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What do Leonardo's Hidden Meanings have to do with Pollock?

What do Leonardo's Hidden Meanings have to do with Pollock?

John Haber

September 29, 2007

Pollock’s Patterns and Rembrandt’s Eyes Leonardo’s Broken Symmetry

I cringe the moment scientists come to rescue the world from the uncertainty of art. I do not mean that science fails to explain how the world works, for it does. Nor do I mean that science and art lack common interests, shared methods, and mutual inspiration. A related essay traces these in detail.

Rather, I cringe when art takes for granted its own representations, as if nature simply left its imprint unaided. I cringe, too, when science ignores the human making and unmaking of the world. Call them one culture or two, I shall argue, so long as you call them culture and not nature alone. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Wide-Open Eyes (Rijksmuseum, 1630)

As a warning of where the wrong claims may take art or science, I look first at a case study of one dismayingly reductive approach to Rembrandt. I then turn to a mathematical analysis of Jackson Pollock neatly avoids the pitfalls, by sticking to what science knows and does. It uses technical analysis to assist and enrich the trained eye. Yet even it can lead eager defenders of art or science to mistaken conclusions. By overlooking how technical concerns, visual experience, and understanding complement can one another, a third critical approach too readily dismisses the ambitions of modern art and science alike.

As a postscript, another computer experiment, this time with Photoshop, finds the real da Vinci coed. As a follow-up, a separate article takes the story into spring 2006, with the space between still life and science experiment. Walleye

Did Jan Vermeer simply copy what he saw? Do photographs presume never to lie? Does abstraction, book art, or computer art have a single distinguishing character? Each in its own way reduces art to its subject matter or its materials. As the number of links here indicates, I have argued against them all, and I grow tired of huge installations that resemble high-school science fairs, digital art that looks like a first course in computer science, and new media that conflate video art with video games.

The authority of science and a reductive analysis of art still have enormous appeal. One can see it in such achievements as Bright Earth, a book on artist materials and their history by Philip Ball. Certainly a recent attribution to Vermeer has much to do with close technical examination. It adds another layer of irony to an artist who, like many in his time, learned so much from the camera obscura. Yet overblown claims for that reliance or for laboratory conclusions add to the ironies.

One can see where trust in the natural so often goes awry. Ball continues a longstanding project in scholarship and in teaching alike. He shows how a work, its meaning, and its claims to truth all arise not from nature in the abstract, but from the particulars of its making, the constraints on the artist, the assumptions of the viewer, and the material reality of the art object. Less happily, when David Hockney proposes that Vermeer necessarily traced a projected image, he clings to art as a transparent window onto reality, with the artist a kind of vehicle for nature’s revelation. A painter of a prescientific era would have agreed, but only with a different notion of revealed truth. Talk about critical assumptions about an artist—or perhaps about an artist’s Assumption.

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