Where Art and Science Meet

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On display at the Mead Art Museum

Art and science are two different streams which rise from the same creative source and flow into the same ocean of the common culture, but the currents of these two streams flow in different beds.” Naum Gabo

People like to think of art and science as opposites. Art is traditionally regarded as the representation of forms, while science is the medium for building knowledge about the functions and forms of the universe. Scientists exist in the world of laws, ideas, and experiments, and artists lay claim to creative expression and exploration of the representation of forms, feelings, and moments in time. But art and science are also connected, and Constructivist art in the twentieth century developed this connection in innovative and significant ways.

In the essay “Art and the Scientist” J. D. Bernal argues that the modern art movement was connected to and stimulated by scientific and mathematical discoveries through a study of the forms that Constructivist artists in particular developed. Naum Gabo (1890–1977), Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), and Henry Moore (1898–1986) are some of the artists from this period whose work expresses this connection between art and science. Without the influence of scientific and mathematical ideas of the time, their art — and sculpture in particular — would not have marked a groundbreaking change in modern art. The works of art by these artists currently on display at the Mead are examples of this influence and connection.

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On holilday at Happisburgh, Norfolk, 1931: (left to right) Ivon Hitchens, Irina Moore, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Mary Jenkins, whose husband Douglas took the picture.

Gabo, Hepworth, and Moore were friends who frequently worked together and shared ideas about art and sculpture. As a result of their personal relationships and the fact that they were all making art in the same period, their works explored similar forms and concepts of space and expressing movement. A recent reinstallation of the Mead’s galleries placed related works by these artists together: Gabo’s Vertical Construction No. 2, Hepworth’s Project for Wood and Strings, Trezion II, and Moore’s Stringed Figure. What they have in common is the interplay of interior and exterior spaces and the way this relationship parallels the mathematical concept of negative curvature.

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Naum Gabo (American, 1890-1977), Vertical Construction No.2 (The Waterfall),1965-66, bronze with stainless steel spring wire, Gift of the Julia A. Whitney Foundation, AC 2001.600

Gabo’s study of mathematical models resulted in sculptures that explore relationships between space, structure, and natural rhythms and forms. In Vertical Construction No. 2, which is attached to a slowly rotating motor, an inner space is cut out from curvilinear planes of metal, and metallic strings create tension between the core and the exterior.

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Barbara Hepworth (British, 1903-1975), Project for Wood and Strings, Trezion II, 1959, oil, gesso, pencil on board, Gift of Richard S. Zeisler, AC 1960.1

The drawing by Hepworth, Project for Wood and Strings, Trezion II, probably a preparatory sketch for a sculpture, creates a tension between spaces similar to Gabo’s. Hepworth in particular was fascinated by the idea of piercing space in her sculptures, and in this drawing creates an interior surface with a web of thin, intersecting lines that are accentuated by the smear of bright blue in the center. Whereas Gabo’s sculpture emphasizes separation of space using metallic surfaces, Hepworth employs color. Hepworth’s thin lines are related to the wires that Gabo uses to connect each part of the sculpture, and they serve to express the unity of interior and exterior surfaces and the complex curves present in nature.

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Henry Moore (British, 1898-1986), Stringed Figure, designed 1938, cast 1960, bronze, Gift of Bertram H. Bloch, Class of 1933, AC 1972.55

The use of curvature and strings cutting across different planes is also embodied in Moore’s sculpture Stringed Figure. In Circle, the important 1937 art book that Moore, Gabo, and Hepworth all contributed to, Moore states that sculpture is the best medium to attempt freely “the exploration of the world of pure form” (Circle 118). Moore, like Gabo, was fascinated by mathematical models and this interest informed his sculptures. The white strings that meet in the middle of the arc and pull together the two curving sides, create a taut connection between the gaping interior space and the polished exterior. Undulating planes in the sculpture’s interior generate interplay between light and shadow that recalls the natural forms Moore wanted to convey in his art.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

 

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From the Collection: Works by Vadim Sidur

 

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This simple, yet elegant drawing by Russian artist Vadim Sidur joined the collection in 2001. Sidur specialized in monumental sculpture during the last Stalinist years. He was going to participate in the re-building of Moscow after World War II, but Stalin died in 1953, and in the mid-1950s Sidur abandoned the Socialist Realist vocabulary that would form the style of the postwar revisions. The officials regarded his non-canonical art as formalist and pacifist, and therefore prevented him from exhibiting in Russia. Despite this prohibition, Sidur never left his native country.

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Sidur began making drawings after suffering a heart attack in 1961. In the work above, titled Faces, he achieved a quality of sculptural volume on a flat surface. The monumentality and dynamism of ancient sculpture, which had fascinated Sidur since childhood, resonates. Perhaps because of his two encounters with death (the other, during WW II) his work typically addressed existential questions about life, death, and family. The three people represented here are graphically linked, symbolizing the need for human support within a hostile social and political environment.

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Monday Morning Muse: Olympia

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This print of Édouard Manet’s infamous Olympia joined the collection in 1956. First exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, Olympia shocked audiences with her confrontational gaze and the many details identifying her as a prostitute.

The following print by American artist Mel Ramos, which joined the collection in 1980 and was made almost 100 years after Manet’s version, borrows the subject matter, title and composition directly from Manet’s Olympia. 

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This interesting analysis of Ramos’s version of Olympia by the University of Michigan Museum of Art notes that the artist “blurs the line between the fine art tradition of the aestheticized female nude and contemporary pornography, suggested by his hyper-realist treatment of the nude, revealing her tan lines, her blonde bob, and her quasi-seductive gaze, similar to what one might find in any number of pin-ups girls.”

Who do you think was more shocked by these nude subjects: Manet’s viewers in 1865, or Ramos’s in 1974? 

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