Tuesday, February 02, 2010


I love this sweet combination of art and science:

Henry Hexham illustration forThe Principles of the Art Militaire, 1637

For me this drawing combines the beauty of the physical world (that funky little cannon could've been drawn by R. Crumb or George Herriman) with the beauty of the mathematical principles underlying that world. The artist who drew this had to labor under two sets of laws: the laws of perspective and the laws of physics. I respect the discipline required to make such pictures.

As far as we know, Pythagoras of Samos was the first human being to recognize the connection between mathematics and the design of the world, 2500 years ago. Arthur Koestler wrote about the awesome significance of that moment:
[Pythagoras'] influence on the ideas, and thereby on the destiny of the human race was probably greater than that of any single man before or after him.... [His] was the first successful reduction of quality to quantity, the first step towards the mathematization of human experience-- and therefore the beginning of science. Pythagoras discovered that the pitch of a note depends on the length of the string which produces it, and that concordant intervals in the scale are produced by simple numerical ratios.
Pythagoras took his new way of ordering the world and proceeded to go nuts with it, even using it to calculate what he believed would be the "music of the spheres"-- the musical hum of the planets in their orbit. (OK, OK, so not every new application was successful, but Pythagoras definitely set human science on its path.)

Bertrand Russell claimed, "Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover."
Russell may have been one heck of a mathematician, and he was certainly correct that quantifiable discoveries can be pure and true and beautiful, but his position reveals that he was no artist. An artist would've understood that art enables us to discover properties even beyond what math can confirm.

We have previously
talked on this blog about the beauty inherent in the rigorous craftsmanship of car illustrators who painted cars to satisfy not just the artistic taste of art directors but also the humorless committees of car company engineers, who rigorously inspected every detail of an illustration to make sure it conformed to the car's schematic diagrams. It was the job of these illustrators to combine math and art, and find the poetry in geometry.

Today, the processing powers of supercomputers have enabled us to merge numbers with shapes and colors in ways Pythagoras never dreamed of. The T square and triangle, primitive tools we employed for centuries, have been replaced by software. Cars, space ships and a wide variety of other images are now composed using CAD and CGI. But no matter how art and math have merged, always-- always-- the artist needs to be listening for that music of the spheres.


Anonymous said...

Here is a nice overview related to Pythagorus' discoveries as related to form and proportion:


Peter said...


Stephen Worth said...

Recently I came across a huge stack of aeronautical prints from the 50s. I was blown away at the simplicity and control of the watercolor style. I'm learning the names of a whole new batch of heros. Some of them went on to do the illustrations on the fronts of model kits. I'm sure I recognize them from standing in front of a wall full of cool boxes in the toy store as a kid.

It says something about the way artists were valued in the postwar era that huge technology companies like Lockheed and Douglas employed artists to come up with the vision of how their planes would look in the real world.

MORAN said...

Good diagrams are a separate kind of art. This is nice one.

Tom said...

geometry is poetry

Rem said...

Art should not be as accurate as the science
all is well in the measure

Sergio said...

Great blog! Look at some other illustration artists and so at http://troesmas.blogspot.com/

James said...

I appreciate the labour you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

Rob Howard said...

Please excuse me for going completely off-topic but I must convey a real enthusiasm for the recent work of Vincent Desiderio.

There are serious questions about the future of realism and, especially, narrative in art. Desiderio has, to these eyes, created something unique, if not new, in his handling of quiet and atmosphere. I think that you'll enjoy seeing his work at this link http://tiny.cc/desiderio

Now back to your original discussion.

Anthony said...

There's something kind of charming and oddly funny about this carefully rendered - yet badly, naively drawn image of what is basically an engine of death. It's kind of like Monty Python's take on the Spanish Inquisition.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rob, I dunno, your Desiderio somehow seems to be a little bit obsessed with, hmmm, how to put it?... See

Anonymous said...

Bet you like Hellnwein too!...

David Apatoff said...

etc.-- Thanks, I enjoyed reading that (and the related essays). A nice site.

Black Pete-- thanx

Stephen Worth-- Many of those old guys were terrific. It's amazing what growing up in an era without TV or a sense of entitlement will do for your technical proficiency.

MORAN-- I agree, diagrams require a combination of skills. I am fascinated by them.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I agree!

Philip-- it seems to me that accuracy is a difficult concept to apply consistently to art and science. The opposite of a scientific truth is surely a falsehood, but the opposite of an artistic truth might just be another artistic truth (and they could both be mercilessly, brilliantly, blindingly "accurate.")

Rob Howard said...

>>>Bet you like Hellnwein too!...<<<

Wow! The orderlies are giving you two telephone calls in one day! It sounds like you are improving. Keep up the positive attitude and keep taking your meds.

David Apatoff said...

Chuki-- Thanks, I enjoyed your selection of artists-- I'm an especially big fan of Kollwitz, Lautrec and Corinth.

James-- thanks for the nice comment. It is much appreciated. The secret is, there is no labor involved in this-- it's 100% fun. I just wish I had time to post these things more often.

Anthony-- I have the exact same reaction. I love that little cannon lobbing those hilarious cannonballs at the castle (and how about that smoke?)

David Apatoff said...

Rob-- wow! I think Desiderio is terrific, and I had never heard of him. What more do you know about him? I suppose if he is already represented by Marlborough in New York, he is in a stratosphere where acquiring something is out of the question.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous and anonymous-- aside from your jibe at Rob, your comments relate to an important and thorny question: is it possible to have good art with an immoral subject matter? Or does content override the quality of the image? Rodin felt that morality is irrelevant to the quality of an image. I have had running gun battles over this issue. What are your views?

Anonymous said...

I think Desiderio's son, who suffers from some congenital disorder, is the subject in many of these paintings. So maybe a more relevant moral question would be, is he exploiting the situation,especially in the context of intentionally seeking the misinterpretation that has been expressed here and elsewhere(i.e. pedophilia)?

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, etc. etc., that's a humbling clarification (both for me and, I hope, for others). Just based on the images, I don't think he is exploiting the situation.

Tom said...

Hi David That remains of a Leo Steinberg comment on Rodin in Other Criteria, from memory and paraphrasing an Artist can try and say something big about world or he can try and bring the clay in his hand to life and the second choice although more humble, is also the more profound,

अर्जुन said...

>>>I think Desiderio's son, who suffers from some congenital disorder, is the subject in many of these paintings.<<<

The silk choker, the mug shots and the bulging shocked/suprised Dali eyes would seem to trump that illumination.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

>> The silk choker... <<

It's his son's breathing tube.

"...his son Sam, who was born with a birth defect. The boy's health was further compromised by the failure of a device that had been surgically implanted to help correct the condition. As a result, he needs constant care and auxiliary oxygen. Sam is the subject of two poignant paintings in which he's lying in a hospital bed. A green flexible oxygen hose is prominent in one, called Study for a Hero's Life."

"Life, death and art are central to Desiderio's thinking. Life and death square off in Sauanf, a picture of Sam and his sleeping grandfather on a couch. Sam's green oxygen tank and breathing tube are almost as prominent as the two figures."


अर्जुन said...


Thanks for the info (drawback of 2 1/2" jpegs). Now we know why Museums have those plaques hanging next to the art.

All the changes he made between stages, from color study to final, really improved that piece.

Anonymous said...

David, you call this immoral, some others would probably say it's plain childporn. I didn't know the story about Desiderios poor son but I doubt very much that this kind of depiction is the right way to tell it. There seems to be a general trend towards, say, erotic images of children in art and illustration nowadays, maybe because many artists are inspired/influenced by manga and anime, maybe because it simply sells. Here is a site Irene Gallo once introduced on her blog - and which she seems to like;
Maybe you want to check it to see what I mean. Could give you dozens of other examples... I really don't know what to make of it. I have no answer to your question. Maybe you could write a post about this problem, I'd really like to read the comments!

Rob Howard said...

Anonymouse, I find it telling that you're getting a woody over the picture of the nude boy. Could you be bringing just a tad of your own psychological makeup to a venue where it does not exist.

There is another painter, whose name I forget, a skilled renderer of infinite details. He has a child with some crippling disease and he paints portraits of the child lying out in fields, like so much road kill. For some reason, that brings out the hidden Hallmark card in all amateur art critics.

I suspect that the less sophicticated one is in their understanding of what comprises art, the more important are two elements, the subject matter and the artist's hand skills. What escapes the rubes are elements such as pictorial composition, of which Desiderio is a master.

There are other, more subtle and more meaningful elements to art but I suppose that the rube's fan magazine approach, playing amateur psychologist/gossip and trying to discovered dirty linens is a start. A clumsy start, but a start nonetheless.

Desiderio's work does not exist where your prurient intersts lie. Perhaps you should go back to art appreciation at www.persiankitty.com

Rob Howard said...

David, like you I have been a recent viewer of Desiderio's work. He had me at the first image with that quiet, almost dusty atmosphere and his absolute sureness of compositional balance.

I'm pleased that I was able to introduce you to a painter I feel will leave an important mark in this time.

As for asquisition, all that I can say is to inquire. There have been times when I was lucky to get in when an artist was just taking off, and this could be one of those times for you.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous: >>"David, you call this immoral, some others would probably say it's plain childporn."

Well, yes I think we can all agree that childporn is a subcategory of immoral (although it now seems clear that Desiderio is nowhere near that category).

There are some pretty horrific things in that dark hole of "immorality" with all the spiders and snakes. I suppose some of them are so revolting that they would trump even the most brilliant artistic execution. Intellectually I would like to understand where and why that tipping point is. Intestinally, I don't think I am prepared to look at a bunch of horrible subjects for the sole purpose of answering that question.

Allen said...

Interesting text. You have a nice blog. Keep it up!

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Re: Anonymouse, I find it telling that you're 'getting a woody'(?!) over the picture of the nude boy.
Really Rob, consistently so sharp & colorful in your words! (you are an asset to this blog)
But your words are an effective deprecation to the description of the Desiderio as 'plain childporn'...
David you must have endless wall-space....how is it possible in NYC

Canuck said...

There's a hefty book about Desiderio that's pretty interesting. You can see a lot of his doodles, thoughtful sketches, and endless revisions of his paintings -- constant exploration!
A little pricey... You can hint to your loved one about getting this for Valentine's Day.


I can see a lot of Sidney Goodman, his former teacher, influence in Desiderio's work. You can check him out too.

Desiderio's painting of his son are heartbreaking yet
beautiful, touching yet poignant. There is the horror of the extreme medical interventions contrasted by the obvious sanctity of life felt by a loving parent.

Anonymous said...

Great blog - your last sentence reminds me of the last two sentences in Dali's 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship .

Segrelles might make a nice entry , or Morgan Kane - who has a nice site , interesting background , president of a hypnotist org.

Anonymous said...

>Well, yes I think we can all agree that childporn is a subcategory of immoral<
sure, but besides being immoral, cp also is prohibited (and rightly so), while other immoral things are not... See the point?
Funny, somehow I always considered you as a lawyer...

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-->>"besides being immoral, cp also is prohibited (and rightly so), while other immoral things are not... See the point?"

I'm afraid I don't. There are plenty of acts in addition to cp that are both immoral and illegal. (For example, murder or rape.) There are some acts that are immoral but not illegal (for example, mistreating and manipulating people) and other acts that are illegal but not immoral (driving a car with expired license plates). Not sure that such categories advance the discussion.

For purposes of this blog, my question is fairly focused: when does an abhorrent subject matter override an otherwise beautiful image? I note that paintings of rape and murder are common in museums, so that is apparently not enough.

Anonymous said...

With more art than one can discover in a lifetime that is beautiful and elevated, I'm not troubling myself with degraded subject matter. For me personally, great art is not dependent on subject matter anyway, so it's just too easy to turn my head. Life's too short.

Canuck said...

Hey, what about "Lolita" by Nabokov? It's a masterlly written story about a monster.

For art perhaps if ugly subjects are beautifully painted...?

Steve sculpts critters said...

Let's not ignore the music of the egg shapes.

Rob Howard said...

Canuck, thanks for the heads-up on Desiderio's book. That price is a bit too steep for my taste. The used book market is bizarre (just saw one of my old books nearing $400)..ridiculous. I'll put a search out for the Desiderio book and hope to find a decent copy for a reasonable price.

I suppose I see some of the similarity in Goodman's work but this is clearly a case of the student surpassing the master. Still, he's no slouch.

Rob Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Howard said...

>>>I note that paintings of rape and murder are common in museums, so that is apparently not enough.<<<

Yeah, the Rape of the Sabines was an evergreen and in the child porn category, Susannah and the Elders was always a chance for the artist to show a young hottie and her audience.

Perhaps I'm missing something in my interaction with children but what I see is the tenderness a father feels toward his child.

I recall bathing my own children and (with Anonymouse's forbearance) they were stark naked on those occasions. Also recall kissing them goodnight as I put them to bed and, perhaps I'm strange but there were no more sexual overtones to that than are apparent in Desiderio's tender and atmospheric painting.

This is the reason that I avoid double-spaced typing...to lessen the chance that people like Anonymouse will read between the lines.

Norm said...

I suppose it's all a case of what you're comfortable with.
I liked Helnwein's illustration work so I bought a big book on him sight unseen...and I just didn't care for the subject matter of a lot of his fine art stuff.
Personally, since I've had a son, I have a very hard time with art or films or books where terrible things happen to children.
I'm not saying the artists are "wrong" or anything. I just can't take it.
One artist I keep going back and forth on is Ludwig Hohlwein (it's just coincidental I'm bringing up artists with such similar last names)
His work is incredible...I love it....except for the Nazi stuff.
Yeah...just that little thing.
I haven't broken down and bought any books on him because of it.
Not that I think there are any art police who will tsk tsk me...but I'm just not comfortable with it, and there's so much other good stuff out there.
Or how about all those great artists from the past that put out the occasional racist clunker piece?

Norm said...

I wonder if other people have different standards for different kinds of art.
I probably take the hardest line on books.
I'm not going to buy many (if any)books I dislike thematically just because I like the writing style.

Movies, I'm a little softer on.

And visual art and music, I'm more likely to buy something because I like how it looks or sounds...even if I'm not a big fan of the subject matter.

Matthew Adams said...

>>>Intellectually I would like to understand where and why that tipping point is.<<<

That tipping point is probably as ephemeral as the dividing line between art and porn, art and propagander (he's a proper gander)and artist and craftsman. I suspect it has something to do with purpose, but then that becomes ephemeral as well. Is the purpose of art to shock? Is it to open one's mind? Is it to please? Is it to make money? Is it to impress the ladies (or the blokes)?

The other question you might need to ask as well is: is it possible to have good art with a moral subject matter? And at what point does the moralness(?) (maybe goodness is a better word in this case)tip the painting over into being something other than good art?

I suspect that ultimately the subject matter might be so immoral that one would have to call the artwork evil, but it is still art.

And now that I have let out all that hot air I am floating (falling) back down to earth.

The drawing of the canon is a really lovely diagram. I think the nubs at ikea should look at it and learn from it. At least then I might look at the instructions before I put something together.

Wentworth said...

Interestingly,my mother has a classical rape scene picture over her mantlepiece.It's quite an unusual talking point as guests often try to figure out what the victim has done to deserve such harsh treatment.
Mother argues that simply being a woman and physically weaker than her assailants is the main reason.
I'm inclined to agree.

Anonymous said...

...just simply amazing. It's nice to see how science,math,and art come together as one. It would also be nice if more artists are just as technologically gifted to come up with such genius (unlike me).

Don Cox said...

The interesting thing about the cannon picture is that it is completely wrong. It dates from the days when people thought that projectiles went on in a straight line and then suddenly dropped. Later on, it was discovered that cannon balls follow a parabola.

So it is a nice picture of an outdated theory.

Anonymous said...

Please excuse me for going completely off-topic but I must convey a real enthusiasm for the recent work of
Kate Nichols, mathematicians and nano-scientists:


le critique said...

I like your blog!

Best, Bruce M. Mackh