art. After all, with few exceptions, we can always pick out parts of bodies or whatnot in Braque's and Picasso's Cubist renderings. The year 1911 was the turning point because the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky produced the first non-figurative painting entitled Improvisation.

Duchamp and Kandinsky are sometimes set into an offshoot of Cubism in which form and colour replaced recognisable objects. Others in this group were Robert Delaunay, Frank Kupka and Ferdinand Leger. They claimed inspiration from relativity with its new concepts of space and time, but more particularly the equivalence between mass and energy. The mass-energy equivalence from Einstein's 1905 relativity theory seemed proof positive that everything about us is really, at bottom, amorphous.

Even more direct connections between art and science emerge with the appearance in 1913 of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr's atomic theory. It was based on the pleasing visual image of the atom as a minuscule solar system in which the atom's nucleus plays the role of the central sun, while the atom's electrons move in planetary orbits about it. Although, by this time, many artists were in a non- figurative phase, scientists remained rooted in figuration owing to the imposition on Bohr's theory of what turned out, in 1923, to be inappropriate visual imagery: the solar system atom could not deal with the most recent experimental data.

Visual imagery disappeared from atomic physics and mathematics served as a guide to a nether world beyond perceptions. It was in this state of physics that, in 1925, the atomic physics used today, called quantum mechanics, was discovered. But what continued to terribly confuse scientists was that the electron turned out to be both wave and particle at the same time. Try to imagine such a thing - you cannot. Indeed, the original argument against the wave-particle duality of electrons and light was the lack of visual imagery for such a "thing".

In 1927 Bohr suggested a way out of this morass which he called complementarity. An electron is the sum total of its wave and particle properties which complement one another. Yet, in any experimental arrangement, an electron can exhibit only its wave or particle modes of existence, not both. Depend-ing on how you look at it, that is the way it is. The connection with Cubism is straightforward and not accidental. How we know this goes as follows.

In the 1930s, when Bohr moved into a spacious mansion in Copenhagen provided by the Carlsberg Foundation, he had carte blanche to furnish it. Being an art aficionado, we might expect to see in his study a painting by one of the masters of Cubism, a Braque, a Gris, or a Picasso. Instead Bohr exhibited a Cubist painting by Metzinger, who was considered to be a minor Cubist painter, although a major theorist of that genre. This choice indicates a special interest in Cubism by Bohr which we can trace to a widely read book that Metzinger co-authored in 1912 with another Cubist pain-ter Albert Gleizes, entitled On Cubism.

In their Cubist manifesto, Gleizes and Metzinger described a Cubist painting as representing a scene as if the observer is "moving around an object [in order to] seize it from several successive appearances." Since Bohr read widely we can safely assume that he read their book before 1927 and that passages of this sort impressed him. Mogens Anderson, a Danish artist and close friend of Bohr, recollected Bohr's pleasure in giving "form to thoughts to an audience at first unable to see anything in [Metzinger's] painting. They came with a preconceived idea of what art should be." Such was the case in 1913, when atomic physicists had a preconceived visual image of the atom as a minuscule solar system. By 1923 atomic physicists had come to realise the inadequacy of visual perception. In 1927 Bohr offered a motif of the atomic world with striking parallels to the motif of multiple perspectives in Cubism: according to complementarity, an electron has two sides - wave and particle. Depending on how you look at it, that is, what experimental arrangement is used, that is what it is.

By 1927 art had become increasingly non-figurative and verging toward today's Abstract Expressionism. Yet it is striking that neither Einstein nor Braque and Picasso ever entered into an Abstract Expressionist period. By Einstein not entering such a phase I mean that his highly creative research in physics derived from formulating theories whose visual imagery remained essentially that of our daily world. Such was not the case for the rich variety of visual images that emerged from the mathematics of quantum mechanics.

Today, art and science are more abstract than at any other moment in the history of these disciplines. Their symbols are meant as guides to a physical reality hidden beyond appearances. As the playwright Tom Stoppard wrote recently, "Science and art are nowadays beyond being like each other. Sometimes they seem to be each other."

! Arthur I. Miller is author of `Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art' (Corpenicus pounds 15.95)

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