It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Martin Kemp: The Science of Art - Introduction

(this is the Introduction to Martin Kemp's "The Science of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

“This book is founded upon the gross premise – and premises probably do not come any grosser – that there were special kinds of affinity between the central intellectual and observational concerns in the visual arts and the sciences in Europe from the Renaissance to the Nineteenth century. The affinities centred upon a belief that the direct study of nature through the faculty of vision was essential if the rules underlying the structure of the world were to be understood”

“My intention has been to outline the major profiles of optically minded theory and practice in art and set those profiles beside the geometry of vision and the physics of color in the history of scientific thought”

“My concerns have been to show how a significant number of those involved in art consciously aspired towards goals that we would now regard as scientific in a broad sense”

“My method has been to look for direct evidence …. Writings by or aimed at artists, the contents of artists’ libraries, records of contracts, contemporary accounts of their work and ideals”


Quite a different program than the much more modest inventory of rectangular solids that White pursued 30 years earlier.

Kemp promises to be looking mostly at writings - even though he does allow that, at least in the case of Vermeer, he will only be considering the paintings.

And he's upfront about what White only implied -- that the artists he will discuss "consciously aspired towards goals that we would now regard as scientific in a broad sense”

Though I do wonder just how broad that sense is going to get.

It's more than a little troubling that his introduction does not set any parameters for what he considers to be scientific practice, but leaves it up to the great, murky cloud of what "we would now regard"

It's also a bit troubling to browse through the book and see an awful lot of illustrations -- both paintings and geometric diagrams of them. But other than the texts left by Alberti, Vasari, and Leonardo, what else is he going to examine? Especially, since he also tells us that he will not be covering the history of science.

So it appears that he will be mostly looking at paintings and then explaining the scientific goals that were involved - with no indication that he will relate them to goals of any other kind.


Ars sine scientia nihil est

And now for a few words about Kemp's dedication to the Royal Scottish Academy,an art school in Edinburgh, accompanied by the Latin motto shown above which is attributed to a 14th C. French architect who cautioned the builders of the Milan cathedral to pay more attention to structural issues if they didn't want their building to collapse.

Which makes very good sense.

But is the exercise of structural principles the practice of science -- or engineering ?

And must the viewer of the cathedral also understand those principles to get the intended effect of the building's design?

Introduction to Chapter One

"Linear perspective is a beguilingly simple means for the construction of an effective space in painting. It was invented in the early part of the 15th C. in Florence … for almost 400 years it served as the standard technique for any painter who wished to create a systematic illusion of receding forms behind the flat surface of a panel or wall"

"In attempting to tell this story I will – to use a technological analogy – be concentrating on the initial design of the vehicle and its development to full working order, rather than recounting in detail the activities of those who have subsequently driven it with consummate skill."

"At its simplest, linear perspective is a system for recording the configurations of light rays on a plane as they proceed from an object to the eye in a pyramidal pattern."

In Appendix 1, Kemp takes a few pages to demonstrate the geometry of that "pyramidal pattern".

The pyramid to which he refers is created by drawing lines from the corners of a rectangle to a point (the P.O.V.) outside its plane.

So, perhaps Kemp should have specified that the "perspective" which concerns him is limited to recording objects which are rectangular - like tiles in a floor and the walls, windows, or doors of a building.

Beyond that, he should specify that "perspective" is the creation of a specific kind of picture box whose rules of construction he has demonstrated with his geometric illustrations.

Then, we might note that these rules have only occasionally been consistently applied. Which is to say, the Renaissance artists whom we celebrate have usually been driving a different kind of vehicle.

Worse than that, the first sentence of Chapter one reads:

"Linear perspective was invented by Filippo Brunelleschi"

But there is absolutely no evidence that Brunelleschi ever applied any kind of geometric sytem to make a drawing or painting. As Kemp relates in the Appendix 2, Manetti tells us some things about the lost tavolae depicting a piazza in Florence. But he says nothing about how it was drawn -- and as Norris Kelly Smith reminds us, it could have drawn by sight.

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