It’s well known that many of the great breakthroughs in science seem to occur both independently and near-simultaneously: Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz and the development of calculus; Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi and the invention of the radio; Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution are just three famous examples of radical new theories and inventions appearing in apparent isolation from one another. But what if scientific developments are prefigured by artists, who elucidate new concepts and manners of expressing space, light and time which capture the essence of radical new approaches to theoretical physics years before they actually occur? This is the subject for Leonard Shlain’s fascinating book, Art and Physics.
Shlain takes the reader on a journey through history, from the classical art of the Greco-Roman world through the spiritual mosaics of the medieval era and the Age of Reason up to the present day; from Euclidean geometry to Galileo, Newton and the discoveries of Einstein. In doing so, he paints a compelling picture of a strong – albeit often unwitting – correlation between art and physics; of art demonstrating profound truths about the way in which the universe is constructed, visualizing abstract concepts which scientists are only capable of articulating in complex formulas.
As Wyndham Lewis once said, “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present,” and perhaps nowhere is this more self-evident than in the works of the masters of modern art. Where the Renaissance artists, having rediscovered Greek philosophy, infused their works with a new understanding of geometry, perspective, light and shadow, the artists of the modern age subverted these long-standing “rules” of art, defying gravity, time and the idea of the pure, subjective viewer.
Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, a work which purposely violated the reified laws of perspective.
Marcel Duchamp’s Woman Descending the Staircase, No. 2, described by the artist as, “an expression of time and space through the abstract presentation of motion.”
Salvador Dali’s Agnostic Symbol, portraying the effect of mass upon spacetime in its immediate vicinity.
Shlain’s theory is as provocative as it is compelling – but he is quite clear to make the point that the artists in question were not aware of the parallels their works had with new theories in science, even when these parallels have been pointed out to them. Many of the great minds covered in Art and Physics actively deny any link between their art or scientific discoveries, reflecting the wide gulf between these disciplines: both Newton and Einstein held art in low esteem, while Rene Magritte once said of science, “I am, of course, unable to appreciate science, not being a scientist … scientific conquests and the more or less precise goals of scientific endeavour don’t interest me at all.” At the same time, he was painting images which captured the essence of spacetime, such as in his playfully impossible painting The Glasshouse.
Shlain explores this notion of art introducing “symbols and icons that in retrospect prove to have been an avante-garde for the thought patterns of a scientific age not yet born” with a comprehensive range of examples, balanced with a clear outline of the science, in which he renders complex theoretical physics in a fashion that is understandable to the layman. In drawing his conclusions, Shlain touches upon what are perhaps equally controversial topics such as the presence of a universal mind – or perhaps Jung’s collective unconscious – and the transcendent power of mythology and symbolism, as well as the neurology of hemispheric thinking and the synthesis of left/right mindsets, where concrete scientific notions become realised through art. As Marshall McLuhan once said: “The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.”