Some people believe that art and science are two completely separate things: one governed by objectivity and rationality, the other by sentiment and imagination – something that can’t be put examined under the microscope. However, there are plenty of instances in which science has directly influenced art, proving a stronger link between the two than might be thought.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s keen interest in science is well documented thanks to the notebooks he kept. This included details of a flying machine that may have inspired the helicopter, but also observations on subjects including botany, astronomy and geology. A clear sign of science influencing art can be seen in his iconic drawing of the Vitruvian Man, which was inspired by his interest in anatomy.
For da Vinci, art and science were closely linked; his paintings were directly informed by scientific discoveries. Research into the properties of light, for example, enabled him to create more realistic paintings by contrasting light and shade, as seen in The Lady with an Ermine.
Like Leonardo da Vinci and many other artists before him, Rembrandt had a great interest in anatomy. As well as satisfying any scientific curiosity these artists may have had, a greater knowledge of anatomy also allowed them to create more life-like portraits. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is arguably a great work of both art and science, so detailed is the scene it depicts. Public dissections were only allowed once a year by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, and Rembrandt was there in person to see it. In this way artists also helped scientists, as their incredibly detailed paintings could be of use to those unable to witness dissections themselves.
Picasso is best remembered for pioneering cubism, which was inspired by scientific discoveries and theories of the time. X ray technology challenged ideas about two and three dimensions because of the way it blurred the inside and outside, while theories about a fourth dimensional space involving time were being discussed. Inspired by the potential of a fourth dimension that would enable us to see every perspective of a scene at once, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which shows one woman both in profile and face on at the same time. This take on how the fourth dimension might be artistically depicted is often seen as bringing art into the 20th century.
The surrealist Salvador Dali believed in the Renaissance ideal that man should seek all forms of knowledge, and this can clearly be seen in his art. The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory is inspired by his interest in nuclear physics, and uses imagery inspired by the idea that matter is made up of tiny atoms that don’t actually touch each other. This picture is itself a revision of a previous work, The Persistence of Time, which is thought to have been informed by Einstein’s theory of relativity. The melting clocks may be a representation of how fixed ideas about a cosmic order – in this case time – no longer prevailed in light of Einstein’s scientific theories.
The discovery of DNA has been hailed as the greatest of the 20th century, and the impact it has had on the way we think of ourselves as humans and the potential it holds for the future has understandably had a great effect on artists. One artist to have been inspired by the discovery was Marcus Lyon. Rather than just relying on the double helix structure of DNA, Lyons has used the process that identifies genetic profiles, used in DNA testing, to create circular patterns. Meanwhile, Shelley James has used glass blowers and the DNA structure to demonstrate the huge insight into human life that the discovery has given us and highlight the incredible intricacy of the structure itself.
What will future discoveries inspire?
As you can see, artists throughout history have been inspired to create works based on the discoveries being made in the world around them. It is inevitable, then, that as we continue to make discoveries, and as our understanding of the world changes, the art being produced will respond to it.
Written by Mark Higgins, a student of forensic science who loves to visit art galleries.