The interrelationship between art and science in the first half of the 20th century is fascinatingly explored in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s new exhibition about the vital, but little known Dimensionism art movement. “The Dimensionist Manifesto,” a 1936 proclamation authored by Hungarian poet Charles Sirató sought to expand the ‘dimensionality’ of modern art as a result of novel and exciting discoveries in physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and microbiology. It urged artists to respond in their works to new physical realities and scientific concepts, such as the theory of relativity, higher-dimensional mathematics, four-dimensional space, and quantum theory. Many prominent artists, some of whom had already been intrigued with science, endorsed the Manifesto, including Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Meticulously curated by Vanja V. Malloy of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, this scholarly yet eye-catching show contains almost 70 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs from American and European private and museum collections, along with poetry and other ephemera associated with the Dimensionist movement.
The exhibition examines how early Cubists, Surrealists, Futurists, and abstract artists fused scientific ideas into their works, as well as how science helped to advance their thinking into new and unique realms of creativity. Art by Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Barbara Hepworth, Wassily Kandinsky, Helen Lundeberg, Man Ray, André Masson, Roberto Matta, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy, and Dorothea Tanning is on display, and the exhibit explains how social and scientific upheavals shaped their designs.
Einstein’s 1915 “Theory of General Relativity” suggested a new type of curved space. The total eclipse of 1919 confirmed his theory and illustrated how light could ‘bend’ around the sun. One of the Dimensionist group members’ early proponents was the artist László Moholy-Nagy’s (see his “Kinetic Sculpture Moving,” 1930-36), who actually corresponded with Einstein. Other artists, like Ben Nicholson (see his “abstract composition,” 1939) were familiar with Einstein’s theories. Edited by Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin, the 1937 book “Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art” quoted the work of Arthur Eddington, an astrophysicist who publicized Einstein’s theory to a general audience.
Alexander Calder (see his “Little Blue Planet”, 1934) who signed the “Dimensionist Manifesto” was a trained engineer, had in-depth knowledge of modern physics and were able to employ his expertise to create kinetic sculpture. Henry Moore recognized how the telescope and the microscope influenced his creation of curvilinear shapes (see his wonderful “String Figure,” designed in 1938 and cast in 1960). He knew the x-ray crystallographer J.D. Bernal and was especially inspired by his images. Joan Miró (see his “Untitled,” 1937 and “Composition,” 1937) did not actually sign the Manifesto, but was supportive of its ideas and saw hope in the cosmos.
Later, the development of quantum theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle brought forth a new view of science that was attractive to a different set of artists. Dorothea Tanning’s surrealist painting, “Demi et Midi,” 1956-57, which has detailed hidden faces and body parts amid bursts of swirling colors, was painted directly on canvas and may extend beyond materiality, as suggested in the Manifesto. Similarly, Picasso’s cubist art was received by art critics in the 1930s with a view towards quantum theory, because of its incompleteness and sense of the unknown (see his small yet powerful “Young Girl in an Armchair,” 1917).
Some of us may think that art and science are polar opposites. But a viewing of the enlightening “Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein” convincingly makes the case that scientific concepts advanced bold new forms of creative expression, and still do so today.
This article first appeared on Berkeleyside.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved.