Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science

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  • Visualizations: The Nature Bookof Art and Scienceby Martin KempOxford University Press, 2000.20.00 hardback (202 pages)ISBN 0 19 856476 7

    In 1612, Galileos colleague Cassiano dalPozzo (15881657) decided to abandon hissuccessful legal career and pursue his intel-lectual interests. Diplomatically negotiatingRoman patronage networks, he managed tosecure enough official positions to enablehim to travel throughout Europe, entertaincultured guests, and build up an extensivecollection of paintings, books and medals.Internationally renowned for his expertiseboth in antiquities and in natural history,Cassiano gradually conceived an extra-ordinarily ambitious project to construct aMuseo Cartaceo, or Paper Museum. ThisMuseum would consist of drawings andprints covering diverse fields of learning, sothat the remains of classical civilisationswould be gathered metaphorically speaking under the same roof as ancient geologicalspecimens, together with living plants andanimals from all over the known world.

    After Cassianos death, the collection wasdispersed. Some of it was lost in ashipwreck, but as family fortunes crumbled,other parts were sold off to greedycollectors like the chemist John Dalton, whowrote home from Bologna: One finecollection of Drawings belonging to an OldCurate must let alone, for the old fool askssuch an exorbitant price that there is nomaking even an offerA little time, as he isvery infirm, must bring him to the grave,which if it happens in my time, shall watchthe opportunity when his heirs will andmust sell them1.

    As he built up his enormous collection,Cassiano made it accessible to visitingscholars, but never realised his intention ofpublishing the multiple volumes of draw-ings. These were to provide a transportablecompendium of material curiosities, whichwere still undivided into those two appar-ently mutually exclusive modern categories,science and art. Browsing through MartinKemps most recent publication,Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art andScience, recreates the pre-disciplinaryexperience of perusing Cassianos PaperMuseum. One of Britains leading arthistorians, Kemp is famous for hispioneering studies that explore therelationships between art and science not byregarding them as two distinct cultures thatinfluence one another, but by examininghow they emerged and separated fromshared origins. This latest book, whichincludes many excellent colour prints andline drawings, reproduces over 75 articlesdrawn from Kemps successful series inNature; these are sandwiched between aspecially written, if brief, introduction andconclusion.

    Each double page spread focuses on a particular picture, event or concept, andbears a snappy alliterative title: Lisas Laws,Vesalius Veracity, Wrights Ruptions,Feynmans Figurations. Drawn from verydisparate sources, Kemps carefully se-lected illustrations visually defy easyclassification: like the sketches of Leonardoda Vinci, the best known exemplar of howscience and art may be fused together, thesepictures refuse to be slotted into a narrowcategory. For instance, although sophisti-cated electronic equipment is needed to gen-erate NASA images of Jupiter and Venus,Kemp maintains that these planetary land-scapes not only resemble the paintings ofJ.M.W. Turner, but also that the people syn-thesising the electronic scans share and havearticulated Turners Romantic awe when con-fronted with the infinite cosmos. Arguing inthe other direction, Kemp presents JanVermeer as an experimenter who used hiscanvas to explore how our perceptual systemscan be deceived, and who achieved superboptical consistency in his interior paintingsby converting a room into a camera obscura(Kemp does not mention that this interpret-ation is contested by Vermeer specialists).

    As the field of theoretical museum studieshas blossomed during the past twenty years,scholars have become increasingly inter-ested in comparing museums with variousother cultural forms, including cathedrals,

    hospitals and books. John Locke describedmemory as the Storehouse of our Ideas,and reciprocally, museums have become thebuilt repositories of our collective memory.Cassianos goal was to preserve faithfulrecords of these material artefacts, thesetangible memories of the earths physicaland human history, within the covers of hisgiant tomes. As well as recalling Cassianosproject, Kemps book resembles a museumin other ways. He has marshalled his articlesinto six separate sections but, like the roomsof an art gallery, there seems to be no strongordering principle, so that the readervisitoris free to wander from one to the other, to become absorbed in one picture yetneglect its neighbour. Furthermore, each of Kemps pieces is self-contained, so thathis written text accompanying each pictureeffectively functions like the substantialcaptions that some curators now include intheir exhibitions.

    Yet however beautifully a book isproduced, it can never replicate the museumexperience of standing in front of a realcanvas, biological specimen or art object.Reproductions fail to convey the impact of size, or the almost tactile impressionyielded by particular surfaces or decorativetechniques. On the other hand, one great advantage of books with a continuousstructure is that they enable authors topresent systematic cases supporting theirpoint of view. In his introduction, Kempargues that all human beings share deepstructures of intuition that frame theirvisual understanding; both through theirgenes and their experiences, scientists andartists hold in common the ways in whichthey visually try to make sense of theirenvironment, and also the pleasure theygain in representing it artificially. This is afar-reaching proposition, but one which isillustrated rather than rigorously demon-strated in this museum-like format.

    Kemps individual essays are written withgreat skill, and he explains complex sci-entific and artistic concepts with equalfacility. With its beautiful illustrations, thisis a delightful book to dip into, and will no doubt be received with joy at manyChristmases to come.

    Reference1 Haskell, F. and McBurney, H. (1996)

    Introduction. In The Paper Museum ofCassiano dal Pozzo, Series A, Part 2, Volume 1 (Haskell, F. and Montagu, J., eds),pp. 826, Harvey Miller (quotation p. 17)

    Patricia Fara

    Endeavour Vol. 25(1) 2001 39