I just got my essay on Cubism and Eistein back recently. I am happy with it so I thought I'd share it with you.
Cubism and Einstein’s Ideas
GS 602 Art and Ideology in the Twentieth Century
In his book, Art & Physics, Leaonard Shlain proposes, “that the radical innovations of art embody the preverbal stages of new concepts that will eventually change a civilization.” 1 What he is saying is that the artist expresses new ways to perceive how the world worked prior to physicist being able to verbally and mathematically explain it. One of the ways he demonstrates this is by using an important shift in our perceptions of the physical world that happened in the first decade of the twentieth century, during which time, science and art went through some radical changes. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity would change the direction physics would take and in doing so create a new understanding of space and time. Cubism would change the role of art and in doing so help expand the arena of ideas that art could discuss. Though both were developing at the same time, it would be the Cubists that became know to society first. In a sense, the Cubists helped forge the way for Einstein’s theory to be better understood by the public. I will discuss how Cubism sheds light on the Theory of Special Relativity and how that theory can explain what is illustrated in Cubist art.
The first step to understanding this connection between the two is we must first understand what each field was individually. I will start with examining Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and then look at Cubism.
In 1905, Einstein published a paper titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in which he explains his theory of special relativity.2 In his theory, he states that space and time are not absolutes, rather they behave relative to one another. Einstein asserts that the only real constant is the speed of light, to which we can use this constant to compare space and time to. In other words, how space and time behave in relation an object depends on how fast that object is traveling through space. That is, time and space will expand or contract depending on the speed of the traveler. Notice, I did not say the traveler is just perceiving time and space changing because the realities of space and time are actually changing. What Einstein understood was that objects moved through both space and time at the same rate. The theory declares, “the combined speed of any object’s motion through space and it’s motion through time is precisely equal to the speed of light.”3 That is to say the faster an object moves though space, time must be adjusted to move the object at a rate in time so it’s speed through both time and space remain constant. Einstein’s theory no longer maintains a distinct sphere for space and a separate one for time. Instead, they spill over into each other creating one rather than two distinct spheres, that is a reality of spacetime.
Our understanding of how space and time, or spacetime, function begins to change. We begin to see our world differently; space and time become pliable rather then fixed dimensions. It now becomes possible to consider such ideas of moving in space at different rates of time and moving through time differently because of different spatial velocities. It is a difficult concept to grasp because it is not what we are used to in our everyday experience. Remember, light always travels at a constant speed relative to the speed of whoever is observing it. No matter how fast or slow one is traveling light will always travel at the same speed compared to the observer. This becomes our fixed point to relate time and space to. Space and time behave inversely to each other through this constant, “whenever space contracts, time its complement, dilates.”4 Space travels through time and time resides in space at that constant rate. That is everything travels through both space and time at the speed of light. How fast an object travels through time depends on how fast it travels through space and vice versa.
Einstein asserted that the faster an object travels in space the slower it moves through time. This is because, as a traveler approaches the speed of light time expands. Time necessarily has to fill the void that is left behind by spatial contraction, where time begins to expand is in the present. What this means is that the present expands to fill more of time’s place as time gains more of a share of the four-dimensional world and the present spills over into the past and the future. At the same time, space would contract, compressing the depth of everything observable in front of the traveler.
In order to understand how the Theory of Special Relativity connects to and illuminates the art movement known as Cubism, I will first look at what this art movement was and briefly look at its history.
Cubism is an art movement that began in the early twentieth century that was started by the efforts of two artists, the Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, and the Frenchman Georges Barque. Together, they explored new ideas about how to view space and time in very revolutionary ways. First, Cubism “…dispensed with the need to produce an accurate facsimile of external reality.”5 The Cubists broke with the traditions of art established during the Renaissance, which is they no longer felt it necessary to depict reality as we saw it. They were now free to explore new concepts. One of the concepts they were interested in was a particularly modern concept, that of simultaneity. “In Cubist painting, solid, apprehensible reality, located in fixed time and space crumbled” and “visual segments of the front, back, top, bottom, and sides of an object jump out and assault the viewer’s eye simultaneously.” 6 That is, the object or objects depicted were represented to show all sides of the form at once. These changes seem strange to us, as we are not used to seeing all sides at the same time. Usually, at least one side of an object is obscured from any vantage point and the viewer is required to change positions relative to the object in order to see what was originally obscured. This also confronts our understanding of time, as we are used to only seeing a complete view of an object in a sequential order through a period of time. That is to say that we expect to gain a fuller understanding of an object viewing it as we take the time to move around it. Further, Cubism breaks down the notion of surface and mass by shattering mass into surface planes, thus, emphasizing the surface. It is important to note that, “for both artists Cubism was a type of realism, which conveyed the real more convincingly and intelligently.”7 This will relate to physics because that is what the science aims to do. Now, let’s consider the types of Cubism.
The first type of Cubism to appear is Analytical Cubism. This is the form of Cubism where the artist is the observer of the external, physical world, who integrates it into a new view or understanding of it. That is to say, the Cubist looks at the object, breaks down its structure and reassembles it into an image showing all sides of the object’s structure. “In this period (Cubists) generally avoided subjects and colors with overt emotional qualities, opting for subdued, often monochromatic palettes and neutral subject matter, such as still lifes.”8
Cubist compositions where drastically flattened perspectives that removed three-dimensional depth from the painting. This three-dimensional element had been diminished in importance. The Cubists understood and emphasized the fact that objects in a painting were simply patches of color on a canvas.9 The colors used in Analytical Cubism were the subdued neutral browns, blacks, and grays.
The second type of Cubism to emerge changed the role of the artist from observer and interpreter to a creator of a reality. In this phase, Cubist artists “moved towards a mode of expression in which the subject was much more recognizable, but laden with sybolism.”10 They reversed the process of breaking down the observable into more abstracted form and, instead, built up objects from abstraction. 11Synthetic Cubism had to grow out of Analytical Cubism. In order to create a new cubist environment, a Cubist must first understand the rules of Cubism first acquired by Analytical Cubism. As the name suggests it takes what was learned in Analytical Cubism and created new environments synthesized by the artist. Also, color creeps back into Cubist art during this time.
As I consider the relationship between Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and Cubism two questions come to mind. First, how does Einstein’s theory illuminate Cubism? And second, in what ways does Cubism illustrate Einstein’s theory of relativity?
Let’s start by remembering that according to the Theory of Special Relativity the closer to the speed of light one travels the more that spatial depth is compressed. This theory helps us understand the Cubist conception of spatial relationships. Depth was compressed out of a painting turning it into a to flattened field of surfaces. At first, this may seem contradictory to the idea of a four-dimensional world, as it appears to be only two-dimensional. However, Einstein’s thought experiment illustrates Cubism’s two-dimensional feel quite well. He had proposed the question of what would it be like traveling near the speed of light. His answer is surprising similar to that of the Cubists. When one approaches that speed space would compress and depth would begin to disappear.12 In connection to depth of field, a Cubist’s vision is the flatten vision of a traveler who approaching the speed of light. The Cubist’s concept of time is well explained by Einstein’s theory and thought experiments as well.
Since space and time both respond or react to each other though their relationship with the speed of light, so, as mentioned above, if space compresses then time expands. What does it mean for time to expand? Is it slowing down? In a sense it is, as that is what would be what appeared to happen if two travelers who were traveling at vastly different speeds were to later compare how time passed for each other. The time on one traveler’s watch would be different compared to the other traveler’s. Still, time is not just slowing down. What time is doing is filling in the gap left by compressed space. Time actually expands; it does not just slow, meaning the present moment grows. The past, present, and future overlap. The present moment in time is much larger now, and as it grows larger, it overlaps other moments. This overlapping both obstructs the details of each moment and emphasizes the interconnectedness of them. This explains the Cubist construction of time. They are not showing time in a singular moment. They are showing time in an overlapping view of moments. Cubists were interested in showing all sides of an object and in order to do this how they handled time had to change. Instead of giving the viewer one moment in time to contemplate, the Cubist provided many. In doing so, they removed the concept of sequence from their works.13 There was no single moment to consider, so the viewer could not ponder what might happen next. Providing many moments at once actually causes this, because everything happens at once sequential order is lost. The idea of what occurs next cannot occur because there is no first moment for another to follow. When time has expanded sequence is diminished.
Then, Einstein’s theory helps illuminate Cubism by explaining a new understanding of time and depth. The theory also helps explain another aspect of Cubism. As mentioned above Analytical Cubism used subdued colors. Here, Shlain asks us indulge in a bit of whimsy, he suggests that at the speeds approaching the speed of light the spectrum of colors would merge together, creating only blacks, whites, browns and grays.14 This is the color palette of Analytical Cubism.
The second question of how Cubism illustrates the Theory of Special Relativity is, in part, answered above. As with the connection between the theory and the art movement, the connection between the two questions is reciprocal, what answers the one question helps explain the other. Here is a good example of two disciplines speaking about the same thing in very different ways. Those who study and appreciate art can use Einstein to understand the methods and motives of the Cubists. Physicists can use Cubist works to illustrate the difficult concepts of relativity.
Still, there are a couple of things I should mention. Cubism illustrates Einstein’s theory visually. Einstein’s theory is not just about a visual interpretation of reality, it is an attempt to convey how that reality works. It is, however, about aspects of reality that Einstein is tackling that are hidden to everyday experience. These are abstract concepts that are difficult to understand and imagine. Here Cubism helps us do just that. Cubism can be see as a guide to seeing how time and space interact as we imagine we travel close to the speed of light. In helping us do this we can then begin to understand the flexible nature of space and time and begin to grasp the two as one.
One interesting part about this connection between Cubism and Einstein’s theory is that neither was aware of the others efforts as they were figuring it all out. Einstein’s theory was first to be published in 1905 and Picasso did not publicly show his Cubist work until 1907. The Einstein’s ideas took years to disseminate and become accepted. To illustrate this, the listings of Einstein, relativity, and spacetime were absent from the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature until 1919.15 This was long after Cubism had begun. The Cubists, then, were exploring their radically new concepts without the benefit of Einstein’s help. On Einstein discoveries, he himself attempted to refute the idea that Cubism illustrated his ideas at all. He had stated that, “this new artistic language has nothing in common with the Theory of Relativity.”16 He seemed unaware of the new radical ideas occurring in art during his time and when it was suggested that there was a connection he did not see it. It is then safe to say that Einstein did not draw from Cubism for inspiration of his ideas. In fact, he began working on his ideas long before Cubism would appear on the scene. Still, it is truly amazing that the Cubists and Einstein both came to such similar conclusions.Despite the lack of contact between Einstein and the pioneers of Cubism both were radically new ways of thinking with similar visions about time and space. One expressed his new views via mathematics and the written word; the others did so through a visual language. That these similar ideas were being expressed through to different mediums eases the difficulty of understanding such complexities and improves our perspective space and time.
1 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 17
2 Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Knopf, 2004) 44
3 Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Knopf, 2004) 49
4 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 188
5 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 191
6 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 189
7 Amy Dempsey, Art of the Modern Era (New York, Abrams, 2002) 84
8 Amy Dempsey, Art of the Modern Era (New York, Abrams, 2002) 84
9 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991), page 191
10 Amy Dempsey, Art of the Modern Era (New York, Abrams, 2002) 85
11 Amy Dempsey, Art of the Modern Era (New York, Abrams, 2002) 85
12 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 199
13 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 200
14 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 193
15 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 198
16 Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (New York: Morrow, 1991) 201