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Quantum weirdness and surrealism

A joint exploration of early modern physics and the surreal art movement shows these twentieth-century revolutions had more in common than we thought, explains Philip Ball.

Surrealism, Art and Modern Science

Yale University Press: 2008. 294 pp. $60.009780300098877 | ISBN: 978-0-3000-9887-7

Surrealist artists working in the early twentieth century, including André Breton, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, disorientated their audiences using odd, ambiguous juxtapositions and distortions of objects and images. Around the same time, relativity and quantum theory unsettled scientists with notions of plastic time and space, multiple truths and challenges to causality.

Roberto Matta's The Vertigo of Eros conveys the collisions and confusions of modern physics. Credit: © ADAGP, PARIS AND DACS, LONDON 2008/© 2007 MUS. OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/SCALA FLORENCE

Surrealism, Art and Modern Science shows the links are explicit, not a superficial analogy applied in retrospect. The Surrealist artists referred repeatedly to relativity and quantum mechanics in their writings. Dalí intended his drooping watches to allude to distorted space-time, describing them as a “soft Camembert of time and space”. Gavin Parkinson's study removes any contention about the connection between surrealism and physics, and makes you wonder why it was not made before.

An art historian at the Courtauld Institute in London, Parkinson paints a engrossing picture of the period between the 1920s and 1940s, when modernism flourished and created an intellectual ferment that spawned numerous highbrow journals wherein art and science met. He challenges the simple view of physicist and writer C. P. Snow that the 'Two Cultures' of art and science have nothing to say to each other, and, even if they did, no mutual language in which to speak it.

An important bridge between the Surrealists and physicists was The New Scientific Spirit, a book published in 1934 by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Trained in chemistry and physics, Bachelard became steeped in the proto-Surrealist poetry of Paul Éluard and Paul Valéry. Seeing the progression of science as a series of jumps rather than gradual advance, a position now attributed to science historian Thomas Kuhn, Bachelard considered his own times to be a period of rapid intellectual change. During revolutionary epochs, he said, there is a moment when old notions have shattered but new ones have not yet crystallized, when one must consider seemingly irrational ideas that are propelled by their own momentum.

It is no wonder the new physics appealed to the diverse, volatile band that constituted the Surrealists. Motivated by deep, even ponderous, philosophical ideas, these artists wanted to discard the comfortable certainties of representational work while avoiding the retreat into mysticism that total abstraction threatened. For many Surrealists, art was a means of investigating the world, particularly the self. The influence of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis on them has been well documented, but physics offered vindication of their concepts too. The painter Roberto Matta said that Albert Einstein was as important as Freud to the modern artist, and filled his pictures with geodesic space-time grids like those now used to illustrate black holes and wormholes. The polymathic Valéry, Breton's mentor, cultivated friendships with physicists Paul Langevin and Louis de Broglie, Jean Perrin, Niels Bohr and Einstein.

Physicists sometimes reciprocated. Marie-Antoinette Tonnelat, de Broglie's colleague, said in 1952 that “In physics as in painting, Surrealism denies the possibility of a description which does not carry explicitly the stamp of the observer” — we construct what we see. In 1934, philosopher Henri-Charles Puech wrote that in modern physics “the exact delineation of reality gives way to a vaguer consideration of unities more or less arbitrarily defined.”

No radical artist could resist this message. Thus, Surrealists sought to enlist physics to unbalance our preconceptions. If you think our pictures are absurd and bewildering, they said, just look at what the physicists are saying. Some artists betrayed a kind of science envy: Dalí spoke of science's “burning analytic precisions”. Both he and Breton tried to steer a path between art and science, maintaining ambiguity about their true goal.

Were these appropriations of science merely misconceived analogies? Parkinson, whose introduction to the physics of this era is splendid and nuanced, is aware of that danger, as were some of the artists. The Viennese painter and writer Wolfgang Paalen criticized some fellow Surrealists for using science simply as poetic ornament. Other artists cloaked their superficial understanding in the opaque verbal blanket for which French philosophy later became notorious. Breton's partial grasp of physics did nothing to check his arrogant appropriation of it: after he interpreted Einstein as saying that “one event can be the cause of another only if they can both be brought about in the same point in space”, he blithely added “that is what I have always thought.”

The Surrealists' interest in physics was genuine. But Surrealism, Art and Modern Science gives the impression that it was one of several themes commandeered for, and then shoehorned into, a radical social and political agenda. Breton and his fickle coterie flitted between Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Marxism, magic and occultism. This need not be problematic if they were simply looking for artistic inspiration, but Breton's intent was to make statements about the nature of reality.

One difficulty is that the scientific dilettante often converts particulars to generalities. What applies under one special, constrained set of circumstances is held up as a principle applicable to all things. Relativistic distortions and quantum indeterminism become universal attributes. Dalí, for example, spoke of a “psychic dilation of ideas” — as if our adherence to classical concepts were a conservative, bourgeois delusion rather than a necessary approximation. Parkinson describes how, when physicists such as Arthur Eddington used everyday analogies for pedagogy, their artist readers took them literally.

Perhaps we should not listen to what the artists say, but look at what they do. In his painting The Vertigo of Eros, Matta conveys as well as anything I have seen the collisions and confusions of the new sciences, combining multiple reference frames with allusions to Hermann Minkowski's bent space-time and to particle physics. The picture does not precisely illustrate, still less illuminate, the science that inspired it. It creates a nexus of reference points that sets the mental pathways buzzing. That is surely what good art does.

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Ball, P. Quantum weirdness and surrealism. Nature 453, 983–984 (2008).

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