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Traditionally, art and
science were thought to be two incompatible disciplines whose aims, methods, and
results had little, if anything in common. In our own time, however, artists and
scientists have come to draw upon each other's inspirations and skills. We live
in an age uniquely conditioned to finding direct aesthetic enjoyment in the
geometric and organic patterns in nature, and collaborations between the
disciplines have brought countless hitherto unseen wonders into our lives.
Interest in shapes and forms existing in nature was almost nonexistent in Western society before the Renaissance. So called primitive art showed more awareness of existing natural art forms than the art of more "civilized" societies of the past. With Leonardo da Vinci, artistic curiosity was matched by scientific research. His notebooks abound in details concerning the mathematical shapes found in nature. This desire to use the shapes underlying all forms in nature can be traced throughout the history of Western art. Cezanne became increasingly interested and absorbed by his research into these shapes and his studies led to a new approach to problems of space and volume and their application to painting.
Artists at the onset of the Surrealist period were notoriously intelligent and searching. It is not unreasonable to assume that they had acquainted themselves with the results of a century of microscopic morphology. The popular science books of the late 19th century abounded in these illustrations. The success (even to this day) of Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature, first published in 1892, was certainly one of the first indications that the forms introduced to science by microscopy might have a broader aesthetic appeal. Haeckel, himself, actually argued for "soul" in crystals which would indicate to what degree books of this type in the 19th century were infused with imagination and spirit in addition to their scientific content.
In the Philebus of Plato, Socrates says, "I will try to speak of the beauty of shapes, and I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the shapes of living things, or their imitation in painting, but I mean straight lines and curves and the shapes made from them... They are not beautiful for any other reason or purpose, as other things are, but are eternally, and by their very nature, beautiful, and give a pleasure of their own quite free from the itch of desire; and in this way colors can give similar pleasure." The forms which Plato says are of their nature beautiful are quite clearly geometric forms. This passage is often quoted by supporters of pure abstraction and underscores one aspect of appreciation of the beauties found within the microscopic world.
Kenneth Clark points out that landscape painting is perhaps the furthest from the Platonic ideal of geometric shapes. However, the microscope (and telescope) have so greatly enlarged our range of vision that that which we can see with our own eyes has often ceased to satisfy our imaginations. Our own everyday landscape, and that of the amoeba in its own surroundings have fused. That kind of knowledge has left a distinct mark on modern painting and on art in general. The work of artists such as Miro, Dali, Arp, Tanguy, and especially Paul Klee bear this mark. Many of Klee's watercolors are literally teeming with cellular-type inhabitants that can only suggest Klee's familiarity with the hidden microscopic world.
The histories of modernist art and the microscopic field are also entangled in the belief that certain forms had attached to them a privileged status. Both, of course, inherit this belief from an idealist philosophy. Crystallography provides the unqualified inorganic prototype. Of nature's endlessly beautiful and bizarre forms, perhaps few are indeed more provocative and mysterious than the colorful, flowing world of crystals.
The technique for bringing forth the treasures of beauty form the world beneath our threshold of vision is called photomicrography. It involves a pairing of both microscopic and photographic techniques.
The photomicrographs here are largely of crystals. Crystals are simply homogeneous substances bounded by flat surfaces in various geometric shapes. The configurations are determined by the directional forces within the crystals and are related to their atomic structure which is unique and stable for each class of crystal.
These photomicrographs have been chosen, not for their particular scientific importance, but rather for their beauty alone. Many are, in fact, of the same chemical species, only photographed under various lighting conditions and filtration techniques. As with any photographic experience, the regions of this microscopic terrain were selected in response to innermost feelings, needs, memories - mental processes both conscious and subconscious.
In this universe, with no apparent scale, it was important for me to inject a sense of human scale. This is often accomplished with a horizon line which acts as a visual and psychological hinge. Leonardo felt that looking at amorphous patterns (of plaster walls, for example) and allowing the mind to play upon them, inventing one subject after another, helped to stimulate imaginative seeing.
Certainly, nature must be frequently contemplated anew if we are to continually recharge our creative forces and sense of astonishment. Some mysterious operation takes place within us when we perceive these natural syllables which have the ability to penetrate deep into our unexplored hearts and reveal the correspondence of all structures. --Steven Brooke