Monday, 19 May 2008

Martin Kemp talks about art and science

I went to listen to Martin Kemp who gave a talk on “Art and Science” during the Swindon Festival of Literature.

I read “Leonardo on painting” edited by Martin Kemp and was impressed by the editorial work he had done with Leonardo’s notebooks, organizing the content into sections and creating a natural flow from diverse sources. I was therefore looking forward to hear what he had to say on science and art.

Kemp has been writing a column in the famous
Nature magazine for many years and a first compilation of his articles was published under the title “Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science”.

A more recent book (from September 2006), “Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope” regroups articles published in Nature around themes. Some of these themes are what the author called “deep line intuitive continuity” and are going back to childhood: the pattern of the flames in a fire, the rhythm of the waves and the shape of shells.

He discussed how art and science start from these intuitions. Taking examples from Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, he showed the power of visualization.

Kemp then explored 3-D geometry, splashing and folding. Illustrations were taken from the scientific world and from the art world.

My favourite quote from the conference:

“The alert mind picks-up things it does not expect to pick-up.”

There was a lot of information but, at the same time, the session lacked structure and a sense of direction. At the end of the talk, I was left with a large collection of facts and I was trying to find how they related to each other and what the interaction between art and science was. It was ironic as Kemp talked about “structural intuition” and how we extract structure from the world.

To take an image, I think Kemp described art and science as separate paths. He walked these paths but never really told us when these paths intersected (apart from the allusion to the fact that Jackson Pollock owned a copy of D’Arcy Thompson’s book with a study of splashes).

Let me tell you about my own intuitions:

  • Artists open the mind of scientists by helping them to visualize the world that we cannot see.

  • Scientists who can visualise are better equipped that those who cannot, because new theories often go beyond words and manipulating images is like manipulating concepts.

  • Although science feeds on rigor, precision and proofs, creativity is necessary to envision what you want to prove. Both art and science use the power of unusual associations to short circuit established ways of thinking and go beyond the consensual views of the world.

Books by Martin Kemp

Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope

Leonardo Da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design

Visualizations: The "Nature" Book of Art and Science

Leonardo on Painting: Anthology of Writings by Leonardo Da Vinci with a Selection of Documents Relating to His Career as an Artist (Yale Nota Bene)

The Oxford History of Western Art

Spectacular Bodies: the Art and Science Of the Human Body

Links for Martin Kemp

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