Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here's a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece on the art of science and the science of art:

It reads contradictory, conflicted: the art of science/science of art – the mixture of the logical and methodical with the imaginative and emotional.

But science and art – or, if you’d prefer, art and science – have held hands, if not close friends, for a very long time. Greek and Roman artists followed often strict guidelines considering the correct mathematical proportions of the figures in their frescoes and sculptures, Japanese woodblocks were as much about mechanical precision as they were about the subject being printed, the Renaissance was all about using science to bring a literal new dimension to painting, and then you have the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

No, you haven’t heard of Leopold or Rudolf Blaschka – but you certainly should have. Unlike the Greeks and and Romans, the Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, Michangelo and Leonardo, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka aren’t well known outside of either esoteric or scientific circles.

Which is what makes them so remarkable: they mixed the staggering beauty of pure art with a precision and dedication worthy of great scientists.

Leopold and Rudolf were glass artisans – possibly some of the greatest, ever. But what they created weren’t just glass and goblets, lampshades and windows. Nope, Leopold and Rudolf created nature.

Simplified, here’s the story: Professor George Lincoln Goodale, of Harvard, wanted to teach botany. But the problem with teaching botany is that plants have a tendency to … well, die. Sure, you could preserve some specimens but lots of species just don’t look the same after being dried – the plant version of stuffed and mounted. Yes, you could try using paintings or even photography but plants are – and here’s a surprise -- three dimensional. So what Professor Goodale did was ask the Blaschkas to create glass plants to help him teach his students about real ones.

But the Blaschkas did more than just recreate plants: they created astounding works of not only scientific accuracy but pure, brilliant, art. Looking at even the simplest of their efforts is deceptive – a sign of their genius. Their reproductions don't resemble the original plants – they look EXACTLY like them, created by hand, in fickle and fragile glass. All from 1887 to 1936.

What’s even more impressive is how many they created: more than 3,000 models of some 850 species – many of which can be seen on display at Harvard while many others are being painstakingly restored.

But the Blaschkas didn’t stop at plants. Not to take anything away from their artistry, but plants are relatively simple subjects. In some cases the Blaschkas could even work from live, or recently plucked, models. But there are much more difficult subjects out there, creatures so rare and fragile that very few men have ever seen them in their delicate flesh – even more frail than the glass the Blaschkas used to recreate them.

When these reproductions were made, in the late 19th century, only a few marine explorers and a few lucky seaman had seen any of them. Octopi, urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, jellyfish, cuttlefish – they were too rare, too fragile, to be seen outside of the sea. That is until the Blaschkas.

I wish there was some way to request a moment of silence. I wish there was some way to ask you to stop reading this and look at the pictures here and at other places of the web. I wish there was some way for you to have a nice glass of wine, put on some nice music – maybe Bach, who also mixed science and art – and just admire the care, the craft, and the pure art the Blaschkas created.

The Blaschka brothers left an inspirational legacy. Josiah McElheny – the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant – is a kindred spirit to the Blaschkas, another mind-blowing artist who works in the whimsical and temperamental world of glass … and the disciplined domain of science.

McElheny’s works -- like that of the Blaschka brothers -- finds inspiration in the universe around us, particularly with one sculpture that depicts a key moment. In many ways this is a perfect place to stop: the Blaschka brothers created perfect artistic reproductions of nature to teach science, and McElheny created a sculptural interpretation of the ultimate act of creation, as discovered by science: the Big Bang.

The art of science, the science of art … in the end they are both looking for the same thing: a way to show the nature of everything.

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