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Reviewed by:
  • Einstein Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, and: Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain
  • Robert Pepperell
Einstein Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc by Arthur I. Miller. Basic Books, New York, 2001. 267 pp., illus. ISBN 0-465-01859-9.
Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain by Semir Zeki. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, U.K., 1999. 218 pp., illus. ISBN 0-19-850519-1.

If we are to find a reliable way of integrating knowledge between science and art, then the intellectual traffic must pass in more than one direction. There seems to be no shortage of scientists willing to make low-level interventions in art theory using insights from their own fields to generate apparently novel interpretations of cultural artifacts. Along with the two authors reviewed here, we could also mention the surgeon Leonard Shlain, the physicist Erich Harth and the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, along with the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, whose ideas on the neurology of art appreciation form the basis of this year's Reith lectures for the BBC (available at < 003/reith2003_lecture3.shtml>).

One is hard pressed, however, to name any prominent artists who have attempted equally serious interventions in, say, advanced neuroscience, laparoscopic surgery, particle physics or evolutionary psychology. Were they to try, it is likely their efforts would receive—let's put it diplomatically—a "guarded" reception. Indeed, my experience when commenting on matters scientific, or even philosophical, to members of those communities is that an artist's views can often be entertained with polite interest and then bracketed. The fact that specialists from a wide spectrum of disciplines feel qualified to critically engage with art may be a positive testament to its pervasive cultural resonance. But there must be other reasons why so many scientists feel compelled to devote so much intellectual energy to revealing what art seems to keep hidden: are such projects the indulgent byproducts of an already well-established reputation, are they symptomatic of an inadequacy in orthodox art history, or do they actually represent an emerging kind of human knowledge that harmonizes hitherto inconsonant disciplines?

In his book Einstein Picasso, Arthur I. Miller, the eminent historian of science, stokes the ongoing debate about the connections between avant-garde Parisian art and theoretical physics in the period leading up to the First World War. As we approach the centenary of the birth of both cubism and relativity, it seems the possibility of their having had some contemporary symbiosis continues to fascinate. Miller produces a "parallel biography" of two titanic figures in order to demonstrate how in their early careers "they were both working on the same problem" (sleeve note and p. 174)—the problem being the limitations of classical representations of space and time. It's worth saying that this is a hotly contested claim with heavyweight art historians, including Linda Dalrymple Henderson and John Richardson, categorically rejecting any cross-pollination between Einstein's theories and the development of cubism. (The other significant volume on the subject, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light by Leonard Shlain [1993], is oddly not mentioned by Miller.)

There are undoubtedly some striking parallels between the early circumstances of both Picasso and Einstein: both experienced periods of poverty and rejection, both relied on a close circle of friends for intellectual nourishment, and both produced—almost simultaneously—seminal work that entirely reshaped their respective disciplines. Moreover, they each drew on the work of polymath Henri Poincaré, Einstein quite directly and Picasso through the conduit of his friend Maurice Princet. But it is the philosophical proximity of cubism and relativity that seems, in retrospect, to need accounting for, and it is the nature of this proximity—in what ways were cubism and relativity similar?—that to my mind leaves the greatest scope for misinterpretation. Miller is among those who see both projects as essentially reductionist, which is to say that each seeks to expose some underlying, geometric sub-structure of reality that would remain otherwise concealed.

He is not alone in taking this line, and it chimes with views about cubism that were...


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