I wrote a post a week or so ago about a study that showed what Monet’s and Degas’ artwork would have looked like through their respectively failing eyesights, which may account for particular deteriorations of their art in later years.

I just managed to get a copy of the original paper, and have just updated that post with the actual images of how their art would have looked through their eyes. So, go check out the updated post!

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

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[CASW New Horizons: Michael Marmor, Professor of Opthamology, Stanford]

This was a very interesting little talk by an opthamologist and art collector about what happened to two particular artists as they lost their vision — Degas and Monet.  Here is a link to the original article, with pictures.

Degas suffered from maculopathy, where his vision gradually deteriorated over a period of years. The fine detail of his work disappeared, the shading lines grew coarse and far apart instead of fine and close together, and features (like faces) because poorly delineated. Early work shows a lot of fine detail, but the later work is expressive only in its general posture.  Click here to see pictures of the evolution of Degas’ work over time.

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

He showed us examples from early, middle, and late work, and you can clearly see the degeneration in his work. Below are examples, but his later work (which I couldn’t find examples of) is almost grotesque. Faces look frightening and postures are awkward. His friends and colleagues also told him that his work was not quite, shall we say, up to snuff. Dr. Marmor simulated for us what the paintings probably looked like to Degas, considering the state of his vision, and you can see that the course shading lines and awkward expressions disappear. He probably couldn’t appreciate how others saw his work in those years, because his poor vision erased the flaws in his own work in his eyes. Dr. Marmor looked at a variety of data (his handwriting, comments of friends, the spacing of shading lines) and reconstructed a relatively linear pattern of the decline of Degas’ vision over time. He eventually stopped producting work shortly before he died.

Monet suffered from cataracts, in which the lens hardens and yellows. The lens in our eye naturally gets more dense and yellow as we get old, but cataracts are an extreme example of this natural aging process. In about 1912 Monet complained of vision loss, and by 1922 he was legally blind.

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

As an impressionist, Monet dealt with light and shadow, not detail, and so he was able to continue to produce work for quite some time despite his declining sight. However, cataracts affect your color vision, and this affected the quality of his work. He usually produced work with delicate colors and light, but examples of his later work showed almost garish use of orange and green, which was most likely his attempt to actually see the color on the canvas. In the years before he finally submitted to cataract surgery, he was painting almost entirely from memory, because he could no longer distinguish blues and greens, or reds and purples. Again, Dr. Marmor showed us simulations of what Monet’s work probably looked like to him, and the strong colors faded into muddiness. Click here to see images showing how Monet’s later water lily paintings would have appeared through a moderate cataract. The forms also became indistinguishable. Dr. Marmor showed us a late Monet painting and asked us to identify it. To me, it was a mass of blobs of color with a few blurry lines. It turned out that it was the bridge in Monet’s japanese garden. It was completely unrecognizeable to me.  Take a look at that picture here, as well as how it would have appeared to Monet through his now-severe cataracts.

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

He argued that the change in style wasn’t due to artistic changes, because Monet’s work returned to its former style after he underwent surgery.

One interesting tidbit that I liked, since I think perception is just so cool, was that in Soleil Levant, below, the reason that the rising sun against the blue sky is so striking is because the blue and the orange are of the same intensity. This makes it hard for our brain to place the sun clearly in space because we don’t have the contrast we usually rely upon to make boundaries between objects.

Monet - Soleil Levant - 1872[Monet – Soleil Levant]

It turns out that there is a Society of Blind Artists nowadays. Many of them, not surprisingly, are photographers, since the film will faithfully capture what they are unable to see clearly.

I was just listening to one of Robert Krulwich’s many delightful podcasts on science (Krulwich on Science — if you haven’t listened to it you must) and he was explaining how the “umami” taste was discovered. It turns out that for years and years scientists accepted the mantra that there are four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. These are the ones that we learned in school (or at least I did, but maybe I’m dating myself here). Then this French chef came along — Auguste Escoffier — and turned it all on its head. He made this delicious soup stock by boiling veal bones for hours. He created a revolution in french cooking, concocting recipes which were, essentially, delicious. But the problem was that the deliciousness of much of his cooking, in particularly his veal stock, didn’t adhere to any of those four flavors. He revolutionized cooking, but not chemistry.

However, a Japanese chemist noticed the same thing, but with respect to the flavors of a traditional japanese soup. He had the means at his disposal to analyze this flavor, however. It turns out that the key ingredient of the veal stock and of the japanese soup (and of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat) is glutamate. That’s what makes MSG (monosodium glutamate) taste so good too. He called it “umami” or “yummy” in japanese.

One thing that’s really interesting to me about this story is how difficult it can be for us to describe our experience until we have the verbal categorization to attack it with. I guess this would go in the same category as ye olde “eskimoes have umpteen-million words for snow” argument (which I hear is somewhat of a myth). Are people so tied to organizational schemas that we can’t even recognize an experience until we’ve put words to it?

The other thing that struck me is something that Krulwich mentions in the podcast, which is that this is yet another example of art leading science. A master chef is an artist, yes, and he recognized our true experience more honestly than the scientists of the day, who accepted the commonly held view without too much question. This harkens back to my previous post, Why art?

Krulwich writes:

But because artists are so good at describing what it’s like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don’t discover until years later.

Art, Jonah reminds us, describes the same world that science does; art just does it by a different route. And sometimes, more often than you would suppose, the artists get there first.

Here’s the link to Krulwich’s story on NPR.

TornadoA few weeks back I saw a presentation by artist Ned Kahn. Ned’s a genius — literally. He got one of the coveted MacArthur genius awards to pursue his ideas. He made a lot of the exhibits at the Exploratorium many years ago. Most things having to do with granular flow are his:

Soap Film Painting A large flat soap film shows interference patterns

Aeolian landscape A fan whips fine sand into patterns and dunes as you watch. A change of the fan changes the pattern of the landscape.

Tornado Fine water mist is circulated by air currents and drawn into a spiralling, wispy tornado 10 feet tall.

The Exploratorium sells exhibits to other museums and the tornado is pretty popular. He’s not the only one, but Ned also extended this to create a fire tornado, a real thing of beauty. Watch a video of the fire tornado on his website. He had to go to Europe to do it, where the willing curator told him, “we have a lower density of lawers per capita here than in the US.”

He also worked on an installation to create a temporary building, many stories high, which created a water vapor tornado in its central atrium, many hundreds of feet tall. Amazing!

Lately he’s been working on a variety of installations on buildings. What I was struck by was how his work focusses particularly on reflecting something unseen, or making the invisible visible.

For instance, many of his exhibits visualize the wind. See his wind exhibits on his website. In one, small lightly hinged panels cover a building wall. The movement of the wind over them makes them move and flutter, and the whole building facade moves in waves, so you can see large-scale undulations in the air currents that are not felt.

Or, on a beach, an array of small mirrors pointed towards the surf reflects the movement of the waves, the change from light froth to dark sand, and the overal movement of the water, in a surprisingly delightful fashion.

In a BART (transit) station in San Francisco, the wind from the departing trains flutters an array of shiny panels, making the wind currents visible.

What I liked about these is that he wasn’t creating something new from nothing. He took what was there in nature and made it visible, and beautiful. He works with patterns, but not regular ones that we understand well. He chooses primarily the flow of fluids to create his works — and the laws of fluid mechanics are intricate and its behavior often chaotic and unpredictable. Fluid flow is also something we rarely get a chance to see. Air is invisible, and it’s hard to see the motion of water.

You can see pictures of much of his work at Ned Kahn’s website. I won’t copy any of his images here — but please take a look!

Sand Drawing - Liminality Exhibition

One of the senior artists at the Exploratorium recently asked all the science types at the museum, “Could you tell me why you value art and the artists here?” Here’s what I told her:

The artists at the Exploratorium tickle my brain. The art exhibits at the Exploratorium, as well as the conversations with artists, have had a tangible effect upon my creativity. My mind was humming in my first months here as I was exposed to new representations of things that I had a tendency to think of in an abstract way (equations and theory, for example, or bland “textbook” examples.) I can’t say that being around artists has taught me to *create* things with an aesthetic appeal, but it certainly has opened my vision to seeing things in a new way and to consider aesthetics as an aim in itself. The art at the Exploratorium also opens me up to wonder. It is easy to get lost in the seriousness of science, reading the latest science news or considering detailed questions of why something works. When I walked in and saw the new installation — the one with the lightbulbs whose illumination chases each other around — my mind went a little fizzy and I just stood there and appreciated it. It also reminded me of many things that I know about — neuronal networks, electronic circuitry, persistence of vision. I appreciated it on an aesthetic ground, and it also represented many things in science for me.

Photo was taken by Sebastian Martin at the Liminality exhibition.

I recently heard Margaret Wertheim speak — she’s a pretty famous science writer and commentator. She questioned who we are reaching when we write about science. Only 7% of the US population reads a science magazine, she says. And those people are mostly male, well-educated, and in their mid 40’s, with high income. What about everybody else?

So, she’s recently been writing about science for women’s magazines. The idea is to bring science to where people are, not to make them come to you. And women’s magazines sell well. It’s been a challenge, however, since editors want to do stories about women’s health, and she had to stick to her guns to do real science. She also had to assume the readers had no prior knowledge of science, and keep their interest. It was also very difficult to sell to advertisers, and so said it was important to get sponsorship to write these articles.

A former colleague of mine at the Exploratorium recently published an interview with Margaret. Margaret said some really gutsy things — things that I have often thought but felt they were slightly blasphemous. Like, much of theoretical physics is of no direct benefit to society, and constitutes an immoral use of public funds to satisfy the curiousity of an elite group. She also suggests that science journalists are often a “cheer squad” for science, instead of critically questioning its use and fundamental principles. We shouldn’t dogmatically believe in science any more than we would religion.

Coral ReefMargaret also been working on some crocheting projects with Daina Taimina. They’ve been crocheting hyperbolic geometries, a mathematical structure that has been really hard to visualize before. A lot of marine creatures use hyperbolic geometries because they maximize surface area (which is important for a lot of biological things.) So, they also undertook a project to crochet a beautiful coral reef. You can see that and other projects at the Institute for Figuring, which is the original source for the image above.