Art review: A Sketch of the Universe: Art Science and the Influence of D’Arcy Thompson

Primates by Dalziel and Scullion 2013 PIC: University of Dundee Museum Services
Primates by Dalziel and Scullion 2013 PIC: University of Dundee Museum Services
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In its heyday at the beginning of the last century, Dundee was the world capital of jute and jam, but it was also home to a significant group of artists and collectors while Dundee University could boast two remarkable professors, D’Arcy Thompson and Patrick Geddes. Both were scientists – Geddes a botanist and D’Arcy Thompson a biologist – and, though differently, their ideas had a wide impact on the visual arts and indeed beyond.

A Sketch of the Universe: Art Science and the Influence of D’Arcy Thompson ****

City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Both qualified Darwin’s stark vision of evolution as an angry struggle up an endless slippery slope. Geddes argued that Darwin made no allowance for altruism, not merely a human quality, but found throughout nature. From there he argued for the ultimate interdependence of all life forms, including humanity, which he saw was part of and wholly dependent on the great web of life. In fact he founded ecology.

In his book On Growth and Form, published in 1917, D’Arcy Thompson reached a parallel vision of the unity of life and indeed of all matter, but from a quite different angle. “Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower,” he wrote, “are so many portions of matter, and it is in obedience to the laws of physics that their particles have been moved, moulded and conformed. There are no exceptions to the rule that God always geometrizes.” D’Arcy Thompson uncovered the universal mathematics of natural form: God is a mathematician. At its very simplest, for example, the branching of a tree, the leaves of an artichoke and the spiral of a snail’s shell are all governed by the mathematics of the Fibonacci Sequence which, however, also gives us the Golden Section. What mysterious link is there between nature and aesthetics?

Both Thompson and Geddes were connected with artists. Dundee painter John Duncan was, for instance, closely associated with Geddes while his radical but tragically short-lived pupil, George Dutch Davidson, was commissioned to paint a mural of Orpheus for Thompson’s study. Had he lived – he died in 1901 aged just 22 – inspired by Thompson, Davison might precociously have gone much further in the direction that art was to take towards abstraction, for Thompson’s vision that “The harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty” was an invitation to artists to explore abstraction. Others certainly took it up, although not until after the Second World War according to the exhibition A Sketch of the Universe: Art Science and the Influence of D’Arcy Thompson at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. The earliest work in the show is a lithograph by Henry Moore made for the Labour Government’s Prints for Schools programme in 1949. Perhaps in the midst of post-war reconstruction and with the Festival of Britain in 1951 presenting the ideal of a new, more harmonious order, Thompson’s vision of the mathematical harmony of nature had a special attraction. He also appeared to reconcile art and science. Herbert Read said to him “You have built the bridge between science and art,” and in the aftermath of Hiroshima that must also have been appealing. For whatever reason, he became very topical at this moment. Richard Hamilton put on an exhibition devoted to him at the ICA and alongside the Festival of Britain which he called simply On Growth and Form. At the same time, teaching in Newcastle, Victor Pasmore and William Turnbull devised the revolutionary and widely adopted Basic Design course which was inspired in part by Thompson’s book and included exercises based on it.

Hamilton, Pasmore and Turnbull are all represented in the exhibition. So too is Salvador Dalí. He was also an admirer of Thompson as was Jackson Pollock, although he is not included. As well as Pollock, Eduardo Paolozzi, for instance, is another one might have expected to see, but, although there are over 90 works here, all have been collected by the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. Correspondingly artists not included in the collection don’t appear.

The show is prefaced by an imposing portrait of Thompson himself by David Ewart Shanks. There are also a number of his models of the intricate geometry of nature. Microscopic organisms enlarged into small sculptures are particularly suggestive.

Demonstrating Thompson’s continued relevance, however, the main body of the exhibition is devoted to work by contemporary artists and their responses to Thompson’s ideas and images are very diverse. Macoto Murayama, for instance, creates what he calls “Inorganic Flora”, or abstract flowers, constructed according to the principles described by Thompson. Bruce Gernand does something rather similar but using animal shapes and the study of biological dynamics, how one thing morphs into an other. Darren McFarlane subjects Thompson’s own portrait to a similar metamorphic process.

Others are inspired directly by Thompson’s own images. A beautiful print by Sam Ainsley, for instance, echoes one of his intricate, organic forms. (It is also one of a series that she made inspired by Thompson for an exhibition in 2011.) Jeannine Osborne finds exquisite structures in his microscopic slides. Marion Smith’s Missing Leaves is a lovely wooden relief of leaves whose regularly increasing size finally encompasses the tree itself. It was inspired by George Dutch Davidson’s surviving drawing for the murals proposed for Thompson’s study. So too was Calum Colvin’s Orpheus and the Beasts, a complex image with at its centre the divine hand reaching down into the world, not as in Blake’s famous image with a pair of compasses, but with an abacus which, however, could also be Orpheus’s harmonious lyre. Will Maclean’s Portrait of a Polymath: D’Arcy Thompson’s Daybook suggests the scientist’s processes of observation and record and the way they are framed in the wider field of his imagination. In Co-existing, Gareth Fisher seems to link the unifying mathematics of growth with Geddes’s web of life. Altogether there is much that is beautiful, but also some that is strange gathered here to to pay tribute to Thompson’s genius and how it changed our understanding of the world.

If Thompson, and Geddes too, stood for the need to unite the artistic and scientific branches of human endeavour, at the National Gallery the fleeting visit of Carel Fabritius’s magical Goldfinch, on loan from the Mauritshuis in the Hague, bears witness to how really they are and always have been two aspects of the same thing. At the birth of modern science in the early 17th century, art was its senior sibling. Science was wholly dependent on the skills of the artist while artists in turn were intrigued by the new perspectives science offered. Principal among these was optics. Fabritius was Rembrandt’s pupil and there can be no doubt that these new ideas were eagerly discussed in the master’s studio. The Goldfinch is signed C. Fabritius, Delft. The city he had moved to was the centre of the new optics, but it was there, tragically, that he died in a catastrophic explosion in 1654. Vermeer is the city’s most famous artist. This exquisite picture that radiates life and light and animation suggests that Fabritius might have been his equal had he lived. Sadly that did not happen,

but the picture remains a delight,

and also provides a link between Vermeer and Rembrandt, uniting Holland’s two greatest artists in a common pursuit that echoes down the ages to D’Arcy Thompson and beyond. ■

*A Sketch of the Universe: Art Science and the Influence of D’Arcy Thompson until 19 February; The Goldfinch is at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until 18 December