JF Ptak Science Books Post 1914
Changing the Mind's View of Simple and Complex Ideas via Different Image Perspectives
I’m always very interested in curious things, or standard, “average” things pictured in non-standard ways, as the change in perspective can lead to entirely new observations and discovery. Seeing this illustration in an article by J. Norman Lockyer (Nature 1881) I was shocked by its clarity and usefulness—Lockyer was simply showing the arrangement of his apparatus for his solar spectrum experiments but the angle of observation (being at such an oblique angle as is normally found) was just, so, well, “correct”. The image I thought was perfect for the reader—not only that, it was designed artistically and with grace, and one can see exactly what Lockyer was up to. Diagrams would’ve worked almost as well, but there is just something so extraordinary here that you could just about work from the image if there was no description.
Sometimes it works to read the description of what the image is before actually viewing it to see the differences of the image that you form in your brain before seeing the thing itself. For example, when reading about the Dogon, a cliff-dwelling people of the plateau of Bandiagara, south of Tombouctou, and how they would make houses and then towns out of the rocks fallen from cliffs, you get what is probably a pretty benign image. When you see photographs of these structures it seems as though the brain just simply isn’t ready for their impossible nature, though you quickly, instantly, recover (once you convince yourself the photo is real) and—voila—your mind has been expanded. (This photo is from an expansive work by Bernard Rudofsky, Architectures without Architects, Doubleday, 1964.)
The (internally) spectacular Etienne Boullee can greet us in the same way with some of his eye-popping architectural creations (unbuilt architecture by an architect, in this case, compared to the built architecture of the non-architects above). Boullee’s “Plan du Cenotaphe de Newton”, a gigantic memorial to Newton that was dancing with necessary privacy in Boullee’s brain during the French Revolution (and also during a particularly un-Newtonesque time in on-your-knees-to-Cartesian-principles France) is another superior example. Reading the description of the structure just doesn’t quite do, and it seems whatever grand comes of that is tarnished and stripped away by the obesely florid sentiment of none other than Ledoux’s poetic sentiments “…O Newton! Sublime Mind! Vast and profound genius! I conceived the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery…”. Oy. Boulle adds to this inspirational atrocity by saying of the sphere: “…we must speak of a grace that owes its being to an outline that is as soft and flowing as it is possible to imagine…” And once the demand of “oh dear god just please show me the picture” is met, we are left with a turned-around brain and another heavenly exaltation, or profanity. The Cenotaph is just Grand-Canyon-Spectacular.
Complex can turn on the simple in this way, where we can have those “a-ha” moments from, say, early efforts at picturing the fourth dimension or non-Euclidean geometry to a new perspective of looking at Roman ruins. The arrival on the non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century posed new issues, not the least of which was representing the ideas. Our saintly Hermann von Helmholtz believed –contrary to most elevated opinions—that the human mind could indeed intuit complex space and figures of these geometries. (The difficulty not only from the obvious intellectual hardships in picturing the concepts but also because the geometry of Lobachevsky https://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Lobachevsky.html was called somewhat into doubt when some of its results were cast in doubt by contemporary astronomical observations.—and this even though so far as the great Gauss was concerned there was no deviation in Euclidean values.) Helmholtz did this by employing the three-dimensional pseudosphere model of Beltrami. (Reluctance to these ideas would end soon enough, for, as Linda Dalrymple Henderson points out with such sotto voce, “the convenience of Euclidean geometry would prove inadequate once Einstein” hit in 1905.)
The work of Beltrami and H.P. Manning (Geometry of Four Dimensions, 1914), and Jouffret (Traite elementaire de geometrie a quarte dimensions, Paris 1903) in illustrating these complex ideas (the titles of which were in themselves daungting as with Jouffret’s “plane projections of the sixteen fundamental octahedrons of an ikosatettrhroid”) would in themselves prove to be entirely irresistible to the world of the arts. Charles Howard and Maurice Princet I think had as much to do with the creation of cubism and abstract art and the imaging of time than anyone, including the painter (I shudder to say his name) of Les Demoiselles (1907) or the lovely Georges Braque (Houses at Estaque, 1908) or Jean Metzinger or even the sublime comedian Duchamp’s Nude Descending (1914). The hypercube starts to show up a lot in some Bauhaus genres and even into the palette of Frank Lloyd (“Stinky”) Wright (with his St. Mark’s Tower plan, NYC, 1929). I can only imagine the shock to the brains of these creative geniuses in seeing the display of such a novel idea. (For the ultimate treatise on this see Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton 1983). And no the art didn’t come first.
But coming back to the simple, and in the same frame as the first example that we mentioned in Lockyer, we have the unlikely find of Giovanni Piranesi. In my opinion his most spectacular work is found in his frammeni (the diverse bits and pieces of architectural and sculptural bric-a-brac found objects that are collected together on one stage) and in his archaeological detail. His attention to new perspective in showing the crucial aspects of structure and building in Rome is tremendous and unexpected—as an example we see here the child’s-eye-height view of three steps of the reconstruction of the theatre of Pompey. I must say that I’ve seen a lot of architectural images in my time but nothing quite comes to me so surprisingly as this step-level view of the reconstruction of a Roman theatre, This happens throughout the lesser-known Piranesi, with great details of tools, and cross sections of the very deep footings of bridges, and so on. It is really refreshing, lovely, unexpected work.
We’ll return to this subject from time to time as I have hundreds of interesting examples to draw from—for example, the remarkable Emily Vanderpoel’s Colour Problems (which has surfaced in this blog from time to time) which is ostensibly an undecipherable attempt to quantify color arrangement in art but through the lovely examples displaying this attempt pre-date the modern re-invention of non-representational art by at least a dozen years. Stay tuned!