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CURRENT LITERATURE I. Book Reviews Book Review Panel: RudolfArnheim, Eva Belik, john Bowlt, john W. Cooper, Elmer Duncan, Robert S. Lansdon, Alan Lee, Rimma Lerman, jay Turner Luke, john Mallinckrodt, David Panser, Clifford Pickover, Rosalinda Sartorii, David Topper, Stephen Wilson. THE SCIENCE OF ART: OPTICAL THEMES IN WESTERN ART FROM BRUNELLESCHI TO SEURAT by Martin Kemp. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT, U.S.A., 1989.375 pp., illus. Trade, $60.00. ISBN: 0-30004337 -6. Reviewed I7y RudolfArnheim, 1050 Wall Street, Apt. 6D, Ann Arbor, MI48105, U.S.A. On the cover of Kemp's attractively designed book, a lady of distinctly artistic garb holds up a sheet of geometrical diagrams, clearly quite remote from her own calling. The painting is Allegory of Geometry, done in 1649 by Laurent de la Hire. The artist was directly involved in a bitter struggle among French academicians, those who promoted a strict observance of mathematical rules, especially those of perspective, versus those who stressed what we would describe today as visual intuition. It was a struggle that pervaded the period of naturalistic painting from the days of Masaccio to those of Seurat, and it exemplifies the theme of Kemp's book. Michelangelo's assertion that "the true artist must possess 'compasses in his eyes' rather than relying on mechanical calculation" (p. 41) was seconded by Zuccaro, an influential theorist of the time who asserted that "art is not the daughter of mathematics but of nature and design ". This animosity toward the rules of reason still reverberates in the Romantics, for example , in the violent anti-Newtonian campaign of William Blake, who "despised Reynolds' opinion that genius may be taught and that all pretense of inspiration is a lie and a deceit. ... GENIUS BEGINS WHERE RULES END" (p. 252). Even so, the story of painting and of art theory is by no means that of a one-sided antagonism to scientific principles. On the contrary, it reflects the persistent endeavor by artists to profit from the rules derived from geometry and optics, particularly in perspective, and the corresponding attempts of theorists to derive intellectual generalizations from artistic practice. What then, is the science of art? If science is "the system of interpretation of effects in relation to the laws of nature" (p. 311), the specific concern of the science of art, as defined in this book, is limited essentially to the optics, the geometry of visual projection , and the chemistry of the pictorial image. It applies to the age of 'naturalistic' painting from the early quattrocento through the nineteenth century. But the sciences called upon by art were in no way limited to art. The rules of geometrical projection, on which perspective relies, were not first and principally applied to art. In astronomy and geography they were indispensable for the cartographic problems of representing the spherical orbits of the heavens and the terrestrial globe on a picture surface. Beyond painting, they were needed in the theater for spatial illusion on the angled flats of the stage and in architecture for the representation of three-dimensional structures. The problems of painting, in turn, are of course much broader than what is covered by scientific investigations. Within its well-defined limits, Kemp's book may deserve to be called the definitive treatise on its topic. It offers a wealth of technical detail, such as geometrical and optical diagrams, much of which calls for the patience of specialists. There are also descriptions of the apparatus constructed by artists and scientists to serve the purposes of painters, as well as historical facts on the theorists and practitioners active through the centuries . It is a highly intelligent book, interrelating the principles and objectives of scientists and artists throughout the text and in the summarizing coda. Unavoidably, there is a discrepancy between the primacy of perspective in a history of the geometry and optics of painting and its actual, much more limited role in the practice of the art. It is well-known, of course, how the rules of geometrical perspective fascinated artists, especially during the fifteenth century, in which these rules were first formulated. Piero della Francesca wrote the treatise De Prospectiua pingendi, and his persistent influence as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
pp. 92-93
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-04
Open Access
No
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