Books & Arts | Published:

One culture?

We can gain a clearer picture of visual representation by crossing the divide between art and science.

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

Oxford University Press: 2006. 368 pp. £25, $45 0199295727 | ISBN: 0-199-29572-7
What are we to make of images of Jupiter rendered in the palette of painter J. M. W. Turner? Credit: NASA/SPL

When British newspaper The Independent published a false-coloured image of Jupiter's atmosphere compiled from data taken by the spacecraft Galileo, the accompanying article began: “It may look like a Turner painting...”. Martin Kemp enjoys both the absurd and the befitting in this characterization. The image of Jupiter covered 143 million square miles but was coloured in such as way as to resemble landscapes on planet Earth that we have been conditioned to recognize by Turner, who, striving to capture the “awesome infinities” of his Romantic age with scale-invariant vistas, would have exalted in seeing his Earth-bound views of nature reaching into the heavens. Why give Jupiter over to Turner's palette? In so doing, to what extent does Turner then influence how we understand and experience other worlds? And what can we learn about periods and cultures when methods of representation are set within the “broad history of visual things”. These are some of Kemp's preoccupations in Seen | Unseen, a personal exploration of the dialogue, spoken and unspoken, between scientific and artistic representations of nature.

I began with an illustrative example of Kemp's interests as a guide for potential readers uncertain how to approach a book whose title could be about anything or everything. Authors often use the subtitle to ground tantalizingly vague titles by limiting the area of enquiry. In this case, the subtitle only makes things worse: Art, Science and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope. These are big topics for a comparatively slender volume. Nature readers will already be familiar with Martin Kemp, a regular author of the 'Science in Culture' columns in this journal. On the strength of his insightful essays, I would advise the reader to dive in, without worrying about the course of the river or the depth of the pool; the swim is bound to be rewarding.

Kemp is an art historian but characterizes himself as a “historian of the visual”. This is, in my view, the declaration of a scholar who refuses to be told what he can and cannot look at. Throughout Seen | Unseen, Kemp blurs the distinctions between those who have been labelled either as 'scientist' or 'artist'. He succeeds by focusing on people who defy classification. Among these are the expected giants, such as Leonardo, but also some lesser-known individuals of remarkable accomplishment, such as Bernard Palissy, a French potter obsessed with casting snakes and other creatures into his ceramics. His strange methods gave him a unique perspective on the process of fossilization, and he became a forefather of modern palaeontology. These crossover artists, and legions of others scrutinized to varying degrees, are much admired by Kemp, himself a crossover artist.

Seen | Unseen left me exhilarated at times, but perplexed at others. I found my troubles anticipated exactly by Kemp's warning in the preface: “I am aware of some problematic shifts of gear, as detailed scrutiny of a small segment of territory at a steady pace is interspersed with generalizations that rush breathlessly across sketchily portrayed landscapes...The best I can hope is that the topics subjected to detailed focus have been selected in such a way as to be exemplary, so that the parts can be seen as belonging to a discernible whole, without using what would normally be seen as a consistent historical 'argument'.” If ever there was an honest man...

So why not struggle to remove those anticipated problematic aspects? Because, in my view, this is a mature book written by a scholar who has meditated for decades on the false dichotomy between scientific and artistic representations of nature, having grown tired of superficial analyses of scientific artists and artistic scientists, and accustomed to the presentation of comparable material in the form of tightly focused magazine columns. The loose construction of Seen | Unseen must have been a liberating exploration. If Kemp asks a lot of his readers — one should read the book straight through, if possible, to appreciate the dialogues between chapters and between characters separated by centuries — we can't begrudge him a little confusion because he invited everyone to the party he has arranged with his favourite students of nature.

“My final plea,” Kemp offers, “is for professionals in each 'field' to exercise generosity and tolerance... I believe that we surrender our human 'wholes' to our specialist 'parts' at our peril.” Not only is this plea to academics self-evidently sensible and bound to be rewarding if heeded, it is hard today not to read it as wisdom for the wider world.

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