Thursday, April 8, 2010

4/8: Art and visual culture leading up to and into the 20th century

Last Update: 04-11-2010 15:35:00

04-07-2010 23:31:39
The late 19th century was a period of dramatic change in the art world, and this extended into all of visual culture. What were these changes? Were there ways in which visual culture was a driver of more general change in the culture? Do you see these changes as largely a collection of experiments without a central theme, or is there some coherence to be found among the new developments?

04-08-2010 08:38:50
Taking the ‘art world’ part of visual culture, it is possible to see that artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century responded in a variety of different ways to Darwin’s ideas, or what they thought them to be - confusion and conflation with other evolutionary theories were common. Equally, the reactions could be determined by the fears , suspicion or sense of exhilaration they inspired. If there is a ‘coherence’, or rather unifying element, in terms of visual response it may be the reflections that Darwin’s ideas provoked regarding [hu]man’s uniqueness, and position in the natural world. This is far from implying an over-arching 'theme'. Of course, these drew not only on ideas expressed in On the Origin of Species, but also, notably, The Descent of Man and The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

04-08-2010 09:10:05
Yes. Many important visual themes unfolded during the latter part of the 19th century in Darwin’s wake that are with us now. For example determinism – the idea that we are the product of our hereditary makeup – is explored in Barbara’s Larson’s description of how Redon attempted to reconcile his scientism with spiritual beliefs.

The nature/nurture conflict visually unfolds during this time– you can see artists testing ideas (sometimes through animal depictions) of whether social behavior can be explained by evolutionary advantage. This is apparent in the artwork of Abbott Thayer (both late 19th century and early 20th century work), much of which was devoted to investigations of camouflage and its role in the bleak Darwinian struggle for existence.

What is so interesting are the many connections among key individuals at this time and how the various ideas get distributed and refashioned (particularly among the art and science communities). For example, we know (via Roy Behren’s work) that Thayer’s relative was involved with a naturalist expedition led by Agassiz that included William James, who, at a later date, became essential to Thayer.

Deterministic ideas resonate now, in publications like Dutton’s Art Instinct. Although most of us would dismiss the sentimentality of some Victorian art, the desire for agency is still with us. It explains the appeal for Barack Obama of late 19th century works by George Frederic Watts, whose paintings “Evolution” and “Hope” depict the efforts to rise above one’s circumstances and gave rise to the phrase “Audacity of Hope” in a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that Barack Obama used as a title for one of his books.

**image, Abbot H. Thayer and Richard Meryman, Peacock in the Woods.

04-08-2010 12:37:48
my task is to weigh in on some of the larger trends in the visual arts with regard to evolution.

first, turning to the discovery of deep time [as explored by stephen j. gould and martin rudwick} we see the emergence of depth perception in landscape. by this i mean the envisioning of nature from the bottom up as well as a nature in turmoil: i am thinking of the various cataclysmic landscape painting schools: the successors to turner's "biblical" epics like john martin's meditations on the rise and fall of ancient as well as modern cities and erosion/ destruction of vast territories, their inhabitants both human and animal.

importantly, nature qua nature--as an entity separate from humanity also appears on the scene: an uncultivated/ unpeopled wilderness older than the oldest human remains, with its own characteristic script--the peculiar markings of the fossil record with its scratches, pitting, and inclusions [see edgar allen poe's voyage of e gordon pym}: that is, nature as writing its own history, a natural history parallel to what gibbon and montesquieu had done in the eighteenth century for the decline and fall of the creations of man.

second, there was the lateral expansion of exploration: it's third flowering since the renaissance. to be sure there were many illustrated voyages before darwin.

but the scientific bent that we already see in baron volney's monumental multivolume voyage en egypte extended to new dominions: from australia to assyria. photography also entered the lists although not unseating engraving, etching, and increasing lithography, until the later 19th century,

this universe of new images and imagery was incorporated into the paintings and sculpture of the french, british, and german orientalists--both in terms of ethnographic accuracy but also--very much in line with alexander von humboldt--in the formulation of what he termed the construction of a cosmic or weltlandschaft. he meant by this, among other things, the incorporation of natural processes: the volcanoes, earthquakes, past and present upheavals that shaped and continue to shape our environment and its constant darwinian pressure on humanity to adapt, adjust, innovate, or die.

04-08-2010 14:48:32
Throughout the 19th century, a number of visual artists were fascinated by optical effects and informally experimented with the physical properties of light and color. For instance, the French Romanticist painter and printmaker Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made some significant contributions to Impressionism with his insights into light. He “saw the light,” so to speak, on multiple planes of reality, including the more abstract plane: its symbolic nature. We see possibility in his larger-than-life painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830). Delacroix’s heroic paintings of historical events were more than recollections of humankind’s actions and dreams. They were also visions of how the visual culture of the arts and humanities could help enrich, inspire and shape our world in uplifting ways. From my perspective, he cast a romantic light on how the sciences could also enrich and inform the arts and culture, as well. That new light of optimism opened some new thoughts many years later on the evolution of visual cultures, when the arts and sciences started to visibly merge with their common perceptions of light.

Some art historians might say this mergence commenced when artists, such as Claude Monet, the French Impressionist, and Paul Cézanne, the French Post-Impressionist painter, started seeing the whole world outside “the box” of artistic traditions. Literally so. In the case of Monte, As other painters applied their talents and skills toward studiously re-creating various masterpieces in Le Louvre, apparently he turned his gaze toward the natural world beyond the windows of that magnificent institution. Nature became his subject, not the staged paintings of nature and history by his predecessors. Monet’s practice of purposing his tools and paints to expressively render his impressions of nature quickly evolved into the process of plein-air landscape painting (John House et al., Monet in the 20th Century, 1998). His two paintings, On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, and Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant (1872) inspired many other brilliant examples of this Impressionist’s adventures. Monet did more than simply “record” the dramatic changes of color-n-lights that illuminate the built and natural world. He interpreted aspects of light and its interactions with matter that could not be immediately grasped by microscopes or peeled away by pure observational science.

I’ve always been curious why Monet’s refreshing act of en plein air (painting outdoors), in which he experienced the world as a naturalist of sorts – exploring the subtleties of light, color, shadow, and other textures of the material world -- is not more closely linked to the studies of chiaroscuro paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other artists of the Italian Renaissance. Is that because these earlier painters only sketched nature outdoors, and then completed these studies indoors from memory and with imagination? Or is that link merely fictional, because we can’t really see traces of deliberate gestures and expressive tones in the painted surfaces of the Dutch landscape painter, Jan Dirksz Both (1610-18)? And yet, his use of chiaroscuro (contrasting tones of light and darkness) seems to anticipate Monet’s paintings of haystacks and other rural scenes. In some sense, these earlier works mark “the precedence of the unprecedented.” They reveal this evolution of interests and intentions in representing nature au naturel. They also bridge not just the visual cultures that naturally unite the arts and sciences, but also the perceptual experiences of artists and scientists alike.

Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" was not only an allegory about the politics of this period, but also a bold new view on liberating human potential by realizing our creative freedoms (in my opinion).

Here are the two other paintings by Monet that I'd mentioned in the previous post: On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, and Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant (1872). I think both paintings have deep taproots in their reflections on light that can be traced back to Delacroix and that naturally grew into or influenced the more integrative "artscience" approaches to the study of light, which we tend to associate with the works of the French Pointillist painter Seurat.

04-08-2010 15:52:10
Barbara Stafford, your thoughts on how the evolution of imagery and visual culture in the 19th century may have prompted scientists and artists to expand and deepen their understanding of the universe made me wonder: Did nature-painters, such as Monet and Cezanne, ever wonder what natural connections exist between their calm landscapes and tranquil still-lifes to the larger unseen turbulent landscapes of the cosmos? Or did they hyper-focused on what was in front of their field of view, and that's what they painted: no more, no less? I'm curious if these remarkably sensitive artists were absorbing the creative acts and inquiries of the scientists of their times. I mean, no one paints in a void. I'd extend that same question to the scientists and mathematicians of their times, too. How did Monet's and Cezanne's unique approaches to the study of light, energy, and matter influence how scientists envisioned nature at that time?

04-08-2010 18:42:03
I have an essay called "The New Astronomy and the Expanding Cosmos: The View from France at the End of the 19th Century" in the catalogue Cosmos which addresses this to some extent. Solar physics was bringing the investigation of energy and light to bear upon solar-terrestrial relationships and also meteorology was rapidly advancing. On a popular level metereological balloons were constantly being launched in Paris and were part of public spectacle. In terms of solar physics, there was a great deal of interest in defining the sun's energy sources. During the early Impressionist years there was much discussion about the sun--eclipse studies, intended to facilitate observation of solar phenomena, the surface and corona of the sun--were widely discussed in the French press. An important (and lasting) model of the sun was proposed by the French astronomer Faye in 1865 and summarized by Secchi in his The Sun, the Principal Modern Discoveries about the Structure of this Star, its Influence in the Universe and Its Relation to other Celestial Bodies (1870), but lots of popularizers were writing about the sun and about meteorology. it would be impossible for Monet not to be aware of this. The dynamics/evolution of the universe was also a major topic of discussion by scientific popularizers. We can most readily see a response to ideas about deep, dynamic space in terms of post-Impressionism in van Gogh.

04-08-2010 21:11:25
Barbara, I'm really looking forward to reading your publication!

On a related note: when you consider how Alexander von Humboldt’s five-volume books, Kosmos (1845), intrigued the minds of their inquisitive readers who were engaged enough to see the connections Humboldt drew between various sciences and their branches of knowledge, I can imagine how it may have piqued the imagination of Monet, Cezanne, Seurat and others interested in these connections. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been curious about Humboldt’s work and that their curiosity was not superficial; in fact, it would've influenced the way they thought about their artwork. In terms of Monet, I’m suggesting that what appears to be a calm, restful scene at Bennecourt, Seine, may well be something deeper and more reflective about the bigger picture of life and light. The woman on the banks of the river seems to be gazing at the future of art and its full integration with the whole of life. I don't see it as a casual observation of an artist with Monet's sensitivity painting a peaceful moment in the light of day. But that’s my hundreth impression. Of course, my imagination may be warped as I'm inclined to read more into all great works of art that sometimes just isn't there.

I’ve often felt the same way about Seurat’s pointillist creation, La Grande Jatte (1884). Somehow, this painting prompts me to see something much larger conceptually than an artist illuminating the simple joys of people experiencing a Sunday afternoon in this glorious Parisian park. Even though Seurat aimed for simple serenity, who could say that his subconscious mind was not reaching to realize a higher aspiration: perhaps, to touch the endlessly restless particle-waves of light, which he intuitively expressed as dots and dashes of pure, contrasting colors.

“Covered in a multitude of tiny points, which range in size from a pin head to a dime, the painting’s presentation is utterly breathtaking,” writes Robert Herbert, the guest curator of “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte” (2004) at The Art Institute of Chicago. “Was this the effect Seurat had intended? It excites the viewer to see the effects of years of meticulous work, but it fails to calm the viewer to a relaxed, blissful state as Seurat had envisioned,” Herbert writes. “The busyness of the points overwhelms the canvas. For example, the man’s outstretched leg in the left foreground is a rainbow of colors; the pants appear white in the illuminated portion, but in the shadows, they are really speckled with a myriad of primary and secondary colors. Seurat has the right idea of using unexpected colors to enhance the image, but in this case, he went overboard. He used at least six different colors in the white pants alone, dizzying the audience to the point where they have a hard time absorbing the rest of the two-by-three meter painting.” (Source:

Imagine this: If Humboldt had painted a part of the cosmos—to accompany his writing about the various scientific fields that were aiming to piece together their data, views and interpretations on the universe—would his painting have shown a similar complexity or ‘busyness of the points”? What would this composition of purely scientific knowledge look like? Would it resemble a vast color field of dots and dashes that ‘overwhelm the canvas’ of our consciousness, like this small detail from Seurat’s painting, Les Poseuses (c.1888) looks at any distance from the canvas? Or would Humboldt’s dots of information finally come into focus, forming a single, comprehensive image of the cosmos that we’d never seen before?

04-08-2010 23:05:42
Todd and Barbara Larson find rich layers of meaning in these images, and no doubt they can be there even if the artist is not conscious of them.

We should certainly continue to pursue unconscious themes, but I would also be curious to hear of instances in which the creators of images are consciously intending to convey ideas about evolution.


04-09-2010 05:36:25
Here is one! Of a set of three, and a relatively rare case where an artist refers specifically to Darwin in the title of the work. Which is not, of course, to suggest that the impact of evolutionary thought (not only Darwin's) depends on so direct a textual reference. Rops was reputedly well-versed in the sciences and certainly knew Darwin's work: this particular images seems to evoke Darwin's hypothesis in Descent (vol 1, 208) about the existence of some 'extremely ancient mammal .. [that] .. possessed organisms proper to both sexes, that is continued to be androgynous after it had acquired the chief distinctions of its proper class.'. The distinction between 'consciously intending to convey' ideas about evolution and 'illustrating' them may be a fine one ...

Félicien Rops, Transformismes (Les Darwiniques) ca. 1879, no. 2

04-09-2010 08:37:23
I should like to pick-up a theme raised in the postings by Barbara and Todd, regarding the relationship between artists’ and scientists’ perception of Nature. I teach a “First Year Seminar” course entitled “Art or Science: Which Road to Reality?” to entering students at my university. We begin the course with the conjunction “or” and close with “and,” as we explore the parallels and complementarities of “art” and “science” (what some might call “right brain” and “left brain” cognition) in the depiction of the world around us. One of the many intriguing issues that arise in the study of such a grand question is the matter of antecedent and of cause-and-effect, as we wrestle with the connection between science and art. Are they simply independent, parallel views of Nature; or, does a paradigm shift in science drive a new movement in art, or vice-versa? Looking through the diverse literature on this multivariate question, one finds a wide range of opinions. Personally, I like to think (and I teach my students) that there is “artistic” and “scientific” reasoning subliminally active in each and every human being – whether we are a trained “artist” or a trained “scientist.”

One causative aspect is certain: It was the existence of the term “artist” that, in a way, led to the coining of the term “scientist.” The word “scientist” did not come into common usage (designating someone who does “science” as a profession) until the mid-19th century. At a famous meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in the 1830s (when the practice of science was becoming a profession – a job – as opposed to a leisurely avocation for the well-to-do, Darwin being one), a group of intellectuals were (literally) sitting around, scratching their heads, musing what to call those who do “science.” William Whewell, a famous philosopher and theologian (and a widely-known wordsmith), posited (it was reported) that, “We call those who do ‘art’ ‘artists’; why not call those who do ‘science’ ‘scientists’.” The name stuck.

Kevin asked in one of his postings if we see clear evidence of “evolutionary thinking” in art works of the late 19th century, or before. There is a risk here that we may look for too overt an expression of “evolution” in such works. Let’s ponder: What is “evolution”? Well, I would answer, not with a “Darwinian” textbook definition, but with a set of adjective descriptors and qualifiers. Aside from specialized biological terms, I think of words like “origin,” “emergence,” “creation,” “birth-and-death,” “change,” “flow,” “time,” “development,” “lineages,” inter alia. Such themes (sometimes subliminally) were underlying components in the worlds of poetry and art (for example, in some of the works of the Romantic Period) long before the mid-1800s, and they certainly continued post-Darwin as well. I often think of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in this context. He is, of course, remembered (and revered) most notably for his novels and plays. Yet, he dabbled extensively in such endeavors as the theory of colors and the description of growth-and-form in the living world. Goethe looked at growing plants, for example, and saw that we must view change in living beings as a flowing emergence from an “archetypal form.” (I recall that Todd asked earlier about the notion of “arche.”) Goethe’s views influenced the thinking of such later “scientists” as Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley. Also, there is the work of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather). Opening the pages of his Zoonomia, The Temple of Nature, and The Botanic Garden, one finds not only literary allusions and metaphors of “evolution,” but the artistic illustrations also bespeak the subject! Just to mention a few examples.

There are some scientists, artists, historians, and cultural commentators who argue that is shifts in artistic expression, indeed, that precede (arguably cause) scientific change. A case-in-point is the late-19th-century Impressionistic movement noted in the postings of Todd and Barbara. It is believed by some that this artistic form actually set the stage for the development of the theory of relativity at the turn of the century – the notion that there are no “absolutes” in our perception of the world of space and time (see Einstein’s Space and Van Gogh’s Sky, by L. Leshan and H. Margenau [1982]). The potential causal (inter)relationship of art and science throughout history is fascinating. One might also see the following references (among many): Art and Physics, by L. Shlain (1993); Breaking the Mind Barrier: The Artscience of Neurocosmology, by T. Siler (1997); Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci, by B. Atalay (2004); and Fields of Influence: Conjunctions of Artists and Scientists, by J. Hamilton (2001).

04-09-2010 08:52:23
There are a few points that I feel are really relevant to this topic of discussion, which I’d like to call out, but in separate posts. They all concern our experiences of nature, which remains our common touchstone for discovery, innovation and real world problem solving.

There’s a long history of artists whose art studios were the great outdoors. It extends far back from those 19th century painters who were part of the Barbizon school and Impressionism camp, and who preferred the open air to the confines of a walled space. No doubt, this move to outdoor painting picked up in the 1870s due to advances in paintings’ primary tool: paints. The innovation of small tubes of paint that were easily portable enabled artists to experience spaces and places that, in effect, shifted their perceptions of the world in rather radical ways. Without that technological innovation, Cézanne, for example, may never have absorbed the lessons from painting Mt. Sainte-Victoire that was close to his home in Aix-en-Provence; and, consequently, these lessons would neither have become part of the learning’s of Modernism nor the inspirations for scientists and mathematicians who may have been influenced by Cezanne’s discovery of the hidden dimensions of ‘flat-depth.’ Clearly, the Cubists would soon be building on those dimensions and, subsequently, pushing our perceptions of light, space, time, and matter to walk in new frontiers with open plains and territories for our imagination to roam. This one lesson—namely, that it is possible to create new spatial dimensions and visual effects by boldly manipulating the seemingly flat planes that –led to another lesson: the possibility of painting the same scene from slightly different angles of analyses to gain a greater picture of the subject. Cezanne create over 60 paintings of that majestic piece of natural architecture. In fact, when people would ask derisively, "Don’t you get bored painting that same scene over and over again" (or something to that effect), Cezanne would reply: “No, I just change my canvas a few degrees and see a whole new picture” (or something to that effect :) You would be hard pressed to find even one great practitioner of science who hasn’t been asked by the “uninitiated” individual who's unfamiliar with the enterprise of science a similar question about what they perceive as endless repetitions and rigorous perceptual analyses our minds walk through in creatively and critically processing our experiences. (I have some more things to note about that "walking" metaphor shortly.)

Those two lessons and others I’d like to shortly elaborate on in separate posts here, because it opens up a seriously deep discussion about some points of experiences that unite artists, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technologists, and just about every human being, whose brains love to experience new and exciting adventures as we immerse ourselves in the treats and surprises of nature. Where the catalysts for Cezanne’s creativity and change came from observing the mountain’s geological facets or the coastline at L’Estaque, they come from other natural sources too. Basic sources that we all draw from and daydream about…in the process of innovating.


04-09-2010 11:47:29
In response to Kevin's request to explore the influence of evolution on art in the late nineteenth century, I confess to be overwhelmed because there are so many artists who do so, most notably within the Symbolist movement. Let me point the reader in the direction of the two exhibition catalogues from the Darwin bicentennial year on the subject: the Yale/Fitzwilliam, Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts; the Schirn Kunsthalle art catalogue Darwin and the Search for Origins, and my edited volume The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinism, and Visual Culture. There one will find reproduced many examples of ways in which evolution and even specifically Darwinism directly affected painting, sculpture and visual culture in general. The Naturalist movement was also engaged in evolution. To give a sense of how popular evolution had become in France alone, the winning grand prize at the official salon exhibition of 1880 was Cormon's Cain, a recasting the biblical history in which the murderous brother is a kind of missing link, hulking stoop shouldered and permanently bent at the knee, seeming to run from his own barely dawning conscience (just where and how human guilt and self-awareness factored into evolution was of much interest in France at the time).


04-09-2010 14:49:51
Barbara, I'd to respond to your post here after I complete my thoughts in response to Kevin's request to discuss this: how ‘creators of images are consciously intending to convey ideas about evolution.’

I need to first pick up where I left off in my previous post, where I wanted to open the concept of "evolution" up to include a wide range of interpretations of it offered by one 19th & 20th century scientist/engineer, in particular, whose work I think represents a broad, yet deep, definition and demonstration of this concept.

Also, I’ll try my best to relate the following points to my personal experiences as both an “image creator,” “image analyzer” and “image processor” who’s spent a lifetime percolating on so many of these intertwine topics on visual culture we're entertaining here.

I tend to believe that virtually every artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, and technology-minded individual [from the dawn of the 19th century, and long before] has created images of evolutionary processes and that these images impacted their work -- whether or not they were aware of this, or would even admit this. Often, we intend or purpose our images to mean one thing, but in reality they have countless connections and associations with so many things my mind aches just mentioning this!

One glowing example I’ll single out here is the “ArtScientist” Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943). This thought leader was so much more than a prolific inventor, mechanical and electrical engineer. Some might say Tesla's colorful, thought-provoking demonstrative works of ArtScience [art that fully integrates the sciences] were precedence for what the 1960's & 1970s art critics and historians called "Performance Art."

In any event, his artful, practical, technological innovations were inspired equally by great literature (Geothe) and nature (mountain and park hikes) alike. I find that his brilliant "statement-pictures" (to borrow Rom Harre's word) about his inspirations reveal universal insights into visual culture’s power to enlighten, inform, and propel us to new heights of awareness and achievement. Tesla’s images of evolution are the artifacts of his pioneering experiments with electricity and the innovations that organically grew out of them.

For me, Tesla was to our conceptual evolution of electrical systems, what Darwin was to our conceptual evolution of life systems. Both of these polymaths were profoundly connected to nature and not just students of nature. Both drew some of the deepest insights into the ways of nature’s interconnected world of systems that we've all benefited from immeasurably.

When I think of how this astonishing individual integrated art-science-engineering-mathematics-technology, he did so as intuitively and fluidly as nature does. According to the engrossing scholarly accounts of Tesla’s life, this impatient genius, apparently, bristled with a rare creative energy that didn't want to waste any intellectual energy or time preparing extensive schematics of his novel electrical mechanism. Why bother, when he could tangibly visualize in the privacy of his mind what he would, subsequently, render in real life from recall. (Of course, this uniquely personal act of visualization confounded everyone, including those patient, venture capitalists who backed his ambitious engineering projects while they anxiously pace the halls like expectant fathers in a maternity ward!)

My point is: There’s no single path to discovery and innovation in any field of artistic, scientific, and technological endeavor, any more than there’s only one view of Mt. Saint-Victoire above all which Cezanne would claim was “The View” to his discovery of the dimensions in flat-depth. Similarly there's no one way to see anything or understand anything, no matter how certain we are about what we're seeing and what we believe is the most relevant information to understand. This statement is generalizable even to something as concrete, specific, tested, and verified as one of the rock-solid cornerstones of chemistry: namely, the Russian chemist, Dimitri Mendeleyev (1834-1907) "Periodic Table of the Elements." In fact, there are hundreds of periodic tables of sorts, each configured with its own elegant geometry that's designed to illuminate another aspect of the various chemical properties of all elements.

The upshot is, evolution has provided many paths for our bodies and minds to experience as we walk into the Wilderness of Creativity in search of spotting or sparking nature's inventions that we cleverly innovate from to create viable solutions for our challenges. I believe this to be true, although I can't "prove it" any more than we can prove a general theory: Nature invents. "Humanature" innovates.

Anyway, to wander along my path of thought a little farther: both Darwin and Tesla took those mind walks frequently that lead to some phenomenal discoveries. More to the point: they always with this understanding: "Science walks on two legs: Theory and Practice." That anonymous truism about the process of science and progress of technology is profoundly relevant to the arts, as well (and I mean all forms, expressions and mediums of art-making, which I’ll describe later on).

There’s a fascinating physical reality behind that statement that strides past the metaphor itself and heads straight into the unique paths that Darwin and Tesla walked—drawing inspirations and insights from the infinite wellspring of nature.

Yikes! I went over my word limit -- and the patience limit of the Twitter community! I'm certain my way of communicating is destined to become extinct in this world of word limits, where we think we're saying more in just a few words when, in reality, it seems we're understanding less...all in the name of simplicity. (There's something evolutionary about that process, too!)


04-09-2010 14:57:11

Here’s one vivid example of Tesla’s experience to anchor this point. Tesla had been mulling over the ‘the possibility of an AC motor and the rotational effects associated with alternating currents’ (Cheney and Uth, 1999; p.11), and his leisurely walk yielded one of the great innovations in electrical power of the twentieth century. As Tesla recollects: “One afternoon…I was enjoying a walk with my friend [Anital Szigety] in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe’s Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a glorious passage: ‘The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;/ It yonders hastes, new fields of life exploring:/ Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil/ Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!’ As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sane the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. The images were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal. ‘See my motor here; watch me reverse it’ (Tesla 1919c; Cheney and Uth, 1999; p.11).

Just as Darwin and Monet and Cezanne and Picasso, and all the other legendary figures whose timeless creativity we extol, were masterful walkers, Tesla took those walks in nature that enabled his creative genius to leaped intuitively from the advanced, virtual 3D visualizations he was able to see so lucidly in his mind's eye to the realization of those imaginary 3D constructions that resulted in physical working prototypes that actually demonstrated what he envisioned.
Walking the Paths to Discovery. Here’s Darwin’s “Thinking Path” at Down House (Darwin 1887, pp. 114–116). I’m sure science and math historians have hundreds of them.)

04-09-2010 15:50:56
So many innovations in art-science-technology-mathematics-engineering have come from these casual walks with our theories and practices...when we simply let our imaginations happily wander until something catches the attention of one or all of our six senses.

Naturally, some of the great intellectual athletes of art-science-technology are like Olympian "Triple Jumpers" (master of the hop, skip and jump). Tesla was one of them. He was like Willie Banks, Jr. the Olympic Gold Medalist in the Triple Jump (pictured here)

Typically, scientists (or teams of research scientists) do not race down a straight and narrow path heading towards their goal -- and then, leap with all their might, to grasp that coveted golden “Ring of Truth” -- as they triumph in reaching their competitive dreams of glory. And yet, that's what Tesla did. So many times. And to the jealousy of his toughest competitors.

Tesla's gift was this rare ability to do basic observational science ("the hop") followed by common sense ("the skip") followed by that long leap of intuition ("the jump") that frustrated his competitors in the intellectual sport of engineering, technology, and industry. He didn't follow the protocol of documenting how he stepped from his theoretical constructs – that were directly inspired by nature -- to the tangible prototypes he hand-made for his Alternating Current (AC) Electric Magnetic Motor (1888); to the Step-up Transformer (1891) he built, which was used as a "high-voltage, high-frequency lighting system"; to the wireless phosphorescent lighting system he devised (1890); to the incandescent carbon-botton lamp (1891); to the huge Tesla polyphase AC motors he used to power the Niagra Falls Energy Project (1896); to Tesla's 1900 U.S. patent on the "Art of Transmitting Electrical Energy Through the Natural Mediums"; to his 1901 U.S. patent on his "World Wireless" communications system, which was known as the Wardenclyffe Tower at Shoreham, Long Island, and which Tesla demonstrated how his "Apparatus for Ultilization of Radiant Energy" could be used for radio transmissions.

One technological feat after another that he made in his Triple Jumps ushered in the Age of Electricity. It also demonstrated Tesla's dazzling ability to discover and innovate new ways of converting electricity from various sources of energy.

Each innovation was a hallmark of evolution, in so far as it showed how Tesla adapted his knowledge to the unique set of circumstances and design constraints he was challenged with.

Is this process of innovation any different from Delacroix's or Monte's or Cezanne's or Picasso's or Marcel Duchamp's or any of the more ingenious artists working today who boldly use any and all mediums to envision, represent and implement their ideas? After all, Tesla was doing what we all do naturally when we want to get our ideas out of our heads and into physical reality: he was drawing inspiration from nearly every resource he could -- but especially, from nature. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he knew that nature held all the answers always to making his ideas real, and really work. Don't shoot me for saying this, but Tesla's process of discovery seemed to "resonate" with nature; meaning, it flowed with nature like the AC motor systems he innovated.

As Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth have written: "Tesla had an uncanny understanding of the energy that could be released through resonance" (Tesla: Master of Lightning, 1999; p.78) -- as evidenced by his 1893 patent for "telegeodynamics." That mechanical oscillator is employed today by oil companies to probe Earth's composition for oil exploration. Frankly, the electrical industry owes Tesla a timeless debt of gratitude for his 'uncanny understanding' that has, subsequently, pointed the way to many leading technological innovations that will hopefully succeed in serving all of our energy needs for the next 1,000 years.

This ArtScientist lived for those energizing, visceral, Aha! moments, which we’ve all had as image makers and innovators. Perhaps, the biggest difference between Tesla’s experiences and ours may be something as basic as this: His creative-critical mind was not just aware of nature's creative ways; he strongly resonated with them, as if he were "tuned into" them. Little wonder why the frequency of his insights were as bountiful as they were, just like Darwin, too. I mean, Tesla's concepts were intimately connected to the phenomena he based and built his concepts on (electricity), like Darwin's were connected to the phenomena he built his theories on (biological life systems).

04-09-2010 17:04:45
Jane, brings up an important point to focus on for a moment concerning intentionality: 'The distinction between 'consciously intending to convey' ideas about evolution and 'illustrating' them may be a fine one ...

It is a fine one, indeed. And I think the fineness has something to do with the fact that the human brain has this wonderfully peculiar way of relating all sorts of "abstract" or "ambiguous" concepts and experiences to concrete, tangible things (such as our scientific illustrations of evolution). It's the free way of "connection-making" that enables us to continually transform every piece of data-information-knowledge-wisdom we have gathered into new, personally meaningful and useful things.

Translation: The most explicit, illustration of the process of natural selection that Darwin drew can be easily appropriated or hijacked by the imagination and creatively "re-purposed" to symbolize or represent anything we want to say about the way natural selection works--including our broadest interpretations of natural selection, which pretty much cover everything human beings have ever envisioned or built: from houses to cities to healthcare systems to advanced weapon systems. Meanwhile, if Darwin himself were able to see this outpouring of interpretations inspired by that one seminal illustration of his, he may have gawked at the sight of these interpretations and protested: "Why, these interpretations aren't anything like what I meant by my illustration!"

The question remains: Were all those alternative ideas that naturally spun out of Darwin's illustration there from the start (albeit, hidden from view in his unconscious mind). Or were they just the products of overly imaginative people who were just having fun playing around with his illustration -- transforming it into unrecognizable concepts and visual associations? Who knows? And who's to say what is or isn't there in that illustration any way, whether we see it or not? The Italian novelist, poet, and Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) created a career out of ingeniously playing with the mysteries of that fine line: where light and shadow merge in the real and virtual worlds of our experiences and the meanings we give them.

Maybe there's an even simpler, "more realistic" explanation for what we intend to convey about evolution and what we don't through our illustrations and interpretations.

I once read somewhere how Michelangelo was once drawing one of his art patrons, and, at one point, the patron demanded to see what he was drawing. Apparently, she was very upset by what she saw: "Why, that doesn't look a thing like me!" she exclaimed, to which Michelangelo calmly replied: "Madame, in a hundred years from now, who will know what you looked like?" (I'm sure a similar story was told about one of DaVinci's experiences, too...and Raphael's...)

04-11-2010 15:35:00
I'd like to respond to your comments on walking, nature, literature, and intuitive knowledge. There is actually a history for this, one in which Darwin participated. Whenever he left the Beagle for his walks he always took Milton's Paradise Lost with him. He had to think very carefully about what he carried in light of the samples he would be bringing back on board and their weight (one is struck by this in seeing the geological samples that came back in his pockets). So bringing Milton wasn't just for relaxation, there was something more to it. In the 18th and 19th century scientists and aesthetic theorists advocated that the naturalist engage in "primary pleasures of the imagination," which would mean participating in and thinking about nature in the field, but at the same time be engaged in "secondary pleasures of the imagination" through pictures or literary descriptions. Joseph Addison, for example, was an advocate of this method. Addison actually suggested Milton as did Burke. Reading texts like this and walking in nature was thought of as a dialectic that stimulated the imagination.


04-12-2010 17:22:00
The Impressionists and Naturalists are the better known of the late nineteenth-century artists, but the Symbolists were deeply interested in evolutionary ideas/states. Many of them were interested in sexual selection, the process or idea of evolution itself in light of materialism, descent from apes, and perpetual violence. I am posting a few works. A number of these artists were friends of Darwinist scientists (Redon, Bocklin, von Max). I love this image by German artist Bocklin, which was devised to make fun of Darwin's disbelievers. St. Anthony preaches to a fish that has dragged itself up on rocks about the goodness of the universe. Missing from the reproduction is a lower "predella" in which he devours his prey. The entire thing was meant to be a kind of evolutionary altarpiece.

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