Art Matters is the podcast that brings together pop culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.
There’s a common belief that people are either left or right-brained thinkers – logical or creative. The idea is that the left hemisphere of the brain controls analytical thought while the right controls artistic ability. According to this theory, people fall into one category or the other, and this explains their natural talents and inclinations. A 2013 study shows that people use both hemispheres of the brain, and it’s possible to have an aptitude in, say, art and science.
With this notion of art and science being opposites, I thought it would be interesting to think about art found in scientific spaces. ‘I don’t think I actually see my role as any different to the other curators’, says Katy Barrett, Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum, London. ‘We’re all working with interesting objects that have histories that are visual and material and technical. And we’re all interested in those objects having
The museum includes an incredible assortment of objects, from room-sized computers to space suits, so I was interested to know the museum’s perspective on the relationship between art and
‘We think about very broadly – possibly the term ‘visual culture’ might be a better way of thinking about it because our art collections range from paintings to stamps to cigarette cards to sculpture. So there’s a real range of material’, says Katy. ‘The collections aren’t about making science accessible or visualising it – they’re really about how art and science have informed each other.’
One example of this relationship in the museum’s collection is the painting Coalbrookdale by Night, by Philip James de Loutherbourg (above). The nineteenth-century painting shows the night sky lit up by fire and smoke, and is set near the area that is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The painting was acquired by the Science Museum in
There are many occasions where artists use art as a way of accurately representing their scientific ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is a classic example of a polymath who, in addition to being a gifted painter and architect, kept journals of his studies in anatomy and engineering. One could argue that his artistic skills helped facilitate his scientific explorations.
Within the Science Museum Group collection, there are many similar examples of this relationship between art and science, some of which will feature in the museum’s exhibition on the sun. Katy told me about two pieces by James Nasmyth, a Scottish engineer and inventor of the steam hammer, in which he used painting as a tool to represent his findings
Staying on the topic of the sun, there’s another artist who used art as a way of documenting sunsets and the atmospheric effects of a major nineteenth-century event. ‘In 1883, Krakatoa, the volcano, erupted and caused a huge amount of particulate matter to be in the atmosphere for a good two or three years after the eruption, which made really spectacular sunsets appear all over the world,’ says Katy. ‘William Ascroft was particularly interested in the kind of palette that appeared in these sunsets and trying to have a scientific understanding of the colours that he was seeing.’
It’s fascinating that these pastels now serve as a record capturing a specific event in history. Just as art can be used to document information, it can also be used to represent new ideas. On long-term loan to the collection are a series of watercolours by Luke Howard in which he categorised clouds. He created several paintings and grouped them under the names that we still use today.
When it comes to commissioning new works for the collection, the museum likes to take an open-minded approach that looks beyond some of the more obvious links one might think about. ‘It’s not always specifically about a way of making people think about science – sometimes it’s a good opportunity to bring in voices that are missing from the collection. Last year, we had a season called 'Illuminating India', and we commissioned the artist Chila Kumari Burman to create a series of pieces around that, that
It’s interesting to hear different approaches to melding the disciplines of art and science. It’s clearly not a matter of left- or right-brain thinking – there can be a symbiotic relationship between artistic creativity and scientific exploration.
'The Sun: Living With Our Star' opens at the Science Museum, London on 6 October and runs through 6 May 2019. There’s also a book for the exhibition titled The Sun: One Thousand Years of Scientific Imagery wherein you can view beautiful imagery pertaining to the science of the sun.
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