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An artistic vibration

If Winifred Nicholson were alive today I’m sure she would have approved of Prof Brian Cox’s explanation of the significance of light in the last of his series Wonders of the Universe.
For Winifred Nicholson art was a means of exploring and expressing her fascination with light. From an early stage, she was moved to capture the pure and iridescent colours found in nature, “such as those seen in a flower petal or in mother of pearl”.
In her later life she was fascinated by the prism as a way of revealing the nature of light. She wanted to paint “the colour that hid beneath another or flickered briefly on the edge before disappearing. Unseen colours at either end of the spectrum and on either side of the rainbow, in infra-red and ultra-violet light, colours only revealed to the human eye by the prism. (Unknown Colour, p251). 

She could perceive the “unseen colours” on the edge of the spectrum, the colours that are “felt rather than seen”, “undiscovered as yet artistic vibration…..” and was fascinated by what she called the “dark rainbow” and the “void”.
To such an extent that she wrote urgent letters to her friend Prof Glen Schaefer, a Canadian physicist and biologist, stressing that it was “important” that he investigated this area — on the grounds that artists can only explore the visible rainbow but scientists have the tools to deal with the experience that “we cannot with the tools of our eyes”.  She intuited that important secrets were held within the invisible rainbow.  However, she also realised that if normal scientific methods were used, what she was searching for would not be revealed. She urged him to go about it “not as an analyst cutting things to pieces, but as an artist bringing them together”.
Brian Cox explained that it is through understanding the nature of light that we can understand the origins of the universe.  “There is a vast amount of information and detail in every beam of light.  And that information is written in colour.”
And beyond the visible spectrum, the world is illuminated by invisible light – radio and microwaves — the oldest light in the universe.  “Every second light from the beginning of the universe is raining down on the surface of the earth in a ceaseless torrent.  If our eyes could only see it, the sky would be ablaze with this primordial light both day and night.”
This invisible light bathes the entire universe in a perpetual buzz, reaching Earth from all directions. With an ordinary radio it is possible to capture the light released just after the big bang.
And then, around 500 million years ago, multicellular life with complex eyes appeared virtually “intact”, and once one species got eyes, others developed eyes.  Eyes were fundamental to the evolution of evermore complex forms of life.    The evolution of eyes have not only served to ensure living creatures the greatest chance of physical survival.  They allow human beings to look up and out, to wonder and to seek to understand our origins.

Posted by author: Alison Churchill
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8 thoughts on “An artistic vibration

  • The Artists Winifred Nicholsons ‘intuits’ about their being hidden secrets to be revealed in such ‘natural’ and ‘everyday’ phenomena as the ‘rainbow’, hidden mysteries that cd not be brought to light by ordinary scientific method illuminates for me the most important differnce between Arts and Sciences.
    Whereas Science is first and foremost about providing mankind with straightforward empirical, ‘factual’ understanding of the obvious material world, Arts primary function or ‘value’ is in its ability to explore beyond and venture into the just as real ‘aesthetic’ or ‘moral’ universe.
    The job of Sciece is to ‘educate’ us, ie. provide us with much needed ‘knowledge’, the work of art is to ‘enlighten’ us, i.e. to give us much valuable ‘insight’.

    • I agree that science uses tools to measure the exterior, measurable, material universe. However, there does seem to be a degree of intuition and creativity. The idea comes before the evidence is found.

      • Yes I agree, tho with the exception of the ‘social’ sciences where the knowlege generally comes before the evidence is found.
        ( see Marx, Benjamin, Lukacs et al on ‘Historical
        Materialism’ , ‘Theory and Praxis’ etc etc etc )

  • cont….
    The great irony of course in any debate on the nature of art and science or in any exploration of the ‘true’ role of the artist/scientist is that as human beings we often find ourselves in the more complex predicament of funcioning as both artist and scientist simultaneously!
    For example a landscape artist observing the beauty of a mountain peak may come a way with a greater understanding of geology whereas a biologist working on the ‘human genome project’ may in a flash begin to see the work of god at play.
    The point is that despite the obvious distinctions that can be made between Art and Science in terms of their nature and purpose, as human-beings journeying thru’ life in our material/moral universe the apparant boundaries between these traditonally separate disciplines may in reality prove quite arbitary.

  • Thanks for your post, Alison. I enjoyed reading your resume of Brian Cox’s talks and will follow up the links. Also I am glad to find this reference to the work of Winifred Nicholson, which I have occasionally seen in reproduction and appreciated her use of colour. It is inspiring to read that she had the courage of her convictions to the extent of entering a dialogue with a scientist, encouraging research. It seems to me that there is a growing area of common ground between the arts and the sciences, and I believe the barriers between them will dissolve increasingly – it is already happening. The Edinburgh Science Festival is under way just now. There is an exhibition of the prints of Pauline Aitken along with text and illustrations of the Scanning Electron Microscope + Micrographs she worked from to produce the prints. There are other examples in the festival of such fruitful collaborations,I won’t take up more space with them here but to me they are one small example of a trend that is far bigger and growing. Both science and art can grow in this way. It seems that Winifred Nicolson recognised this.

    • I believe that there are many interesting, creative and productive ways in which Art cd enter into a dialogue with
      the Science but lets hope that whatever ensues between these
      often disparate disciplines does not grow into some sort of
      ‘cosy’ relationship.
      After all I side with the 19th Century poet and critic Mathew Arnold who argued that the central tenet of art, its most impt
      role and socially useful purpose is as a medium for the ‘criticism of life’ and as such Art is first and foremost a
      moral discipline ( I posit fundamentally separate from science ).
      eg. The knowledge of Scientists can be used to make the technology, build the bombs, manufacture the computers but it is through the moral conscience of artists and their highly trained powers of imagination and creative expression that Society can be inbued with at least some additional political
      perspective and a further ‘positive’ vision as how to use
      or indeed not use ‘new’ technology.
      Arnold pointed out that life is a phenomenon in need of critism ‘we are sometimes as fallen creatures in permanent danger of worshipping false gods, of failing to understand
      ourselves. or misinterpreting the behaviour of others…etc ‘
      ( fr Alan De Bottain on Status Anxiety )
      As such surreptiously or beguilingly with humor or gravity
      works of art – novels, plays, paintings etc – can function
      as vehicles ( outside science ) to explain our condition
      to us. They may act as guides to a truer, more judicious, more intelligent understanding of the world
      ( fr Alan Bottain )
      I think yes there is a place for definitely for understanding between Art and Science ( often practitioners themselves even to the layman seem not to understand themselves or have a clearer enough idea of what their role is ), I also agree that there may be many productive ways in which they cd develop together.
      However let us never forget that Science is fundamentally about the production of empirical material knowlege ( yes often led by imagination and thesis as much as by trial and error) and art whilst it can be used to illustrate often marvelously the world as presented by the scientist it has as a discipline that fundamentally ‘other’ moral/aesthetic dimension. The 2 disciplines remain importantly and significantly distinct.

  • My sister, a ceramic artist,( which like art and science, art and craft can petard and retard themselves on their own points of view, ) describes art as ‘Laughing in the Dark’ and maybe those with scientific bends of mind go into the dark differently. And we’ll probobly meet each other somewhere in these clouds of unknowing and exchange our symbols and tymphony and drum too the same beat. But lets not cast each other as other, but be aware we both are.

    • Act 1 Scene 2
      this is the moment where violinists murder their strings!
      Camera, Action!

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