Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/May 1892/Science and Fine Art II

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1215773Popular Science Monthly Volume 41 May 1892 — Science and Fine Art II1892Emil du Bois-Reymond





ON still another side the development of photography has secured instructive data for art. In the year 1836 the brothers William and Edward Weber, in their famous work on the Mechanism of the Human Organs of Locomotion, represented a man walking in the positions which it was theoretically supposed he must go through during the time of making a step. The strange feature was remarked that while the pictures corresponded at the beginning and the end of the step, when the man for a short time had both feet on the ground, with the representations which the painters had always given of a walking man, in the middle of the step, when the moving leg was swinging by the stationary leg, the most eccentric and ludicrous spectacle was presented. The man appeared, like a drunken street musician, to be stumbling over his own feet. Never had anybody seen a walking man in such a situation. The brothers Weber proposed on the last page of their work to test the correctness of their schematic drawings by the aid of the stroboscopic slides of Stampfer and Plateau, as in the figures of Horner's dædaleum.[2] which has curiously come back to us from America as a novelty under the name of the zoetrope or vivantoscope; but it is still not clear whether their purpose was carried out.

Dr. William Weber lived to see himself and his brother fully sustained, after nearly half a century, by instantaneous photography. Mr. Eadweard Muybridge, of San Francisco, applied it in 1872, at the suggestion of Mr. Stanford, to fix the attitudes of horses in the successive positions of different paces. The same phenomena were revealed in the photographs as in the Webers' schematic drawings. Pictures came out the like of which nobody believed had ever really been seen.[3] Directed upon street scenes, processions, etc., the camera took many views of men in quite as astonishing positions as those which the brothers Weber had attributed to them on theoretical grounds. It was not different with the wonderful series of pictures of a flying bird and its wingstrokes which M. Marey has obtained with his photographic gun.[4]

The explanation of these facts is evidently that, when an object moves with periodically varying velocities, we get a stronger and more durable impression of the situations in which it halts, and a weaker and more fugitive one of those in which it moves swiftly. Even without knowing this law, no painter will represent the Black Forest clock in a peasant's room with a vertical pendulum, for, if he did, every observer would ask why the clock was stopped. For the pendulum, when it has swung to one side and is about to return, necessarily stops for an instant, and this situation of pausing at one side impresses us more strongly than the one in which the pendulum is passing through its point of equilibrium with the greatest velocity. It is the same with the alternately swinging legs of the walking man: he pauses longer in the position in which both of his legs are at rest, and for the shortest time in that in which the moving leg swings in front of the resting leg. The last position and those near it, therefore, make substantially no impression upon us. We figure to ourselves the walking man, and the painter represents him accordingly in the position in which between two steps he touches the ground with both feet.

Something very curious is observed in the running of the horse. No matter how frequent the intervals at which the picture is taken, we never get the usual figure of a racing or hunting horse as it comes to us from England, and as we see it in the pictures that are hung up in the show-windows of the shops at the time of races and hunts, and as it in fact strikes our eyes on looking at the horse in motion. A difference may be marked here from what is the case with man; for, among the pictures of men talking, taken casually or methodically, besides those which are never seen with the eye, some also appear which correspond with the common idea of a walking man. The difference depends upon the fact that the moment in which the outstretched fore legs of the racing horse make their longer pause does not coincide with the one in which the backward-thrown hind legs do so. Both of these situations are apt to impress themselves upon the eye and blend in the resultant conception of the racer, but instantaneous photography catches them one after the other.

An American illustrated journal, in 1882, had a picture of a hurdle-race, in which all the horses appeared in real attitudes, borrowed from the Muybridge photographs, as only the fast-receiving plate can see them. Prof. Eder, of Vienna, communicated these suggestive sketches to us in a paper on instantaneous photography,[5] and a rarer spectacle is hardly conceivable. But when the series of pictures of a periodically moved object taken at sufficiently short intervals, whether it is presented to the eye in the dædaleum or each picture is illuminated for an instant in its passage, is well projected, the original thought of the Weber brothers is realized: the periodical motion, dissected as it were into differential pictures, is integrated again into an impression of the whole, and the accuracy of the apparently false pictures is demonstrated. The latter experiment has been worked out by Mr. Muybridge himself in his zoöpraxiscope, and among us by Herr Ottomar Anschütz, who manages instantaneous photography with extraordinary skill, in his electrical stroboscope. In both methods we see men and horses walking, running, jumping; but there is still one thing to be remarked that is, that since the length of the passage past the eye of one of the slits of the dædaleum or of the illumination of the directly visible picture is the same for all the pictures, the appearance of the whole impression of the movement is a little different from the view of the same movement itself. That the position in which both feet of the walking man are standing nevertheless preponderates in the impression, is due to tho fact that the motion of the legs becomes slower in approaching this position, so that their rapidly recurring pictures nearly cover one another.

Tho series of instantaneous pictures of an athlete during a severe exercise, which Mr. Muybridge and Herr Anschütz have taken are in themselves a rich source of instruction in the representation of the nude. Herr Anschütz's stroboscope shows us the spear-thrower and the quoit-caster in the different stages of their greatest strain: we see their muscles swell and contract, while at last the missile still appears in the picture after it has been thrown; for it can not move faster than the hand at the moment it leaves it. Equally useful are the instantaneous photographs of domestic and wild animals of all kinds which Herr Anschütz has taken destined to be to the animal painter.

Instantaneous photography has been applied with surprising results, as every one knows, even to the surf in storms. But the sea painter must not forget, in the use of such pictures, that our eye can not see the waves as the quickly perceiving plate does, and that one may therefore easily give us a picture of them as incorrect in some respects as that of the stationary clock or of the man stumbling over his feet.

Finally, the former method of representing lightning as a fiery zigzag is, as Mr. Shelford Bidwell has very recently shown by the evidence of two hundred instantaneous photographs, quite as false as were the old pictures of racing horses. Mr. Eric Stuart Bruce has, indeed, tried to save the zigzag lightning of the artists by seeing in it the reflection on the cumulus clouds; but we can not understand how an acute-angled zigzag can be produced in that way.[6]

Prof, von Brücke has in a special essay worked out the rule for the representation of motion in art,[7] which, like the laws of the combination of colors, has been unconsciously followed by the masters. From photography in natural colors, of which artists and laymen continue to dream and hope much, there is unhappily not only for the immediate future, but, on theoretical grounds which experience will hardly contradict, for all the future, little or nothing to be expected. There is a question whether photography will not have an unfavorable influence in the arts of reproduction, copper-engraving, lithography, and wood-engraving, whose place it is taking to a widening extent. So faithful is it that it even in a certain sense depreciates the original pictures of the old masters by making them common property.

Is it possible that it should not seem wholly superfluous to speak here of the advantage which the study of anatomy affords to the artist? Has not the Borghese gladiator suggested the conjecture of anatomical mysteries among the Grecian artists as the only means by which they could achieve so perfect a representation of the uncovered male bod? Did not Michael Angelo acquire by long years of anatomical study the knowledge that justified the unparalleled boldness of his attitudes and foreshortenings of the body, which have remained to this day the object of the admiration of naturalists like Prof. Henke and Prof, von Brüke?[8] Are there not institutions maintained by the state wherever art is systematically cultivated for the purpose of giving youth opportunity to train the eye on the cadaver to a clearer perception of what can be seen in the living body beneath the akin? Have not three of the later members of this Academy been commissioned in succession to give such instruction here in Berlin? Finally, have we not excellent manuals of anatomy prepared especially for artists?

But the most distinguished art-writer of our day, who assumes a tone of authority that no Lessing exercised, and who enjoys at home the honor and fame of a Lessing, Mr. Ruskin, in his lectures at the Art School in Oxford, on the Relation of Science to Art, expressly forbids his pupils busying themselves with anatomy. Likewise, in his preface, he laments the deleterious influence anatomy had on Mantegna and Dürer, in contrast with Botticelli and Holbein, who kept themselves free from it. "The habit of contemplating the anatomical structure of the human form," he says later on, "is not only a hindrance but a degradation, and has been essentially destructive to every school of art in which it has been practiced"; and he adds to this that under its influence the painter, as in the case of Dürer, sees and portrays only the skull in the face. "The artist should take every sort of view of animals except one the butcher's view. He is never to think of them as bones and meat."[9]

It would be a waste of time and trouble to refute such errors, and demonstrate what an indispensable help the artist finds in anatomy, without which he would be groping as in a fog. It is very nice for him to depend upon his eyes, but still better to have learned, for example, in what the female skeleton is different from the male; why the knee-pan follows the direction of the foot when the leg is stretched out, but does not when it is bent; why the profile of the upper arm with the hand supine is different from the profile in pronation; why the furrows and wrinkles of the face run as they do in relation to the muscles beneath them. Camper's facial angle, although it has dethroned for more important objects by Herr Virchow's basal-angle, furnishes a great deal of information. How, without acquaintance with the skull, a forehead can be modeled, or the figure of a forehead like that of the Jupiter of Otricoli or of the Hermes can be understood, is hardly comprehensible. It is true that anatomical forms may be abused by fantastic exaltation, as has been often remarked with respect to Michael Angelo's successors; but there can be no better counteractive to this Michaelangelesque mannerism than an earnest study of the real. And a little comparative anatomy protects against such faults as that which overtook a very famous master, who made a joint too many in the hind leg of a horse; or, as we see on the Fontaine Cuvier near the Jardin des Plantes, to the diversion of the naturalist, a crocodile bending its stiff neck so far back that the snout almost touches the side of the animal.

We are, however, the less astonished at Mr. Ruskin's judgment when we learn that he also lays the same ban upon the study of the nude as upon that of anatomy. It should extend, he says, no further than health, custom, and propriety permit the exposure of the body, for which the use of anatomy would certainly be limited. It is well that propriety, custom, and health permitted more freedom on this point among the Hellenes than exists in England. Fortunately, the English department of the Jubilee Exhibition four years ago gave us opportunity to satisfy ourselves that Mr. Ruskin's dangerous paradoxes had not been carried out, and allowed us to forget them in the sight of Mr. Alma Tadema's and Mr. Herkomer's magnificent contributions. Mr. Walter Crane's charming series of pictures, which adorn our book tables, have also risen up against Mr. Ruskin's absurd doctrine.

In the same lectures Mr. Ruskin assailed the theory of selection and descent with great vigor, and attacked the censure, based upon it, of artists' pictures representing vertebrates with more than four extremities. He said: "Can any law be conceived more arbitrary or more apparently causeless? What strongly planted three-legged animals there might have been! What systematically radiant five-legged ones! What volatile six-winged ones! What circumspect seven-headed ones! Had Darwinism been true, we should long ago have split our heads in two with foolish thinking, or thrust out, from above our covetous hearts, a hundred desirous arms and clutching hands, and changed ourselves into Briarean cephalopods."[10]

It is clear from these words that this false prophet had no notion of what we in morphology call a type. Can it be necessary to tell Sir Richard Owen's and Prof. Huxley's countryman that every vertebrate has as the foundation of its body a vertebral column, expanding in front into the skull, and contracting behind into the tail; encircled in front and behind by two bone girdles, the pectoral and the pelvic arches, from which depend the fore and the hinder extremities, regularly jointed? That paleontology has never discovered a vertebrate form divergent from this type is certainly a striking argument in favor of the theory of descent and against the doctrine of special creations; for it is not easy to see why a free creating power should impose such limitations upon itself. So little does Nature vary from the once given type that teratology traces deformities back to it. None of these are real monstrosities; not even those with only one eye in the middle Of the forehead, in which Herr Exner looked for the original of the Cyclops, while Flaxman erroneously gave Polyphemus three eyes, a third in the forehead, besides the two normal but blind eyes. Real monsters are those invented in the youth of art by an untamed power of portrayal—winged forms, originally derived from the East: the bulls of Nimroud, the Harpies, Pegasus, the Sphinx, the griffin; Artemis, Psyche, the Notos from the Tower of the Winds, the Victory, the angels of the Semitic-Christian cycle. A third pair of extremities (and a fourth appears in Ezekiel) is not only paratypically but mechanically absurd, for the muscles needed to move them are wanting. With happy tact, Schiller has avoided, in the Battle with the Dragon, endowing the monster with the usual wings; and Retsch in his illustrations furnished it with a form so possible in comparative anatomy that one might have fancied the plesiosaurus or a zeuglodon had returned and become a land-animal.

To the winged figures may be added, as similar abominations, the Centaurs with two chests and stomachs and double viscera, and Cerberus and the hydra with many heads on many necks, warm-blooded hippocamps and Tritons, whose bodies, without hinder extremities, end in a cold-blooded fish, a conception at the thought of which even Horace was shocked. If they had had at least a horizontal tail-paddle, one might find in them a kind of cetacean. More easily borne are the cloven-footed fauns, horns, pointed ears, and hoofs of which have been inherited by our devil, whose menaces, therefore, in Franz von Kobell's witty apology, Cuvier laughed at as those of a harmless vegetable feeder. The heraldic beasts, like double eagles and unicorns, set up no claims to art, and are protected by historical prescription against the criticism they intrinsically deserve.

It is a remarkable example of the accommodating disposition of our sense of beauty, that though we are well instructed in the principles of morphology, our eyes are not more offended by some of these false creatures, such as the winged figures of Nike and the angels; and it would perhaps be pedantic and idle to forbid artists these time-honored rather symbolical representations, of which the greatest masters of the best periods have only made a very moderate use. But such indulgence has its limits. The giants in our Gigantomachia, whose thighs change at half their length into serpents, and which, instead of two legs, stand on two vertebral columns running out into heads, with separate brains, spinal marrows, hearts, intestinal canals, lungs, kidneys, and sense-organs, are and remain an intolerable sight to the morphologically cultivated eye, and prove that, although the sculptors of Pergamon were superior in technical ability to their predecessors of the age of Pericles, they were inferior to them in refinement of artistic feeling. They were perhaps pardonable, so far as tradition bound them, for making giants with snakes' legs. The hippocamps and the Tritons with horses' legs and double fish-tails which disfigure the railings of our Schlossbrücke, come from another time, when the antique still ruled unrestrained and morphological standards were less common property than they are now. But it is a matter of deep moment to us, if a famous painter of the present suffers such monstrosities, issuing from the trunk, as sleek, sheeny salmon hardly concealing the line between the human skin and the scales, to dance realistically on the cliffs or splash around in the sea. The multitude admires such blue sea-marvels as works of genius; what a genius, then, must Höllen-Breughel have been!

Singularly enough, the primitive men in the caves of Périgord, contemporaries of the mammoth and the musk ox in France, and the Bushmen, whose paintings Herr Fritsch discovered,[11] only painted the animals known to them as truly as they could, while the comparatively highly civilized Aztecs outran all that is Oriental in abominable inventions. It almost seems as if bad taste belonged to a certain middle stage of culture. It follows from what we have said that anatomical instruction in art schools should not be confined to osteology, myology, and the theory of human motion, but should take pains to inculcate in the pupils not a very hard thing the fundamental principles of vertebrate morphology.

It should be the task of botanists to expose the breaches of the laws of the metamorphoses of plants which meet them so frequently in the acanthus arabesques, palmettos, rosettes, and scroll ornaments that are borrowed from the antique. But for obvious reasons these offenses do not afflict the student of plants so painfully as malformations of men and animals, repulsive to a sound taste, affect the comparative anatomist. Moreover, a more wholesome turn has lately come over floral ornament. When in the Renaissance the Gothic was displaced by the antique, art was impoverished of ornamental motives. The richness of invention, the naïve observation of Nature, of which the rows of capitals in many cloisters bear witness, yielded gradually to a conventional schematism at the base of which was nothing real. But as Rauch at Carrara, instead of the eagle of a statue of Jupiter, made his studies for the birds of his monument upon a golden eagle which was captured there, so art began about the middle of the century to free itself from this dead conventionalism, and, combining truth to Nature with beauty, applied itself again to the observation and appropriation of the world of living plants around us. Japanese art long ago struck out the right way in this region, and has been an inspiring motive for us. The minor rations of the house, and the decorations of women's clothing, have been most happily enriched by it.

Perhaps the naturalist will be accused of a lack of logical sequence if he, in another direction, renounces regard for the laws of Nature in art. The thousand soaring and flying figures in the art works of ancient and modern times undoubtedly defy the universal and fundamental law of gravitation quite as much as the most offensive creation of a perverted fancy defies the fundamental laws, vital only in a few adepts, of comparative anatomy. Still, they do not displease us. We should rather see them without wings than with paratypical wings which could not be of use when of the usual size and without an immense muscular development. We are thus not shocked at the Sistine Madonna standing on the clouds and the figures beside her kneeling on the same impossible ground. The face of Ezekiel in the Pitti Palace is less acceptable. On the other hand, to mention later examples, in the procession of the gods hastening to the help of the Trojans, by Flaxman, Cornelius's Apocalyptic horseman, and Ary Scheffer's divine Francesca di Rimini, which Gustave Doré hopelessly tried to rival, our pleasure is not disturbed by the unphysical character of the positions. We likewise do not object to Flaxman's Sleep and Death bearing the body of Sarpedon through the air.

Herr Exner, in his admirable address on the Physiology of Flying and Soaring in Plastic Art,[12] tries to answer the question why these impossible representations of conditions never seen in man or beast, appear so natural and unexceptionable. I can not agree in the solution with which he seems prepossessed. He thinks that we experience something similar in ourselves in swimming, and that in diving we see persons swimming over us, as we would in flying. If we reflect within how short a time swimming has been made more general among civilized men, and recently it has become an exercise of women, who are no less with the soaring figures, doubt arises concerning Herr Exner's merit explanation. It would be even hazardous to appeal in a Darwinian fashion to an atavistic impression coming down from the fish ago of man. And are not the sensations and the views of the skater still closer to those of a flying, soaring being than those of the swimmer? More pleasing to me is Herr Exner's remark, which I have also made myself, that under especially favorable bodily conditions we occasionally have in dreams the inspiring illusion of soaring and flying. Thus

. . . "in each soul is born the pleasure
Of yearning onward, upward, and away,
When o'er our heads, lost in the vaulted azure,
The lark sends down his flickering lay;
When over crags and piny highlands
The poising eagle slowly soars,
And over plains and lakes and islands
The crane sails by to other shores."

Who would not ever and ever again with Faust strive to reach the setting sun and to see the still world in eternal twilight at his feet? But what we should be glad to do, we are glad to hear of in song and to see in pictures before our eyes. The longing to rise in the ether, to travel in the sky, and similar visions, still come to the help of the old delusion of mankind concerning the heavenly abode of the blessed away up in the starry canopy, to which Giordano Bruno put an end; but not so completely but that we sometimes fail to realize how terrible a journey in endless, airless, frigid space would be to us, in which even a swift, steadily flying eagle could only after long years light upon a planet of doubtful habitability.

What, now, can art do for science in return for so many and various services? Aside from external matters, like the representation of natural objects, it does not offer much of a different character from the reaction of the painter's experience in the mixing and combination of colors, on the doctrine of colors, an effect which is indeed not comparable with that of the retroaction of music on acoustics. The ancients had a canon of the proportions of the human body, attributed to Polycletes, which, however, as Herr Merkel has lately charged[13] applied, to the disadvantage of many an ancient work of art, only to the grown figure; a deficiency which Gottfried Schadow first systematically remedied. This theory has lately become the foundation of a very promising branch of anthropology anthropometry in its application to the races of men.

If we extend our idea of art so as to include artistic thought and creation, there will not then be wanting relations and transitions between artist and naturalist, how far soever their paths may diverge. Yet it is not certain that an artistic conception of its problems would redound wholly to the good of natural science. The perversion of German science under the name of natural philosophy at the beginning of the century was as much of Bathetic as of metaphysical origin, and even Goethe's scientific efforts had the same background. This artistic comprehension of the problems of Nature is defective because it is satisfied to stop with the finely rounded figures, and does not press onward to the causal connections of the fact, to the limits of our understanding. It suffices, where it is concerned with the perceptions of the resemblances of organic forms with plastic fancies, as in the plant stem or the vertebrate skeleton; it fails when, as in the theory of colors, instead of mathematically and physically analyzing, it satisfies itself with the contemplation of presumptively original phenomena. It was reserved for Herr von Brücke to trace the colors of dark media, on which Goethe based his Farbenlehre, and which to this day spread confusion instead of clearness in many German heads, by the aid of the undulatory theory to its true source. The difference between artistic and scientific treatment is prominently set forth in this incident.[14]

Yet it should not be said that artistic feeling may not be of use to the theoretical naturalist. There is an aesthetic of research which strives to impart mechanical beauty in the sense in which we have defined it to an experiment; and the experimenter will not regret having responded as far as possible to its demands. At the transition-line between the literary and the scientific period of a nation's civilization, there rises, under the influence of the declining and that of the ascending genius, a tendency to a more vivid representation of natural phenomena, as is illustrated in France by Buffon and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and in Germany by Alexander von Humboldt, in whom it continued vital till extreme age. In this sense, as I have once said here and set it forth as a desirable end, a strictly scientific treatise may under a tasteful hand become an art-work like a novel,[15] The attainment of perfection in this direction will reward the naturalist for the labor, for it affords the best means of proving the faultless accuracy of the chain of reasoning comprehending the results of his observations. And in examples of this kind of beauty, which often flows unsought and unconsciously through the pen of talent, no lack will be found in our Leibnitz.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Deutsche Rundschau.

The deepest sounding yet found in the Mediterranean Sea was obtained by an Austrian expedition in July, 1891, between Malta and Crete, 14,436 feet. At 22½ miles southeast of this, a sounding of 13,148 feet was taken.

  1. Address on Leibnitz Commemoration-day in the Academy of Sciences at Berlin, July 3, 1890.
  2. Philosophical Magazine, etc., January, 1834, Ser. III, vol. iv, p. 36. Peggendorff's Annalen, etc., 1834, vol. xxxii, p. 650.
  3. The Horse in Motion, as shown by Instantaneous Photography (London, 1882)—now published under the title Animal Locomotion; an Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, etc.
  4. Développement de la Méthode graphique par l'emploi de la Photographie. Supplément, etc. Paris, 1885, pp. 12 et seq.
  5. Die Moroentphotographie. Vienna, 1870, p. 10.
  6. Nature, etc., No. 1076, vol. xlii, June 12, 1890, p. 151; No. 1078, June 26, p. 197.
  7. Deutsche Rundschau, 1881, Bd. xxvi, p. 9 et seq.
  8. Deutsche Rundschau, 1875, vol. v, p. 216; 1890, vol. lxii, p. 26; vol. lxiv, p. 413.
  9. The Eagles Nest. Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, 1887, pp. 167, 168.
  10. The Eagle's Nest, p. 204.
  11. Drei Jahre in Südafrica. Reiseskitzzen, etc. Breslau, 1868, pp. 99, 100.
  12. Vienna, 1882.
  13. Deutsche Rundschau, 1888, vol. lvi, p. 414.
  14. Poggendorff's Annalen, etc., 1853, vol. lxxxviii, p. 363 et seq. Die Physiologie der Farben. Second edition, p. 104.
  15. Ueber eine kaiserliche Akademie der deutschen Sprache. Reden, etc., vol. i, p. 160.