Looking at the screen of my computer, I can tell that interface with the Microsoft Word software also has been designed to convey a suitably high-tech look. We would be surprised to find that the toolbars have a hand-made appearance. I choose to type in a traditional Times font, which has a certain “literary” feel to it. Scientists and “techies” generally tend to like sans serif fonts, with their blunter functional appearance. I wonder what font this essay will be given on the web. If it is not my original font, the message will feel just that bit different. .
Moving out from our personal ambience of visual culture at a particular moment, we can extend our interest into a wider range of different collectives – by place, time, social group or whatever – to discern the characteristic elements in that collective’s visual culture, looking especially at those elements or combinations that seem to separate that culture from others. During the 20th century we increasingly corralled our attention to a society’s visual culture into a series of more or less separate enclosures. (“Corralled” is here used with reference to the “corrals” or pens into which animals are herded.) Faced with this narrow corralling, I feel tempted to quote one of my mentors, Sir Ernst Gombrich, whose range of intellectual engagements was enormously wide. When asked to define his “field”, he responded that “donkeys have fields”.
The history of art conventionally came to deal with things recognisable as “Fine Art”, in which the high aim of “aesthetic excellence” was a prime criterion. We knew where to go to experience such things – which galleries to visit and which books to read. Painting was the central point of attention. Increasingly social analysis took over from style analysis, but the subject of attention remained for the most part the kind of artifacts held in the “temples” of art. Design historians looked at objects that combine overt style or stylishness with functionality. They were concerned with designers as creative individuals and with processes of making, distribution and use. Anthropologists, customarily focusing on non-western cultures, tended to deal with the role of object within belief systems and rituals. Historians of various kinds - political, social, economic, scientific, literary, musical etc. - used visual images for a range of illustrative purposes, as part of their evidence or as a general visual ambience for their studies. The corralling worked against any coherent view of how the visual might have worked holistically in any given culture or in part of that culture.
The need to break down the fences between the corrals has been increasingly acknowledged, but genuine crossing of the boundaries is easier said than done, given the over-specialistation that characterises western educational systems to greater or lesser degrees. In the worlds of academia and museums, stock classifications obstinately prevail for reasons that are both historical and territorial. Obviously it is not feasible to achieve in the short term the holistic vision that might replace the fragmented pictures we now have. The best we can presently do is to gain a sense of how such a vision might operate, taking (as happens in modern physics) a particular close-up of a phenomenon as providing a microcosmic view of the whole. Or we might draw an analogy with a hologram, in which a fragment of the plate can serve to reconstitute the complete 3-dimensional image.
My personal fragment of the hologram deals with the relationship of imagery in art and science, in particular with those images that speak of shared intuitions of deeper structures lying beneath appearance. Like all choices of subjects for study, various interlocking factors are involved. My training in both natural sciences and art history is an important part in my personal choice. I have also come to see that the failure of dialogue between the arts and sciences is intellectually and socially disastrous. And there is the personal, instinctive element – the fascination I felt as a child by the shapely drawings in my copy of the Pied Piper (with its multitudinous rats), the form of a pine cone, the spiralling gurgle of water in the bath or leaping flame in a coal fire. In a sense, my own most developed academic work strives to retain the child’s non-compartmentalised innocence about the look of things, untrammeled by whether we think the phenomena belong to art, natural history, chemistry or physics or whatever.
I can best give a sense of my own personal corner in the vast territory of visual studies by drawing upon the regular column – consisting of 500 to 800 word essays, each with one illustration – that I have been writing in the science journal, Nature since 1997. The first two years of essays (at that point I was writing on a weekly basis) were brought together in the book, Visualizations. Since then, I have been writing monthly essays that have migrated to various editorial locations in the journal. Over the years, it has become apparent that recurrent motifs and undercurrents that can be drawn out of the diverse topics. These undercurrents span a wide range of sciences, technologies and visual arts from the Renaissance to today.
Founded in 1869, Nature has undergone many reincarnations, signaled by the multiple redesigns of its cover – a process which has occurred ever more frequently as design fashions and technologies have changed at an accelerating rate. As a visual historian, one of the questions I am interested in asking is why does Nature look like it does now, and how this look relates to its past appearances. I wrote an essay in Visualizations specifically on this topic, looking at the way that the visual rhetorics of successive designs mirrored the image of science in society prevailing at different times.
Structural Intuitions: continuities and variations
The running thematic motif that has emerged over the years of my essays involves what I have called structural intuitions. By this I intend to signal those instincts that lead us to infer an underlying pattern or order beneath the manifold of appearance when we look at a particular feature or process in nature - and, most especially, at the patterns or orders that seem to be shared by otherwise diverse phenomena. The structures to which I refer are thus those embedded in nature, both dynamic and static. But I am also wishing to allude to those cognitive structures with which we are endowed and which resonate with the orders of nature. These cognitive structures are those that enable us to extract functionally effective order from the chaos of sensory inputs. They are, to my mind, both innate and acquired, their potential realised and shaped by our immersion in our environment, particularly during our years of infancy and childhood. The process of interaction between the inner and outer structures is one of mental making and matching. What I advocating is a form of actively shaped cognition in which our concepts work in a non-arbitrary way with real forms and functions in nature, not a form of Kantian imposition of mental order on outer things. I believe that certain kinds of art and certain forms of science start from this process of ebb and flow in structural intuition.
What this strategy entails is looking at visual characteristics that not only cross disciplines but also cross cultures and eras. It is in the first instance adapted to picking up continuities in our habits of mind. These continuities might be seen as prone to conceal what is specific to local times and places, that is to say to those aspects of a work that embed it in its history. However, I see the strategy as possessing a potential that inverts this seemingly a-historical character. It is when a common core is shaped into particular configurations that the “accidents” of time and place become most obvious – by systematic comparison. It is rather like comparing a sequence of Renaissance Madonnas. Or an even better example would be a series of scissors produced over the centuries from different geographical areas. The basic function remains unchanged, dictating some basic commonalities of form, while the “style” speaks of the specifics of time and place through the vehicle of the makers or designers of the scissors. This grouping of things of a kind across geographical and temporal boundaries remains one of the major fascinations of the highly eccentric Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford University (http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/).
It is within such sequences of related things that the shared elements (like a control in a scientific experiment) allow the variants to be stand out most securely. If the basic cognitive elements in structural intuitions are enduring, their realisation in material form is historically specific. Indeed, a particular realisation will not be possible at all times and will only arise in particular cultural, social, economic and material conditions.
In a lecture I gave as Mellon Senior Fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2004, and available as an illustrated transcript on their website (http://www.cca.qc.ca/pages/Niveau3.asp?page=mellon_kemp&lang=eng), I explored a number of modes of continuity that have found expression in art, science, engineering and architecture. In a series of lectures over the years I have reduced the modes to just three, which represent different types of approach to structural intuitions. They are: the five regular geometrical solids and their appearance across a huge range of scales in biological and cosmic design; the form and process of a splash in the well-known corona disclosed by instantaneous photography; and various kinds of thin sheets that can be folded to create complex but stable configurations. In a series of lectures in the following years, these three types of phenomenon and design have been modified, pruned and extended in a kind of organic process as new instances have entered my purview, not least ones invented in contemporary science , art and design. What I would like to do here is to pull out one of the themes, folding, and give it a more historical gloss with new examples, taking the continuities as read and looking primarily at the variations and suggesting how might begin to assess what they say about cultures. To some extent, what I am doing is to take D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s classic book on biological geometry, On Growth and Form (1917), a extending his insights into cultural products within a series of historical settings.
Whereas the geometrical solids and splashes (at least with respect to the underling symmetry of the corona) fell within the scope of Thompson’s morphogenesis, there were complex effects that he realised were intractable.
The living organism represents, or occupies, a field of force which is never simple, and which as a rule is of immense complexity. And just as in the very simplest of actual cases we meet with a departure from such symmetry as could only exist under conditions of ideal simplicity, so do we pass quickly to cases where the interference of numerous, though still perhaps very simple, causes leads to a resultant which allows far beyond our powers of analysis.
The configurations of folds present just such complexity. The forces are simple but the results are unpredictably chaotic. They fall under the domain the varieties of non-linear mathematics that modern computational procedures now allow us to carry through from simple starting conditions to their complex resolution.
Visual artists were cannily exploiting these configurations centuries before they became tractable to scientific analysis. Florentine Renaissance artists were much concerned to create drapery patterns that were expressive of the nature of the material, the external forces to which they were subject (such as breezes) and the internal pressures of the human body. In this they were inspired not least by ancient Roman sculpture of the type lauded by humanists and increasingly purchased by collectors such as the Medici for large sums of money. There are numerous drawings that show painters’ very spcific concerns with drapery folds. A technique was developed in the later 15th and early 16th centuries by which draperies would be placed over a lay model and dipped in liquid clay or plaster to solidify their forms. The drawings were typically produced with a brush on linen with the utmost refinement, capturing the play of light on the complex ridges and hollows in the fabric. Leonardo, who availed himself of this technique, typically endeavored to formulated rules. One such formulation begins, “that part of a fold that is located farthest away from its gathered edges will most completely revert to its natural state…”
Leonardo’s quest for rules was exceptional at this time. His desire to create effectively modeled draperies was not. It had been evident at least from the time of Giotto. The historical explanation lies with those factors, religious and secular, that drove the Renaissance quest for naturalism. More specifically with respect to draperies, the endowing of draperies with a strong plastic presence gave due gravity to the portrayal of biblical figures and saints, particularly if the drapery style recalled that of Roman sculpture. The relationship between the fabric and underlying body became crucial in a phase of art in which the structural portrayal of the human figure had become a central aspiration. The draperies also worked within a field of meaning. Cloths painted in expensive lapis lazuli, or rendered to resemble rich materials, endowed their wearers with worth in the painting.
The development of draperies as overtly expressive features reached its apogee with Bernini in the baroque. The clothing of a figure such as St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel in S.Maria della Vittoria, Rome, assumes a life of its own - crumpling, falling rising and fluttering – in concert with the saint’s spiritual and physical state. The most astonishing large-scale manifestation of baroque folding occurs in Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII in St. Peter’s basilica. While the virtues and the Pope himself are carved in vivacious white marble, the great funerary cloth lifted over the door by the bronze skeleton brandishing an hour-glass is at once rich and ponderously solemn. The variegated Sicilian jasper, with its visual and colouristic weight, ultimately overwhelms the menace of the death’s harbinger, who is ineffectual in the face of the Pope’s eternal life in heaven. The materials, visual means and expressive ends are very much of their time and place in baroque Rome, and are inconceivable, for a variety of reasons, in the 15th-century sculpted tombs.
Bernini’s great jasper swathe of folded cloth bears an uncanny and not entirely coincidental resemblance to one of the key models by Frank Gehry for the Lewis house – the project that the insurance magnate Peter Lewis bankrolled and sanctioned
as an experimental field for the architect’s radical style. Gehry experienced a long struggle to bring rhythmic unity into the extended design of the discrete units that comprised the house. The breakthrough came when he exploited the extraordinarily complex curves adopted by a rumpled piece of felt laid over the rectilinear structures. What the bulges, ridges and hollows in the cloth suggested was that he could create new architectural shapes of an “organic” kind that were are as structurally right as they are visually exciting. Gehry is known to have been fascinated by the folds of draperies in old master paintings and sculpture.
It is in the nature of folds, once they have settled into a stable configuration, that all the forces of compression and tension are resolved within the skin of the material. However, in the buildings that followed, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Opera House in Los Angeles and the Experience Music project building in Seattle, Gehry found it necessary on a large scale to support his folds with massive armatures of girders. As Thompson well realised, different scales dictate different structural solutions. Something that works at the scale of a model with creased felt does not automatically suffice when translated into massive forms in cast concrete skins, iron girders or titanium shells. It can almost go without saying that the structural means and aesthetic expression behind Gehry’s folds belong irredeemably in the second half of the 20th century.
Pioneers amongst the younger generation of architects, designers and engineers have been exploring how the stability of folds in the materials used for modelling can be translated into structures on a variety of scales without the need for supporting armatures. Some have been exploring the beautiful complexities of traditional origami, in which the folded structures can manifest remarkable load-bearing properties. The new kinds of forms are exemplified in the work of Greek architect-designer, Sophia Vyzoviti, who has taught in Holland and has published Folding Architecture. Spatial, Structural and Organizational Diagrams. With Elina Karanastasi, as Matrix_G.Sea, she has recently completed the design of a hair studio in Larisa, in which folded sturctures feature throughout.
The methods used by this generation of designers and engineers rely upon a complex interplay between sketches, physical models in materials such as paper, diagrammatic explorations and computer modelling. The designers are aspiring, as the great engineer Cecil Balmond at Ove Arup has declared, to leave behind the rectilinear tyranny of the post and lintel and to move into a world of self supporting curves. Whatever the practical limitations of the new methods at the level of domestic structures, they are reforming the structural and expressive rhetorics of large-scale public constructions in a remarkable way. The visual aspirations – to create a radical alternative to the monotonous grids of modernist buildings – and the new means, particularly non-linear mathematics programmed in the computer, again belong to their period at the turn of the millennium just as Gehry’s structures manifest an earlier phase of experimentation.
At the same time as new means are resulting in new ends, so old means are exhibiting a remarkable ability to reach new ends in truly creative hands. The Scottish artist, Alison Watt works with the traditional medium of oil paint on canvas. As a young painter she worked intensively and unfashionably in the life room of Glasgow School of Art and continued to paint from the live model at varied levels of extraction (rather than abstraction) from direct representation. Her reputation was established as a prize-winning portraitist and accomplished figure painter. The fabric that had always played a notable role in her art subsequently assumed the starring role. The deep patterns of folds, painted in a colourful white (and later in black) on a very large scale, came to assume “personalities” in their own right.
In 2004 at the Edinburgh festival, Watt’s four-part canvas, Still, was installed in the Memorial Chapel in Old St. Paul’s Church, where it remains as the subject of much admiration and indeed devotion. In its stillness and purity it seems fitting for a chapel in which we are invited to contemplate of the eternity of death. She has an immaculate sense of the stilled motion in the great folds, a process that is resolved yet still replete with implicit motion. There is no narrative, no traditional “subject”. We are invited to complete the painting by own acts of imaginative looking and thinking. We feel the metaphor of purity, perhaps aligning it with the veils of the Virgin, a pale shroud or the white dress of a bride. The point is not that she is dictating a fixed reading but that she has created a field for instinctive interpretation within cleverly established parameters.
It is in this openness that the work of art, especially in its “Fine Art” guise, differs from a modern scientific paper investigating, say, the folding processes in an embryo that progressively create the closed channels of the brain and spinal chord. This is a process that has been much investigated from the later 19th century to the present day. The embryologist expounding his or her data and putting forward an interpretation is aiming to impart a single, focused argument at the highest level of logical clarity. The kind of ambiguity that invites the reader to make his or her own imaginative interpretation is excluded as far as possible. Equally, an engineer exploiting folded forms in a great swooping roof cannot risk to structural imprecision, even though the visual form itself can evoke feelings in a way that a scientific paper generally does not. The building thus seems to occupy some kind of intermediate position between the painting and the scientific paper.
Watt herself is fully alert to the imaginative role of the spectator. During her residency at the National Gallery in London, she spoke of the “mystery” of Zubaran’s St. Francis, which drew her repeatedly back to the image of the saint, kneeling in his patched brown and white habit, as he meditates on death. The “mystery” resides in the shrouded spirituality of his shadowed eyes and in the complementary magic though which very “painty” paint that somehow congeals into implied texture and plasticity.
What this schematic survey of examples of folded structures illustrates is the way in which a fascination with their orderly disorder, shared by painters, architects and scientists, is transformed in the process of creation through the function of the work that is being undertaken and placed in the public domain. It is that function, either as intended by the maker or as adduced by the user (or ideally by both in concert) that determines how the work “looks”. The historian’s job is to reconstruct these varieties of intention (implicit or explicit) in their cultural context. “Intention” in this sense refers to the action of any of the human agencies, consciously or unconsciously, that have played a shaping role in the processes through which the work has come into being.
It is of course possible for the same work to be “seen” quite differently if placed in a different context of expectations. Duchamp’s notorious urinal involves the user in quite different perceptions when it is serving its normal function, when displayed in a design museum or when located in an art gallery.
Visual culture, viewed from my perspective, thus involves the plotting of enduring intuitions of a nature, fundamental to our processes of cognition, against specific cultural transformations. In judging those transformations we have to be continually alert to how the maker and viewers set the frameworks within which human products make their effect. These frameworks are so complex and often so elusive that the job of the historian is both hugely challenging and endlessly renewable.
 The font used is Times, as requested by the author (ed. note)