Modern Theories of Art, 2: From Impressionism to Kandinsky

By Moshe Barasch | Go to book overview

4
Science and Painting

In surveying the horizon of late-nineteenth-century intellectual life for developments that may shed some light on the emergence of the impressionists' views, we shall now briefly turn to science. The evocation of science in a discussion of impressionism necessarily causes one to wonder. How can science, a reader might ask, be relevant to the creation, or even to the explanation, of art? Did the artists, the critics, and the general public who were looking at impressionistic pictures, have any real understanding of the problems and procedures of science?

We must quite frankly admit that neither the impressionistic artists nor their original audiences possessed a professional grasp of science. To be sure, some of the Neoimpressionists may have had a certain amount of scientific training, and occasionally their work and thought may have been influenced, or inspired, by scientific doctrines. But these were individual cases, to which we shall return later in our discussion. At the present moment, however, we are not speaking of individual artists or critics, but of the impressionistic movement as a whole and of its public at large, at least in the first decades of impressionistic painting. Taken as a whole, these artists and audiences, we should repeat, had little insight or training in the sciences. How, then, can a survey of contemporary scientific developments help throw light on the problems of art?

Of course, in certain historical periods science and art were not separated by a chasm of mutual ignorance. There were even times, as in the Renaissance, when certain sciences (like anatomy) and some arts (like painting and drawing) were perceived as closely linked to each other. Suffice it to recall Leonardo da Vinci, or the unusual type of the pittore notomista, or the illustrators of botanical and zoological works, to be convinced that painting could well fulfill an important function in scientific investigations, and in the articulation and transmission of their results, just as science could play an important part as a corrective criterion of art. Modern scholars have studied the symbiosis of art and the natural sciences in the Renais

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