Standing at the Crossroads of Art and Science

The push and pull between two vastly different subjects.

As John Cage, the American composer has said, “The function of Art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”

Our understanding of “her manner of operation” changes according to advances in the sciences.” Science and art have always operated hand-in-hand, particularly with the impacts of scientific advances on the artistic mind (and vice-versa). There are countless examples throughout the history of man, spanning from the innovations in the Lascaux caves to the mathematical ‘art’ of fractals. Art and Science are everywhere, and it’s only natural that they push each other to their limits- leading to some of the greatest creative ideas the world has seen.

Biomorphic Surrealism, an offshoot of the Surrealist movement, consisted of  a group of expressedly scientific- minded artists who were interested particularly with the groundbreaking discoveries happening at the molecular level and incorporated aspects of them into their work. The artists utilized the unique patterns and fluid, organic lines that are found in even the tiniest natural forms into their work. Joan Miró was a very influential artist involved in this movement, and he encouraged organic forms to express themselves in his art, often beginning through scribbling on the canvas, and creating figure-like images out of the doodles he had just created. Microscopes had just been greatly improved and allowed biologists to finally see microorganisms clearly, and many artists fell in love and began replicating the microscopic organic forms that they saw before them.

joan miro catalan landscape
Joan Miró’s The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), painted in 1924. It’s easy to see the influence of microorganisms on his work.

Perhaps one of art’s loftiest goals is to imitate nature, and throughout history any time that there has been a significant advance in a scientific field- be it biology, archeology, or almost especially chemistry, there has almost always been creative explosion in another area of art. But at the same time, we must not forget the influence that art has had on science as well! Thanks to Da Vinci sneaking out in the middle of the night and dissecting human corpses, making sure to note what he found in his incredible journals, we learned far more about the musculature of the human body than we would have otherwise, since the Vatican had strict laws on disrespecting the dead. In addition, the mathematical discovery of the Fibonacci Sequence and its close sibling the Golden Section became the go-to compositional guide for many artists- from Raphael to Degas, even Dali.

rembrandt- anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp
Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632. This was a commissioned work, while Da Vinci’s journals were secret- 100 years and a different religion can make a huge difference.

Most likely being the most influential art-related scientific discovery to date was the creation of chemically based pigments, which allowed the saturation of virtually every color available to skyrocket.  The creation of chemically-based pigments allowed paints to become much more vibrant than ever before, since artists were no longer restrained to using a much more muted palette like those of the older masters. This, along with the newfound idea of optical mixture, resulted in the impressionists abandoning traditional methods of applying color to a painting. Delacroix was one of the first artists to truly experiment with the new possibilities of inorganic pigments in oil painting. Unlike those who came before him, he placed colors adjacent to their complements in order to create even greater contrast, and also started using brighter, broader strokes of color. After taking some time to get used to the idea, many artists took this idea and ran with it.

Art and science, seemingly near opposites on the surface, are inexplicably connected. Discoveries made in one of these fields ultimately influences the other, as C. S. Smith of MIT said, “What artists have accomplished is realizing is there’s only a small amount of this stuff that’s important, and then seeing what it was. So they can do some of my research for me. It cannot be avoided, then, for science to stumble upon something that ends up aiding the artists.”

At the end of the day, one thing remains crystal clear- Art will always influence Science, and Science will always influence Art- pushing and pulling each other further.After all, if art seeks to describe life and its meaning through visual descriptions, and as Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time, “the goal of Science is to reduce the entire universe to a single equation.” – should the two not support each other?