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Visit with Jim – Science Crashes into Art

I was recently trying to further bridge the gap between my mental model of having a right brain – left brain construct (while no longer considered an accurate model) with one side being artistic and the other being a logical scientist.   How did that relate to the artwork?  How did one’s mind set up and pose the question/experiment: “what would happen if?’ to have the results carried forward by the other artistic side?

That is what it feels like, but the reality and the literature shows the two to be much closer together and less distinct.  While researching this I came to learn that there are an abundant number of examples where the creative artistic mind looks to be much closer to the scientific mind.   Importantly, both push boundaries. 

“Science and art are not separate domains. They are interlinked, and the boundaries between them are blurring.” – Yo-Yo Ma

Expanding the body of scientifically based knowledge is highly similar to expanding the body of art available to be considered.   New techniques allow the artist to break conventions and norms and develop new ways of creating, visualizing and experiencing art.  New art can be experienced in old ways and old art can be experience in deeply immersive digital experiences. 

Was there / is there a seeming equivalency to the apple striking Newton’s head prompting him to think and imagine a new way to envision the fundamental force of gravity and the colorful boundary breaking art of Jackson Pollock?  Could there be a closer pairing between the architect and the engineer or the interior designer and artisan furniture craftsman?  My marriage in the realm of macrophotography and microscopy seems a very close match.  Perhaps too close to see if art and science do pair up well.  So a few examples might help us see the line between the two blur and then ultimately, completely extinguish.

Consider Ramon y Santiago Cajal’s drawings.  They are a stunning insight into neuronal pathways, tracts, tissues and nerves themselves.  As a younger physician, I was able to look at them in a rather sterile scientific manner.  This example of the hippocampus which is an part of the brain that is important to forming memories. It seemed diagrammatic in my earlier years. I did not see them as art.  With my current experiences in tow, thanks to the hippocampus, it is impossible to view them in awe and consider them in a manner similar to delicate pen and ink artwork. Cajal’s scientific visions of small spaces that were hitherto unseen by most of the world, were discovered under a microscope and shared with a broader community.  Some are arrestingly simple and get to the essence of a specific nerve, while others wrestle with the complexity of the optic tracks to help the same audience literally SEE how we see. He pushed the boundaries to expand our body of scientific knowledge and in doing so broadened our available body of art.  How would you push those boundaries?  What creative contributions can you create? There are so many more wonderful drawings out there ponder. I encourage you to explore and enjoy.

“Art is a science, and science is an art; the two are not enemies, but different aspects of the whole.” – Isaac Asimov

Staying within the realm of discovering small worlds and sharing them outward, we can simply walk back in time only 200 years from Cajal’s late 1800s to to Robert Hooke in the mid 1600’s.  Here we find an amazing array of creatures and biologicals that we would never know about without him pushing several boundaries.  His scientific endeavors helped him to look through a microscope and see new worlds that always existed around us, but were hitherto unseen.  He drew out with painstaking detail the images that were in front of him beyond the lenses.  Those drawings are a stark departure from the paintings of the day that show scenes in rooms, houses, conceptual images or wide landscapes.   Hooke looked deeper into space below him.  For me it was a remarkable departure from the existing art of the day. 

To this day, his Micrographia: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon is a standard for scientists to understand the evolution of the microscopic sciences.  I did not say he was creative in how he titled a manuscript.   The drawings are as artful as they are literal.  They are amazingly detailed and crisp.  Here again, there is a strong nod to his artistic work when I am working my studio viewing the interaction of Oil, ink, Glass and Air through a macro lens at very close up ranges.  Where would you break down a barrier or wall to create new art?  His depicted equipment deeply resonates with me and my studio – camera set up.

“Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A scant 100 years before him is Leonardo da Vinci.  He broke barriers and pushed beyond in nearly every direction 0-360 degrees, N/E/S/W, up/down/sideways and beyond. Moving quickly past the Mona Lisa, it is the artwork in the scientific examination of the Vitruvian Man, his artistry in pen and ink sketching of the human anatomy while at the  hospital Santa Maria Nuova are a sight to behold.  The context of how delicate the specimens must have removed, prepared, displayed, the bodies respected and the attention to detail in the recreation on paper showed the world something that would never have been seen before, except perhaps on battlefields: the internal workings and anatomical relationships of the human body.  As a physician, this is common knowledge and I know these images as well. 

However, as an artist, they take on a whole new meaning when viewed alongside Cajal and Hooke.  Discovering these new views in science occurred while he pushed boundaries and shared what was unearthed with the world to redirect everyone’s thinking in profoundly altering powerful ways. 

Staying in this marvelous moment in time we find the remarkable Maria Sibylla Merian.  She was a passionate botanist and entomologist in the mid-late 1600s with a portfolio of science that is stunningly beautiful.  Six hundred years later they are still masterpieces. Her depictions of flowers, butterflies, caterpillars, insects and Animalia are so delicate and accurate, it is hard to capture a photograph in such detail, let alone hand draw these as they move and still capture their essence.  She furthered her adventure by traveling to what will become Surinam and led an adventure in the South American rainforest

discovering, drawing and detailing the life that played out in front of her.  To see her works compels one to consider her remarkable gift and mind and sense of courage in breaking all norms and bringing these tropical flora and fauna back for all to see and learn about through shareable pictorial skill.  Her application of science broke the barrier and she brought it out in remarkable artwork. I encourage you to know her story. It is worth reading for those who do not know it.

I will return back to the late 1800 and early 1900’s with Ernst Haeckel.  His collection of color works are stand alone beautiful hand drawings of lichens, flowers, jellyfish, octopi, bats and other creatures attempting to explain scientific concepts.  Sidestepping those for this consideration, we can look at the stunning detail and curation of these specimens on the same as both collectively and individually beautiful. Form and function sit side by side in the image below as we can understand how the jellyfish propels itself to move, the creature floats in unseen water as if, and each one seems to thoughtfully weave past the others.   It would be nearly impossible to see them, consider the skill required to create them by hand and not see artwork. They are standalone beautiful. I caution the reader that my remarks are limited to the crossover of his scientific study of these creatures and his demonstrations. This stops far short of his other research and philosophical theories.

Next week we will move towards art inspiring science. 

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