If you want to learn more about major trends in both art and physics, Leonard Shlain's book is a good resource.
Athough artists and scientists may view nature and the physical world in different ways, many parallels exist between the way they interpret the major insights relating to time and space.
In his recent blog titled "Who says engineers can't think", Martin Rowe bemoaned the down-their-nose attitude of some liberal arts majors and professors toward engineers. In my mind perhaps the worst of all are some of those involved in the art world. Not the artists and painters themselves. The artists I have met, like engineers, have been down-to-earth people usually focused on the job at hand and eager to find the best way to express an idea.
If you want to get a thought-provoking education in both significant trends and themes in painting as well as the relationship between significant ideas in art and physics, I recommend you read Leonard Shlain's book ”Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light” (Harper Perennial, 2007). Published first in 1993 and re-issued in 2007, selected chapters are also available online. But if you are like me and the process of reading for information involves a lot of underlining and commenting in the margins, I suggest you buy the print version. There are numerous copies on Amazon to purchase..
Leonard Shlain’s “Art and Physics” is a good introduction to the world of great painting for an engineer or scientist.
(Source: Harper Collins)
According to the author, a surgeon and professor of medicine at the University of California with a lifelong interest in both physics and art, inspiration for his book came while on a trip in New York City with his daughter to the art museums there. During that trip he had the insight that great painters and scientists are remarkably similar in the general pattern of the way they get their ideas, though they operate with different mindsets when they view nature. When he surveyed the history of art, Shlain thought he saw a rough parallelism between the great ideas in physics at particular times and the themes and techniques being pursued in the paintings of the great artists.
To prove his thesis, Shlain delves deeply into what has occurred in Western Art since about the time of the Renaissance. He compares art of such painters as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Magrite, and Duchamp to what was emerging out of the work of such physicists and mathematicians as Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, James Maxwell, Hermann Minkowski, Bernhard Riemann, and Albert Einstein.
Perhaps the easiest case for this parallelism is the one for Leonardo Da Vinci, who was both a natural engineer and scientist as well as a gifted artist. Shlain describes in detail how phenomena that Da Vinci investigated in nature as a scientist often made its way into his art. For me, these chapters in Shlain’s book are perhaps the most entertaining and insightful. Aside from his examination of the parallelisms he found both in the work of Da Vinci in the early Fourteenth Century and of Newton 150 years later, the book is full of tidbits that were worth the price of the book.
Tidbit #1: It was Da Vinci through his observations of nature who figured out and described succinctly what we now call Newton’s First Law of Motion. Unfortunately, Da Vinci wrote about this in his secret left-hand writing code that no one else could read until recently. Who knows what could have happened if this had become more widely known 150 years before Newton!!
Tidbit #2: At precisely the same time Newton was developing his theories of gravity, optics and calculus, he was also intensively studying and writing on what are now bizarre and magical topics such as Alchemy, Transmutation, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Boy, talk about unsettling. (Newton’s Theory of Transmutation?)
Shlain is the most thought-provoking in the chapters he devotes to the various schools of modern art since the middle of the nineteenth century and their relation to what was going on in theoretical physics: surrealism, cubism, dadaism, expressionism, futurism, and abstract art, to name a few.
Discussing Einstein’s early unsuccessful attempt with fellow physicist Leopold Infield to write a book that made his ideas understandable to the average person, Shlain notes that “If Einstein lamented the absence of a vocabulary with which to communicate his remarkable theories, he had only look to modern art to find the appropriate images.”
One example he points to is the artwork of cubist Marcel Duchamp and his “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” in 1912. ”Had Einstein commissioned Duchamp to render diagrammatically what happens to time at nearly the speed of light, the painter could not have achieved a more lucid representation,” Shlain writes. “The only place in the universe this observation would have been possible would be aboard a beam of light.”
If you wondered what happens to time and visual perceptions aboard a beam of light, Duchamp’s “Descending Nude” gives you a clue.
(Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art)
In commenting on the relationship of Edouard Manet’s painting “Boats (1873)” to Riemann’s investigations of non-Euclidian space, Shlain calls attention to the artist’s tampering with what had been the conventional straight-line horizon up until then and replacing it with a horizon that bends slightly into a subtle arc. “The elucidation of the concept of curved space time and its place in the physical world was still 50 years away, but in the 1860s he [Manet] anticipated this idea and tantalized his puzzled viewers.”
The artist Manet broke away from traditional artistic assumptions about straight line horizons in “Boats,” where he substituted a gently curving arc.
(Source: Cleveland Museum of Art)
This is a rich book with countless examples drawn from art and physics to support Shlain’s thesis, some of which you may agree with and some you may not. Sometimes he has had to stretch his analogies to the breaking point in order to reach both audiences he was targeting.
“My intention has been to reach artistically inclined readers who want to know more about the new physics and scientists who would like to have a framework to appreciate art,” Shlain writes. “Because the language of physics is so precise in contrast to the evocative language of art I have sometimes had to broaden the meanings of scientific words and occasionally to stretch them into poetic metaphors.”
Shlain took on the difficult job of reconciling two different ways of viewing the world: the artistic one where image and metaphor are the language, and the world of physics where numbers and equations are primarily used. And for that alone he deserves to be read, and re-read. His book has been enormously useful to me in broadening my understanding of both worlds.