To celebrate the opening of Vassar’s Bridge for Laboratory Sciences in spring 2016, the Art Center presented a series of installations of works from the permanent collection that mark the longstanding and multi-faceted relationship of Art, Science and Technology.
Themes explored included botany, anatomy, zoology, optics, and technology. The selection of works, diverse in date and subject matter, illuminate the rich common ground that exists among artistic expression, scientific inquiry, and modernizing discoveries as we relentlessly attempt to understand and interpret the world around us, an enduring source of human curiosity and awe.
Since antiquity, botanical imagery has served as a dynamic intersection of art and science. Several key moments from this tradition in Europe and United States are represented in the holdings of the Art Center. The earliest works on view are two engravings of tulips by Crispijn de Passe II for Hortus Floridus (1614), a florilegium with detailed illustrations of flowers depicted in their natural habitat. Created during a period of voracious Dutch overseas trade and colonialism, these works demonstrate the widespread fascination with rare plants as well as a growing commitment to observation from nature prevalent in Early Modern Europe.
Over time, plant classification systems and accuracy in representations continued to be refined. Discoveries of new plants and rich collaborations between artists and scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to a “flowering” of botanical art. Finely illustrated volumes for the purpose of identifying and classifying specimens appeared. Amateurs, many women among them, contributed to the popularity of the field, as can be seen in Alfred Ronner’s The Botanist, the artist of Flower and Leaf, whose work bears the inscription,“Mrs. Clay of Philadelphia” and the more recent Wild Orchid by Dorothy Coulter, who wrote the British Museum in 1975 “you won’t find me in any index of American artists.”
The advent of photography provided a new means for the close study of plants and flowers. Examples include Anna Atkins’s cyanotype Wafer Ash and Edwin Hale Linclon’s Northern Bedstraw from his eight-volume labor of love completed in 1914, The Wildflowers of New England. The use of photography to provide intimate encounters with these subjects, exemplified in Weed Against Sky by Henry Callahan and Andreas Feininger’s White Ash Bud, has only intensified up to present day. Seen together, these works, whether inspired by art, science, or some combination thereof, evoke Wilfrid Blunt’s The Art of Botanical Illustration (1950):
...only those who have attempted to draw flowers can appreciate the restless models these can sometimes be – how quickly petals open and stems curve...Moreover, the botanical artist finds himself at once and always in a dilemma: is he the servant of Science, or of Art?...The greatest flower painters have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and the hand of the artist.
Study of the human form has long played a vital role in the fields of art and anatomy. In the Renaissance, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) produced complex renderings of the body’s inner workings, innovations that enhanced anatomical treatises like Andreas Vesalius’s On the Structure of the Human Body (first published in 1543). By the 1600s, observation of the figure was central to the education of European artists. They drew from life, often foregoing idealization in favor of imperfection, as can been seen in Rembrandt’s Study of a Male Nude, and published anatomical studies for others to copy such as those on view by Stefano della Bella.
In the nineteenth century, medical schools proliferated and publications like Henry Gray’s Anatomy (1858) appeared. Meanwhile, anatomy served as a foundation for artists working in the European academic tradition, as can be seen in Francesco Gonin’s study of a torso and André-Marie-Paul Borel’s repeated depiction of the same figure, both nude and clothed. In the United States, Philadelphia was a center of anatomy for both medical professionals and artists. Thomas Eakins contributed to the longstanding practice of écorché sculpture, exposing muscle and bone below the skin in his design of a horse. John Sloan’s etching of 1912 depicts his teacher Thomas Anshutz (himself a student of Eakins) giving an anatomy lesson with a skeleton at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
As the twentieth century unfolded, artists continued—and evolved—these traditions. Study of the nude persisted, as in the drawing by A. Lans, shown around 1927 in the Opportunity Gallery, New York (where John Sloan was a juror) and a photograph from the studio of Karl Struss. Yet artists also worked to upend the familiarity of the human body: see Joseph Breitenbach’s surrealist We New Yorkers, a human nervous system juxtaposed against Rockefeller Center, and Weegee’s Human Sculpture, a photograph of a leg manipulated through mirrors and lenses. While these works stand apart from their predecessors, they nonetheless reflect a shared curiosity regarding the human body that shows no sign of waning.
During the Renaissance, artists advanced the field of natural history by depicting animals studied from life. Previously, scholars in the discipline had relied heavily on existing written sources based on classical authors like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Images, when included, were often copies after earlier models. In the sixteenth century, illustrations of animals based on firsthand observation began to be incorporated into natural history texts. One seminal example is Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (1551-1558), which nevertheless also listed mythical beasts like the unicorn. Subsequent artists working in the 1600s produced highly naturalistic renderings of animals and often adapted them into their art, as in The Large Cat by Cornelis Visscher and The Hog by Rembrandt.
In Europe and the United States, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries proved a dynamic yet fraught time for study of the natural world. Practitioners wrestled with creating a systematic taxonomy, initiated by Carl Linnaeus and published in Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s opus Natural History (1749-1767). Over time, scientific treatises and discoveries made during overseas explorations epitomized by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859)—complicated the view of nature as a stable creation by God and dominated by man. Simultaneously, animal studies proliferated thanks to the efforts of artists like Edwin Landseer in Britain and engraver James Smillie in New York, thereby allowing amateurs greater access to the field. Zoos grew in popularity into the mid 1800s, exposing the public’s fascination with, and impulse to tame, wild animals. The Berlin Zoological Garden, which opened in 1844, was a frequent haunt of Adolph von Menzel, as evidenced by The Bear Pit.
Artists maintained this tradition into the twentieth century. In 1936, Picasso began creating prints, including Toad, to accompany a new edition of Buffon’s Natural History. Close studies of animals appeared in a variety of mediums, such as Hyman Bloom’s drawing Fish Heads (c. 1950) and photographer Peter Hujar’s cow “portraits” (1978). More recently, Isabella Kirkland has worked from scientific photographs to create life-size, naturalistic images of birds and animals, like the densely populated rainforest of Canopy (2011), in the service of environmental activism.
Vision, Optics, and Photography
Photography has been an uneasy meeting site of art and science since its origins. This selection of works from the permanent collection reveals that, for as long as viewers have trusted photography to document the world, artists have exploited this trust to complicate the notion of vision and challenge the adage “seeing is believing.”
Fascination with vision and optics predates the modern camera, evident in the longstanding tradition of optical devices. The camera obscura, in use since antiquity, is a box or small room through which light projects an image, as in Abelardo Morell’s Central Park (1999). The stereograph, a viewing apparatus that employs double images to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, was popular in the nineteenth century. Stereographic prints on display, produced by the Keystone View Company, Pennsylvania, depict Paris.
Photographers have consistently experimented with technical processes to explore the nature of sight. In the 1880s, Eadweard Muybridge produced a series of collotypes, Animal Locomotion, which recorded details of movement imperceptible to the human eye. Alternatively, Peter Henry Emerson promoted “naturalistic” photography; in Cutting the Gladdon (1886), he employed selective focus to mimic vision. Early in the twentieth century, figures like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Streichen advocated a Pictoralist model, using techniques like soft focus and matte paper to emphasize artistry and atmosphere over documentation and visual clarity.
The manipulation of photographic methods to serve artistic ends can trick the eye, transforming familiar subjects in captivating and unsettling ways. Arthur Mole and John D. Thomas erected a camera on an eighty-foot tower and maneuvered thousands of soldiers to create Human Liberty Bell (1918). Meanwhile, Italian Futurists investigated high-speed photography to conjure the rapid pace of modern life, as in Amadeo Ferroli’s Tennis Player (1925). Mid-career, Imogen Cunningham embraced the camera’s capacity for producing a disarming level of detail, as found in Agave Design II from the 1920s.
Optical light effects have proven rich subjects for photographers. Carlotta Corpron created compositions focused entirely on light such as Fluid Light Design (1947); while Andreas Feininger captured the flight of an illuminated helicopter (1949); and Minor White memorialized a fleeting shadow in Windowsill Daydreaming (1957).
After World War I, the United States entered a period of intensified manufacturing and growing mechanization. Artists were poised to absorb and interpret this Machine Age, creating complex works that celebrate the beauty of new technologies, while in some cases also intimating their more ominous potential. Russian-born Louis Lozowick produced seminal lithographs of New York City including a view of the hulking Hudson Bridge (1929). That same year Stuart Davis returned to the U.S. from Paris to create works like Two Figures and El (Sixth Avenue El, No. 2) of 1931, which evokes the hum of city life through a juxtaposition of forms—the subway, the barbershop—found in the urban landscape.
Commercial and government photography played important roles in propagating images of industry and technology. While best known for his photographs of social ills, Lewis Hine also served as the official photographer for the construction of the Empire State Building. He produced daredevil aerial shots of steelworkers, represented in Vassar’s collection by Man on Hoist Ball (1931). Also in the 1930s, Walker Evans traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, while working for the Farm Security Administration and captured the barren dystopia of factory workers’ living quarters in the shadow of smoke stacks. In contrast, Margaret Bourke-White, who photographed for magazines like Life and Fortune, portrayed the labor-saving virtue of invention in Mechanical Grading of Exams (1937).
World War II brought a series of technological advances that became also became fodder for artists in the subsequent years. Penicillin, the use of which became widespread in this period, was the subject of Josef Breitenbach’s futuristic Penicillin Plant, Teheran of 1960. As air travel became increasingly commonplace, Garry Winogrand took inspiration from airports, photographing them in a series from 1958 to 1983. Among them is a shot of a jetway belonging to TWA, the airline associated with the high-design terminal of JFK airport by Eero Saarinen that opened in 1962. Some practitioners of Machine Age art maintained their earlier fascination well into the twentieth century. Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, who in 1921 had collaborated on the skyscraper avant-garde film Manhatta, produced in the case of Sheeler a composition of flattened geometry based on the steel bridge near Croton-on-Hudson (1953), while Strand found beauty in an industrial setting in Oil Refinery, Tema, Ghana (1963).