by Martin Kemp
Princeton University Press, 2006
Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope
by Martin Kemp
Oxford University Press, 2006
Published almost simultaneously, these very different books present a double view of Martin Kemp's original and often brilliant approach to the connection between science and art. Leonardo focuses on a single genius; Seen/Unseen pulls back the lens to investigate the nature of creativity thematically, using profiles of extraordinary artists/scientists over a span of 500 years. Kemp is intrigued by visual works that combine the skills of artist and scientist, often, but not always, in the same person; he calls himself a "historian of the visual."
Kemp's ideas may be familiar to readers of Nature who have followed his science and culture column. Currently professor of art history at the University of Oxford, he has produced a veritable library of books and articles about Leonardo. Away from his desk he organizes exhibitions, most recently one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the beautiful, coffee table-size Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design accompanied this exhibition. Kemp's text dovetails seamlessly with the often life-size reproductions of Leonardo's drawings, sketches, jottings and notes, providing insight into the artist's philosophy, mastery of geometry, and compassion.
Leonardo da Vinci has fascinated generations of artists, art critics and novelists. But few have been as absorbed as Kemp, who has walked in the master's footsteps through Italy and France. Kemp's name is synonymous with Leonardo scholarship. In a February New York Times account of the announcement of the possible discovery of a missing Leonardo masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari--walled off but retrievable in the Palazzo Vecchio--the reporter gave weight to the claim by noting that Kemp strongly supported the investigation.
Leonardo is based on a "theme sheet," a miraculously recovered piece of folded paper (reproduced across two pages in the book) on which the artist began sketching and writing in 1490. Kemp explains the value of paper half a millennium ago--which meant that every inch was used--and he interprets the apparent chaos of sketches as a record of Leonardo's "laboratory for thinking." He tells us that there are about 6,000 surviving pages of the artist's notes and sketches.
Yet even for the keenly interested, Leonardo's notes, written in a mirror script, are difficult to decipher, and their dispersion on this theme sheet may not be deliberate. A finely drawn portrait of an old man merges with a delicate pair of trees, and the rest of the drawings, notes and designs bear no apparent relation to these sketches or to one another. The jottings, combined with references to the well-known paintings and models for machines, reveal a man of his time at home with geometry, though probably not mathematically prepared for the scientific revolution that was a century in the future. Ahead of his time in a visual way, however, Leonardo observed nature closely and drew "notes" from what he saw, from an autopsied heart to floodwaters and debris, believing that all knowledge had to be confirmed by observing natural phenomena. He must have had remarkable eyesight to capture motion as he did, as well as a rare ability to see mentally in three dimensions, one of the themes of Kemp's second book, Seen/Unseen.
Although Leonardo is not the heart of Seen/Unseen, he is the touchstone for much of Kemp's thinking and one of the "nodal" figures, men (mostly) who as both artists and scientists are the focus of each of its chapters. In "Wholes and Parts," for instance, Kemp identifies Charles Darwin as a man with one foot in the dynamic view of nature of the early 19th century, where men such as his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and artist George Stubbs saw "an animate nature in continual flux," and the other foot in the Victorian era, in which "Natural Selection itself represents the emergence of the 'fittest' theory into a very specific environment" that was familiar with the earlier worldview and thus receptive to his much more radical theory.[break]
In this same chapter Kemp leaps to the 20th century and Richard Dawkins's "selfish genes" and James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and wonders about a self-regulating biosphere. Kemp likes to move back and forth across the centuries, explaining how scientific ideas morph and mutate in different historical eras--a sort of dialogue across time that he relishes. In "Growth and Form," he pays homage to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic 1917 book On Growth and Form, explaining Thompson's references to Albrecht Durer's method of proportional transformation and connecting this approach to form to the visual mathematics of fractals, chaos theory and machine-made images.
Sometime in the 19th century, according to Kemp, the invention of the camera and its offspring technologies, cinema and radiography, liberated artists from having to reproduce nature with conventional perspective, freeing them to move in different directions. Scientists, in contrast, embraced photography and happily wed cameras to their microscopes and telescopes.
Kemp is still in the process of exploring the explosion of visual culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We humans are, as he illustrates in various ways throughout this rich discussion, visual creatures. We need to see in order to understand. Biologists, he reminds us, needed an electron microscope to see DNA and, from that glimpse, to construct a model. He lauds the contribution of physicist Richard Feynman, who devised the "Feynman diagrams" (which are not included in the text), because he thought, and taught, with images. Kemp applauds the visual reconstructions of contemporary planetary scientists who capture images of planets, such as Venus, while taking the liberty of coloring them with familiar, Earth-like tones. Why, he asks, bother to map Venus, where we will never go? Because, he replies, we are explorers, and explorers want to map their discoveries.
Kemp acknowledges that his reconsideration of scientists and artists across the centuries is sometimes difficult, and he asks his readers to bear with him. Some may be left sensing that this is not his final effort to explain visual culture, which is not the study of art or of science but an inquiry into human creativity that can be seen. In his own ongoing inquiry, Kemp is ambitious and enlightening but occasionally difficult to follow. He questions the validity, interpretation and ultimately the use of computerized, machine-made images extracted, for example, from PET and fMRI brain scans. Suddenly he fears the technology he has been describing. "The more technological the image looks, the more it exudes ... authority," he writes, but a computer is, nonetheless, a man-made tool that "seems to promise a non-human precision." And it would be a mistake to put the tool makers in the privileged position of deciding how their tools should be used.
Kemp's thoughts on art are self-consciously different in kind from other recent efforts to link art and science that either concentrate on individual artists and scientists or focus on a particular scientific breakthrough. None approaches the world as Kemp does. Seen/Unseen is a glimpse into his own thought process the way his Leonardo is a glimpse into the mind of an almost mythical genius. Kemp offers us a way of considering how artists and scientists have intuited visual truths in the past, reminds us that the past and the present are connected, and warns us against the potential tyranny of the newest digitized images that, though often beautiful and beguiling, are still man-made and not infallible.