The Fine Arts and Science


Breakthroughs in art and science rarely happen in isolation. Important changes in society, including science, occur during turbulent times. The two examples that are discussed here are the changes around 1876, the time of the development of Gibbs' Free Energy, and 1911, the date of the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Impressionism and Gibbs' Free Energy

The time period around 1850 was characterized by a sense of rigidity and relative stagnation in many aspects of society. A building sense of unrest and a revolt against conformity lead to sudden changes in art and science as 1875 approached. Impressionism in the fine arts is a result of the desire for change. Before 1875, nature was often depicted in art, but nature was depicted from a distance as an object or idea separate from human ideas and ideals. The power of nature was depicted, but in a very static sense.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's 1855 painting, La Charette-Souvenir de Marcoussis, is an example of nature as depicted before impressionism.
The music of the time is well represented by Alexander Borodin. Borodin was a famous chemist as well as composer. The first and second movements of his first string quartet.
Camille Pissaro in 1870 showed some of the beginnings of a sudden shift in how painting was done. Less attention was paid to detail and in so doing the observer was required to consider more the interrelationships of the elements of the painting. Works like "Moisson a Montoucault" show that artists were beginning to ask what the purpose of the depiction of objects was.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 1876 work, The Swing, shows the emergence of Impressionism. Representation of a scene takes a minor role to the depiction of motion and mood. The depiction of dynamic events and emotion is a hallmark of impressionist works. This same year marks the publication of Willard Gibbs' hallmark work on Free Energy. Chemists were focussing on the reasons why changes occur and not just the outward manifestations of those changes. Physics and chemistry were focussing on the dynamics of change, hence the field of thermodynamics.
Paul Cezanne's 1880 painting, House in Provence, has a dynamic feeling and also seeks to depict chaos in nature. Both science and art were looking into the underlying form of nature and not just the surface of phenomena. The concept of disorder, entropy, was found in the arts and sciences.
This 1888 Vincent van Gogh painting (Farmhouse in Provence) shows a similar scene to the Corot painting shown above. The differences are striking. The swirling motions impart a strong feeling of energy. Comparisons of the sharp, neat outlines of the house and the jumble of flowers and the haystacks show that van Gogh was aware of the interplay of order, disorder, and energy in an artistic sense. The importance of Gibbs' Free Energy in chemistry is an understanding of the interrelationships of order, disorder, and energy. The intense colors and the lack of detail certainly evoke an strong emotional response that takes an inward look at the meaning of nature and art. The painting seeks to more directly involve the observer. These changes in art paralleled the changes in science as science began to look more closely at the inner workings of nature.

Abstract Art and Quantum Mechanics

The period surrounding 1876 led to a turbulent time that brought many changes in many aspects of society. An even better example of the parallel changes in art and science is found in the time period between 1900 and 1926. The unraveling of the structure of the atom and the discovery of the wave-particle duality of light and matter had a tremendous impact on the course of science and human thought. The emergence of quantum mechanics in 1926 was the result of a turbulent time in human history. However, the changes in science were not being played out in isolation. Art and music were going through an equally turbulent and at times almost violent revolution. The hallmark in this time period is the first performance of the ballet "Rite of Spring." The music, written by Igor Stravinsky was greeted with violent emotions. The same can be said for the changes in art.
Pablo Picasso's 1903 portrait, "The Blind Man's Meal," shows only small differences with the legacy of Impressionism and is shown here to highlight the changes caused by the developments in modern art.
   Picasso's 1909 paintings, "Still Life With Bread and Fruit" and "Portrait of Fernandel," show the search for the underlying form of art, in the same way as quantum physics was searching for the underlying form of nature. These Cubist works were a sudden break with the past, just as wave-particle duality was a break with the past. It is certain that the physicists and chemists of the day knew of the changes in the fine arts and visa-versa. One might suggest that the turbulent times in both fields and in the society as a whole fed off of each other and hastened the progress that was being made.
Georges Braque (1929, Still-Life: Le Jour), Picasso, and many other artists were questioning the inner purpose and meaning of art. Science was questioning the inner meaning of nature.
Picasso's 1939 work, "Night Fishing at Antibes," shows the progression of the ideas uncovered earlier at the turn of the century.
These three short pieces by Anton Webern are examples of "klangsfarben musik" or tone-color music. They show that the musical community was also searching for the inner-core and inner meaning of their art.
Fernand Leger's 1919 sketch for "The Railway Crossing," shows a complete shift in the way in which artists used the depiction of objects. These shifts draw us more personally into the artists world. These works, scientific and artistic, are personally challenging. Because these ideas involve us more personally and more abstractly, they help us to focus on the impact of interrelationships. These interrelationships include the observer and the painting, the student and the chemical theory, and the driving forces of nature and human activity.