Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Salon: A Duality of Art and Science.

On the train last week I listened to the Nature and Chempod podcasts. I find it exciting to have the chance to hear all these eminent scientists talk about their latest discoveries. It is put in straightforward terms and is easily understandable by the non-specialists. It is also free. All you have to do is go to this Nature page or itunes and download. I highly recommend.

This particular podcast ended with scientific pop. 'Am I wave or a particle?' the singer asked. 'Do I follow my mind or my heart?' This chimed very well with what I was about to see: an exhibition of Picasso's work, the well-known cubist. I remember reading somewhere (I think in Insights of Genius by Arthur I Miller) that just as a cubist aims to portray two sides of a person's face at once, so physicists theorise that light also has two sides: from some 'angles' it is a particle, from others it is a wave. The art movement inspired the science, and according to another book by Miller (Einstein, Picasso), science influenced Picasso too. Reading through Miller's review of the book Surrealism, Art and Modern Science by Gavin Parkinson it seems like the two were linked by the work of Poincaré (another favourite of mine).

The point of this exhibition in the National Gallery was not cubism but to show how Picasso took paintings from the past and used them to develop his own work. Amusingly, there were plenty of young art students there copying Picasso's work, so I imagined the whole thing as one of those halls of mirrors, the reflection going on and on, transformed each time by imperfections in the glass to something different, sometimes monstrous.

The originals were shown in a small brochure that accompanied the exhibition, which I suppose you were supposed to consult as you walked around. It makes interesting reading in its own terms.

However, since this brochure was very small and I am no longer young this was an unsuccessful combination in my case (I need to bite the bullet an buy myself some varifocals). However, if there had been more information on the walls then maybe there would have been a viewing grid-lock. ('Ah, you can't win,' an Art Gallery curator would think if he were to read this, 'there'll always be some idiot grumbling.') Also I suspect there was more information on the audio-tour, but since I usually find those irritating, I didn't indulge - maybe I should have this time.

Since I now have the (imagined) attention of the National Gallery curator I would also like to say that it would have been better if the pictures were displayed in chronological order so I could have seen how the young Picasso developed into the middle-aged and elderly Picasso. There was a sense of this, but since they were arranged thematically (still life, muse etc) it was not obvious. 'But everyone always does that!' My imagined curator would reply. 'Yes, for good reason,' I would answer back. I like to get the last word.

Despite all this it was great to see the pictures before me and peer at them closely. I was surprised at how rough and unfinished they appeared to be, with dribbles of one colour over another. Standing back they disappeared, or rather were still there, indiscernible on their own but adding to the overall effect. All of Picasso's works seem to have a solidity about them which I really like. Even the thin sad people that he painted in his Harlequin period seemed to have a presence. Each one grabbed my attention and made me look and look. There were small tantalising details about his life: one woman and then another and another, and children appearing then being swept away with their mothers as another woman came on the scene. My interest now piqued in the genius of Picasso (and his outrageous love-life) I indulged myself even further and bought this book.
The excellent art publishers, Taschen, some of whose output is scattered on the downstairs Dudman bookshelves, are selling this book on Picasso at a reduced price to celebrate their silver jubilee. Apart from the familiar cubist pictures, there are many more conventional portraits, including several with the chubbiness of some of Beryl Cook's figures (though probably he was her inspiration rather than the other way round). It's a gorgeous book and I have enjoyed myself since looking at the pictures.

Since I had a little time left I was able to visit the National Portrait Gallery and saw another exhibition I wanted to see (actually recommended to me by someone I've met on Twitter from Nature, Grace Baynes). This was on the portraits of Gerhard Richter. Gerhard Richter takes evocative photographs and then reproduces them with astonishing realism in paint. Several are of his family, and some, like Picasso's are inspired by past masters.  There is more about Gerhard Richter on Artsy - an excellent resource.

I recognised some images from the internet, and I particularly like these which I think would make excellent covers for books.

I finished off the day by meeting a few bloggers from Nature Network at the pub (including Matt Brown and Stephen Curry), which takes me back to Nature and another side of science.


Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks for the post Clare — I must try to catch the Picasso exhibition. It was nice to see you in the pub that evening to chat about science and art and silkworms!

Sun Mar 29, 02:51:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, thank your Stephen. Yes, I am a little obsessed with the worms at the moment. Thank you for being such a kind listener.

Sun Mar 29, 04:05:00 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

You lucky duck, seeing Picasso's work. Been obsessed with his work in the past... maybe we'll get our turn over here :)

Sun Mar 29, 04:43:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I hope so, Barbara! The man was amazing. It made me realise how great he was. The 'Young British Artists' are nothing beside him (IMO).

Sun Mar 29, 05:21:00 pm  
Blogger Grace Baynes said...

Clare, thanks for a great post. I loved the Picasso exhibition, too. For a gallery arranged by chronology, I cannot recommend highly enough the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Starts at age 14 or so, and you really see his development and experimentation with different styles. Worth the trip, although a weekend in Barcelona is not a hardship!

Mon Mar 30, 08:57:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Ooh, thank you, Grace! I have long wanted to go to Barcelona. This makes me more determined.

Mon Mar 30, 09:48:00 am  
Anonymous Julie said...

What an interesting post. Picasso was a fascinating person, wasn't he!

I think not displaying the paintings in chronological order is unconscionable. It reminds me of the re-issued Narnia books, which are numbered in the order the action takes place rather than the order they were written. I keep rearranging them on my daughter's shelf. Ugh.

Sun Apr 19, 12:21:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks for your comment, Julie! I can't believe they're doing that with the Narnia books. Part of the fun in reading them was figuring out the chronological order. On reflection it must have been an important part of my education to realise that stories didn't necessarily come in a logical time-line, but sometimes hopped around. It must have been one of my first encounters with a fictional flashback.

Sun Apr 19, 10:51:00 pm  

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