Thursday, April 16, 2009

Microcosms of imaginative awakening

Paintings as enterprises of the imagination are two-dimensional microcosms in which a small piece of reality is simplified in two dimensions to reveal a basic pattern culled from its three-dimensional structure. The scale may be reduced to encompass a landscape or a human figure. On the other hand it may be enlarged to accommodate the components of a microscopic system of life or minerals. But what is happening to artistic creativity when the starting point of the imaginative awakening is a painting itself, which is inevitably coupled with the style, customs and values of the social system that motivated the artist to produce it? This is the problem that confronted Susi Bellamy when her imagination was fired by an enforced stay in the Academia Gallery of Venice because a tidal surge in the Adriatic had marooned the first batch of early morning visitors. As the hours passed studying the paintings the many religious works, she began to think of them in terms of their geometric compositions. “I was fascinated by the flatness of their design, the rich colours and the interaction between the Madonna and child”.
A simple ‘mother and child’ pattern was actually the historical basis for the devotional representations produced by the early Christians of the Mother of God with her miraculous child, which date from the Byzantine Era. This is evident from the Fig 1 where the mother and her ‘adult’ child, created in a Cretan cultural backwater, are both draped in plain loose heavily folded cloth. The flat background in glowing gold leaf is the cosmic space for two small angels placed symmetrically on either side of the centred subjects. With the passage of history, the mother’s clothing actually becomes more elaborate. Also, her baby is transformed from a supernatural miniature man to a realistically depicted dimpled lively infant interacting with his now glamorous richly clad Renaissance mother. He also interacts with his immediate surroundings as all human babies do.

For the past three years Susi has developed this ’ Madonna and Child’ theme using Italian paintings dating from the early to mid-14th century to simulate little worlds of patterned fabric building on her former experience as a fashion editor. The cut-out face of the mother of god and the body of her son are embedded in bold collage fields composed of wrapping paper which follow the original artist’s scheme of draping the two figures (Fig 2). The paper fields are in traditional Florentine patterns, and are embellished with beads, shells, and gold filigree paper doilies (baking paper). These simple flat fields of discrete masses of miniature repeat patterns function to transform Renaissance high art into a rich, ironic, kitschy take, as original stand-alone pictures. This novel re-arrangement actually serves to emphasise the relationship between mother and child and their impact on the viewer. The overall effect is present a 21st century interpretation of the famous ‘Venetian web’ by which Madonna painters from the time of Paulo Veneziano to Carlo Crivelli submerged the mother and child in waves of different colours, patterns and textures. This user-friendly decorative quality takes away some of the preciousness of religious art and makes it more accessible. However the overall outcome is to make the viewer think about the splendid surfaces of Venetian art, and evaluate the centuries old staying power of Christian devotion and spiritual reverence to coloured images of a miraculous relationship between mothers and their babies.

Regarding the incorporation of shells as a dominant element of the picture’s boundary, the idea came from the embellishment of street corner shrines. But there is a direct reference to the universal aboriginal belief in the spiritual power of shells emptied of the living beings that formed them. The shells also contain a more subtle message to what Donald Kuspit has called the relentless materialization and mediafication of art, which have stripped it of its transcendental experience leaving the shell of art rather than its spiritual substance. In this respect it is ironic that the Madonna series is Susi’s most successful commercial venture to date.

Fig 1 Madonna and Child (Cretan circa 13th century)

Fig 2 Madonna and child (after Nicolo di Pietro)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Worlds within worlds

In every age and in every place where humans have left records, we see evidence that as soon as societies innovate beyond the needs of bare survival, they begin to create arts, to invent gods, to wonder and theorize about the universe. The line of descent from ancient legends to the modern quests of philosophy, religion, and science is direct and unequivocal. This is the thread of human social development that links the out of the ordinary places that people relate to when they think about a wider view of their place in the cosmos. These are the greater and lesser worlds of which Homo sapiens is a part as a distinctive gathering of stardust endowed with life. In this sense we can relate imaginatively to our place in the solar system, galaxy and universe and our place on Earth as a social animal existing in community groups based on different languages and customs. Here on Earth we interact with other worlds consisting of multicellular beings and unicellular forms, all with the same biochemistry as ourselves, interacting with the dynamics of mineral particles making the rocks and soil of planet Earth. This is the theatre of macrocosms and microcosms in which art and science are applied forms of thinking about where we have come from, the world of which we are now a part and the future for humanity yet to come.
Artists and scientists have taken it upon themselves to explore these lesser worlds, taking a narrow or broader view of how works of art can illuminate the essence of structures and systems and their values. In the West, painters first began to take up this role of delineating worlds within worlds in the 14th century, and one of the first outcomes was the depiction of landscapes which gradually forged a bridge, through geographical studies, with the emerging sciences. After Galileo had discovered the four moons of Jupiter in 1609 he became increasingly convinced that the Copernican, heliocentric system of the world was correct. Nevertheless, there was a constant debate about the right world system during the whole 17th century. Pictorial representation played an important role in it and the illustrations used as book frontispieces were a significant medium for the dispute.

Regarding the role of the high art of the Renaissance, in 1502 a contract was drawn up between the Umbrian painter Bernardino di Betto di Bagio, nicknamed Pinturicchio, and Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini , then archbishop of Siena, to decorate the library adjoining Sienna Cathedral . The library had been commissioned by the Cardinal in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pius II. The project was conceived to celebrate the life of the Pope. The design, possibly subcontracted to Raphael , was conceived as a series of massive fresco panels in brilliant gleaming colours depicting significant episodes in the life of Enea Silvio, set beneath a ceiling covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. The work took Pinturicchio and his assistants several years to complete, being interrupted by the death of Francesco in 1503 shortly after he himself was elected Pope.

One of the panels represents Enea Silvio as an up and coming servant of the church in a procession of delegates leaving the Council of Basel along the shores of Lake Geneva . In its composition this fresco represents one of the first attempts to depict cultural ecology as a seamless knowledge system in which nature is integrated as one with society. In this respect it can be broken down into five lesser worlds within the painted world, framed by a massive decorated arch which marks the pictorial interface between painter and viewer.

The dominant feature is the Alpine atmosphere of the lake and its water economy represented by the dark chaotic sky stain of a summer storm (1), which spans the lake and its mountainous horizon. This is the first time a storm scene had been depicted in Western art. The geological system of the shore is painted as a group of tree-covered stratified rocks and hills (2) on top of which sits a small walled city (3). The tightly grouped procession of diversely clad humanity (4) is dwarfed by the landscape of lake and sky, and is itself hemmed in at the base of the picture by a narrow roadside verge packed with wildflowers (5).

The scope of this particular fresco as a semi-scientific painterly enterprise has been compared with the first expansive evocation of urban culture in its landscape painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s on the theme of ‘Good and Bad Government’. This was produced two centuries earlier on three walls of the council chamber of Sienna’s town hall.

Common ground

"Both, science and art are not separated from each other. There is even a similarity between them as they help us observe nature”. Cheng-Dau Lee, Nobel laureate in physics

William Morris in his book ‘Signs of Change’, written in 1888, considered the aim of art is the generation of happiness. He was writing as a notable artist, and simplified his day to day mode of activity as a cycle between ‘idleness’ and ‘energy’. He says… “ these two moods are now one, now the other, always crying out in me to be satisfied”. When in the mood of energy we must be be doing something or we become unhappy; when the mood of idleness we become restless and our mind picks up memories of “… the various pictures, pleasant or terrible”, which our experience “have fashioned in it” ' Restlessness makes hapless men and bad citizens. He further supposes that the objective of a work of art is always to please the person who becomes conscious of it when in a mood to idleness. The person thereby becomes happy. ' Regarding the artist the aim of making art is to gives pleasurable satisfaction to our impulse towards energy, and “giving to that energy hope of producing something worth its exercise in the production of happiness in the viewer”.

Science arose to understand and manage the human environment in order to meet our needs and wants. Therefore, regarding the aim of science it is also the generation of happiness but now in our technological society this is taken up from the viewpoint of satisfying wants. On the one hand, there is the utility-maximizer, who has wants and tries to maximise their satisfaction through maximally efficient techniques. On the other, there is the Stoic, who manipulates his wants to achieve maximal satisfaction given the situation. The common ground of the scientist is to isolate an event as a member of a category of events by formulating general laws and pointing to uniformities. The objective is to deduce a theory to picture the processes actually at work in nature.

In their pursuit of happiness, artists and scientists share the following features:
· a capacity for innovation;
· careful observation;
· precision in presenting the outcome of thought;
· a reliance on intuition and inspiration.

The common ground between artists and scientists is the process of creativity.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


This blog has been set up by a scientist and an artist to encourage people to talk about creative relationships between art and science.

Our starting proposition is that a scientist measures relationships between objects in the existing universe. The artist discerns such relationships and restates them in highly personal clarified forms. Science is about discerning a pattern of function in ideas about the objects and their relationships. Art is about discerning a pattern of being in ideas about objects and relationships. Both scientists and artists are engaged in understanding' the universe – the one using mainly intellect, the other using mainly emotion. Both of them make extracts from the universe. Both use the terms truth' and 'beauty' to describe the quality of their discoveries. What causes them to extract a fragment of the world is the love of the pattern. The artist presents it to us purged of its functional trappings, as a thing admirable not because it works but because it is. Love of the spiral of a nautilus shell is common to artists and scientists. It is the inevitable result of the growth of the shellfish. Scientists have discovered the laws of growth from which it derives its own mathematical formula. But the same spiral in a work of art is there merely because the curve pleased the artist's eye. He may have guessed intuitively at its mathematical basis, but his only excuse for using it is his delight in the curving line it makes.

The artist can no more create beauty than the scientist can create truth. In art, the pattern-possibilities of the human body are inexhaustible. The set of patterns discovered by the Greeks was not exhausted by Pheidias. Michelangelo tapped another seam, Rubens another, Degas another. In our own time, Lucien Freud and Andrew Gormley have made fresh additions. Each new discovery has thereby added to our sense of beauty. Beauty in Nature is a product of the mathematical behaviour of Nature, which in its turn is a product of function; whereas beauty in art is a product of man's love of the mathematics of Nature based on his intuitive understanding of it. In summary, the scientists creates paradigms to explain the functional origin of pattern and the artist creates objects to explain his feelings about pattern.

The following two quotations are representative of an artist and a scientist's views on the common ground of creativity.

"As I watched my sister, a developmental biologist, from a distance in her own environment, I could tell that her lab processes were not that different to my studio ones. In science at the bench as much as the potter at his wheel or the sculptor at his block of wood there is a process of preparedness, some questions posed early on and a distinct feeling of grafting away until a result wins through.

There follows a period of stepping back; more questions, what does the result say to me? How can I change the outcome? Is there anything that failure can teach me? And then back again to retry or reshape the work in hand." .....Helen Storey

The creative artist is an observer whose brain works in new ways making it possible to convey information about matters that were not a subject for communication before. The discoveries of the artist and the scientist are exactly alike in this respect. Artists have discovered new aspects of space with one symbolism just as physicists had with another.... J. Z. Young