Feb 112014

The original inflationary model of the universe proposed that when our universe was only a tiny fraction of a second old, it underwent a brief, but stupendously accelerated expansion.  The expansion took quantum fluctuations (on subatomic scales) and enlarged them to astronomically relevant dimensions.  This idea (put forward by physicist Alan Guth) explained in one blow a number of otherwise perplexing features of our universe.  For instance, observations of the cosmic microwave background show that our universe is geometrically flat.  This is easy to understand in the context of the inflationary model.  To a tiny ant on the surface of an enormous balloon, any local region would seem flat.  Similarly, the cosmic microwave background is the same in all directions (isotropic) to within one part in a hundred thousand, because our entire observable universe expanded during inflation from a tiny region that had sufficient time to be smoothed out in the early universe.

Soon after the inflationary model was proposed, however, physicists Alex Vilenkin and Andrei Linde discovered that the model also has some unexpected consequences.  In particular, the model seems to produce not just one universe, but rather an infinite ensemble of universes—a multiverse!  While our own universe seems to have had a starting point—a Big Bang—and it seems to be heading towards a cold death, this collection of “pocket” universes has no end, and indeed needs no beginning, with new “bubbles” continuing to pop up eternally.

The picture of “eternal inflation,” if true, provides a new perspective on our place within the cosmic landscape.  Not only do we live on a small planet, around a mediocre star, in one galaxy out of hundreds of billions of similar ones.  Even our entire universe may be just one bubble (one that nonetheless allowed for complexity and life to emerge), out of an infinite ensemble.

Figure 1.  “Kandinsky Universe,” a simulation of eternal inflation by Andrei Linde.  Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 1. “Kandinsky Universe,” a simulation of eternal inflation by Andrei Linde. Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 2.  Wassily Kandinsky’s “Composition VII.” The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (image in the public domain).  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kandinsky_WWI.jpg

Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky’s “Composition VII.” The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (image in the public domain;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kandinsky_WWI.jpg).

Andrei Linde carried out some numerical simulations of this ever self-reproducing inflation.  In two dimensions, one of his simulations is represented in Figure 1, which Linde entitled a “Kandinsky Universe,” because it reminded him of the abstract works of painter Wassily Kandinsky (e.g., Figure 2).  Linde also produced simulations of an eternal inflation represented as a three-dimensional landscape (Figure 3), and those look extraordinarily similar to works of another artist, Sol Lewitt (Figure 4 shows the work “Splotch 15”).  The correspondence between simulations of the cosmos and art brings to mind a witty quote from (who else?) Oscar Wilde:  “Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life!”

Figure 3.  The fractal “landscape” resulting from eternal inflation.  Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/)

Figure 3. The fractal “landscape” resulting from eternal inflation. Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 4.  Sol Lewitt’s “Splotch 15.”  Credit: Spencer T. Tucker.

Figure 4. Sol Lewitt’s “Splotch 15.” Credit: Spencer T. Tucker.

Aug 132013

Figure 1. “The Adoration of the Magi” by Giotto di Bondone. From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi.jpg

The heavens have always been a source of inspiration for poetry, music and the visual arts.  The first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis already talks about the creation of the Sun, Moon and the stars.  The ancient Babylonian, Chinese, North European and Central American cultures all left records and artifacts related to various astronomical observations.  It was only natural then, that at the end of Medieval times, with the first signs of the Renaissance (in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries), the heavens would start making an appearance in important works of art.  One impressive demonstration of the interest in astronomy was in the great Italian painter Giotto di Bondone’s fresco “the Adoration of the Magi” (Figure 1).  The fresco was painted around 1305–06, and it features a very realistic depiction of a comet, representing the “Star of Bethlehem.”  It is thought that the comet’s image was inspired by Giotto’s observations of Halley’s comet in 1301.

Figure 2. “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” by the Limburg brothers. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Très_Riches_ Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_ Janvier.jpg

A second beautiful example of astronomy in art is provided by a famous illuminated manuscript.  The three Dutch miniature painters known as the Limburg brothers created the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry book of prayers (Book of Hours), and it is currently considered to be one of the most valuable books in the world.  The book was unfinished at the time of the death of the three brothers in 1416, and the work on it was completed by the painters Barthélemy van Eyck (possibly) and Jean Colombe (certainly).  As Figure 2 shows, an attempt was clearly made to give an accurate representation of the night’s sky, even including meteors.

Figure 3. “The Battle of Issus” by Albrecht Altdorfer. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Altdorfer_Alexander.jpg

A third magnificent painting, the “Battle of Issus,” by the German painter Albrecht Altdorfer (Figure 3), may be the first painting in which the curvature of the Earth is shown as seen from above, from a great height.

Finally, I find the illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric model by the Portugese cosmographer Bartolomeo Velho (Figure 4) extremely attractive.  The illuminated illustration, “Figure of the Heavenly Bodies,” was created in France in 1568.

All of these works of art were being created shortly before or at a time when the Copernican revolution was about to forever change the view humans had of the cosmos and on their place within it.  Far from being perfect and immutable, the heavens turned out to be part of an ever-evolving universe.

Figure 4. “Figure of the Heavenly Bodies” by Bartolomeo Velho. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bartolomeu_Velho_1568.jpg


Jul 232013

It all began in earnest on January 10, 2013, when I received an e-mail from composer and collaborative artist Paola Prestini.  It started with a flattering line:  “I am so intrigued by and love your blog!” she wrote.  But then it got straight to the point: “I would like to create a Hubble song cycle or contemporary cantata for the mezzo soprano Jessica Rivera and the amazing ensemble ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble).”  She added that she thought that the piece would get its strength from concepts related to the universe and Hubble imagery.

“Wow!” I thought to myself, “this would be fantastic.”  After a few more exchanges and conversations via Skype, Prestini, librettist Royce Vavrek, and film maker Carmen Kordas came to Space Telescope Science Institute to meet with me on February 22nd.  During the inspiring conversations that took place that day, we came up with the idea that the piece should somehow make a poetic connection between human life on Earth and the lives of the stars in the heavens.  After all, stars are also born, they live, and they die.  The time that was available to produce the complex multi-media piece was rather short, since Prestini and Manuel Bagorro, the Artistic Director of Bay Chamber Concerts, wanted the cantata to premiere in Maine on July 25, 2013.

Figure 1. The Aokigahara forest in 2008 (from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Aokigahara_forest_01.jpg/).

We decided to symbolically anchor the Earth-based part of the lyrics on the agonizing experiences of a young woman struggling with a harsh reality.  As Vavrek states in the introduction to the libretto: “Her footsteps tell stories.”  The music and imagery for this section were partly inspired by the Japanese mythology-rich forest Aokigahara (Figure 1).  Sadly, the historic association of this forest with demons has led to numerous suicides on the site.  To connect the life (and death) experience of the young woman to the heavens, we used the ancient Peruvian geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines (Figure 2 shows a satellite picture of such lines).  Again in Vavrek’s words:  “The woman walks in patterns, pictures emerge in the soil…  She creates her own private Nazca lines, tattooing the Earth with her history.”  The Nazca lines in Peru are believed to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries, and they are thought (at least by some researchers) to point to places on the horizon where certain celestial bodies rose or set.  In other words, they truly marked a direct astronomical connection between the surface of the Earth and the heavens.

Figure 2. Nazca lines (from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Nazca_Lines_SPOT_1311.jpg)

Figure 3. A still photo from the visuals that accompany the “Hubble Cantata.” Credit: Carmen Kordas.







In its conclusion, the Cantata completely intermingles the fate of the young woman with the ultimate fate of the stars (as is gracefully illustrated in Figure 3).  The shapes in the sand and the constellations in the sky become one, mirroring the tortuous path of human life in the dramatic Hubble images of outbursts that simultaneously mark stellar deaths and the promise for a new generation of stars, planets, and life.

I have no better word to describe the fusion of Prestini’s music and Vavrek’s libretto with Kordas’s imagery than “mesmerizing.”  I can only hope that the performance of the “Hubble Cantata” will travel extensively, to give as many people as possible the opportunity to emotionally experience its effect.

Jul 022013

Humans had been fascinated by starry nights long before astronomy became a science. Those twinkling little lights in the heavens were even players in the biblical description of creation. There, God makes them appear in the dome of the sky on the fourth day.  Over the centuries, the stars have been a constant source and catalyst for poetic inspiration and curiosity.  The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1781: “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them:  the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Painters were also captivated by the stars.  Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (Figure 1), is one of this painter’s best-known works.  He painted it just one month after his admission, at his own request, to the asylum at Saint-Rémy.  One year later he committed suicide.  Indeed, the tumultuous, almost violent appearance of the stars in Starry Night was probably a premonition of deep sufferings to come.

Figure 1. Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night. Museum of Modern Art, New York. From Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Figure 2. The star V838 Mon. Credit: NASA, ESA, and H.E. Bond (STScI).










It has been pointed out that the Hubble image of the star V838 Mon (Figure 2) shows clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star that are very reminiscent of van Gogh’s swirling brush strokes.

Less known than van Gogh’s is another painting entitled Starry Night, by the Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch (Figure 3).  Munch’s painting is almost abstract, and it conveys an atmosphere of mystery and drama.  Munch wrote once: “I am so fond of the darkness—it ought to be just like this evening when the moon is behind the clouds—it is so mysterious.”

Figure 3. Edvard Munch's Starry Night. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch,_Edvard_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

There is very little doubt that even with all of our advances in deciphering the cosmos and its workings, the romantic appeal of the stars will continue to enthrall us for generations to come.


Feb 052013

Very few scientists in history had the accomplishments of Michael Faraday (1791–1867).  His discoveries in electromagnetism literally transformed this field from a mere curiosity into the powerful technology that ushered in the modern era.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was one of the finest landscape and seascape artists in the history of art, and one that came even closer to abstract art than the impressionists who followed him.

Turner and Faraday became friends, probably after meeting in the house of the physician James Carrick Moore and his wife, who were very much in the social mainstream of London at the time.  University of Birmingham Curator James Hamilton wrote superb biographies of both Turner and Faraday, which have provided us with insights into the relationship between the two men, and the subtle influence that the scientist may have had on the artist.

First, there was the technical aspect.  Faraday gave Turner advice on how to best test the rate of discoloration and change of pigments in the very polluted air of mid-nineteenth century London.  Second, Turner started to incorporate elements reflecting scientific investigations into his paintings.  For instance, Turner’s impressive painting “The New Moon,” with its crisscrossing small waves, is very reminiscent of Faraday’s description of his observations of the ridges produced by the wind on water or the sandy shore at Hastings.  The same effect, which Faraday termed “crispations”—the disturbances formed in one medium after being struck by another—can be seen in the sea in another Turner painting:  “Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus” (Figure 1).

Figure 1. "Lifeboat and Manby Apparatus going off to a stranded vessel making signal blue lights of distress," by Joseph Mallord William Turner. From http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_150918/Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner/Lifeboat-and-Manby-Apparatus-going-off-to-a-stranded-vessel-making-signal-blue-lights-of-distress-,-c.1831.

Figure 2. “The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage, Macon,” by Joseph Mallord William Turner. From http://uploads6.wikipaintings.org/images/william-turner/the-festival-of-the-opening-of-the-vintage-macon.jpg.










Faraday may not have been the only scientist to have influenced Turner’s work.  The famous astronomer William Herschel might have been another.  In a groundbreaking lecture given to the Royal Society in 1801, Herschel was the first to describe the dynamic surface of the Sun as having a series of imperfections, including “nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores.”  Turner almost certainly heard about the lecture, since an exhibition including one of his paintings was being arranged at the same time in the same building in which the Royal Society used to meet.  Then, in 1803, Turner painted “The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage, Macon” (Figure 2), in which he appears to have depicted the Sun with the types of details described by Herschel.  In a society in which new, exciting ideas were bound to percolate, it is not inconceivable that Turner decided to change the way he was painting the Sun to correspond to the physical properties the astronomers were discovering.

From a general cultural perspective, we could say that both Faraday and Turner were exploring the properties of light.  Faraday was the first to show that magnetic fields could influence the behavior of light waves.*  Turner, on his part, became known as “the painter of light” of his time because of his masterful use of brilliant colors.  The scientist and the artist have incredibly enriched our understanding of nature and our emotional response to it.


*This phenomenon, now known as Faraday rotation, is not only used to great effect in modern astronomy, but was also the first step towards James Clerk Maxwell’s demonstration that light is an electromagnetic wave.

Jan 222013

Almost everyone would agree that the image of the radio galaxy Hercules A (Figure 1), taken by the Karl J. Jansky Very Large Array radio telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, is beautiful. Similarly, few would object to the statement that Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (Figure 2) is a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece. But what is it that induces these responses in people? Is there a mathematical formula that can evaluate, even approximately, the beauty of images, objects, literary works, or pieces of music? Believe it or not, but in a book published in 1933, the famous mathematician George David Birkhoff (1884–1944) attempted to do precisely that—to develop a mathematical theory of aesthetic value. Birkhoff realized that there are many components to the concept of “beauty,” and he attempted to discuss what he regarded as that intuitive feeling which is “clearly separable from sensuous, emotional, moral, or intellectual feeling.” To that goal, he divided the aesthetic experience into three phases: (1) the effort of attention needed for perception; (2) the recognition of certain order; and (3) the appreciation of value—the reward for the mental effort. Birkhoff then took a stab at quantifying these three stages. He argued that the initial effort is proportional to the complexity of the object being observed, which he denoted by C. He called the order exhibited by the object O, and the assigned mental value, or aesthetic measure, M. He then suggested that within each class of aesthetic objects, such as flowers, vases, or pieces of music, one can actually define an order O (which may depend e.g., on symmetry) and a complexity C. Birkhoff’s formula for the feeling of aesthetic value was then simply: M = O/C. In other words, for a given level of complexity, the more order the object possesses, the higher its aesthetic measure. Alternatively, for a specified amount of order, objects are considered more aesthetic if they are less complex.

Figure 1. Radio galaxy Hercules A, showing jets powered by accretion onto the central black hole.

Figure 2. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. At the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis.









Birkhoff would have been the first to admit that the evaluation of O and C was rather ambiguous. Still, he made a heroic effort to provide some guidelines and prescriptions for the case of simple geometrical shapes, and for ornaments, music, and poetry (e.g., of Tennyson and Shakespeare).

I must say that it would be rather difficult to apply Birkhoff’s formalism to evaluating the beauty of images by the Hubble Space Telescope. However, in his words, this was merely an attempt to give “a simple, unified, account of the aesthetic experience,” and Birkhoff hoped that it would provide “means for the systematic analysis of typical aesthetic fields.” As I’ve noted above, Birkhoff did not even pretend for his formula to take into account the emotional and intellectual response that objects induce in viewers. Since there’s no doubt that images of the universe elicit powerful emotional and intellectual reactions, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Birkhoff’s limited approach does not easily apply. A deeper understanding of what we perceive as beautiful will have to await a clearer elucidation of the way our brain operates. To quote (out of context) Shakespeare: “As truth and beauty shall together thrive.”

Dec 182012

I think everyone will agree that some of the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope are absolutely breathtaking.  The effect they have on the viewer is on one hand the result of their sheer visual impact, and on the other, the fact that the objects being imaged truly exist in this wondrous cosmos.  This fusion of evocative reality with artistic rendering is simply irresistible.

We sometimes forget that it took photography quite a while to come into its own as a bona fide art form.  As late as 1955, a critic for The New York Times still insisted on describing a photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as merely “the folk art of our time.”  For those, however, who believe that all issues are ultimately decided by monetary value, the debate over photography was settled in 1993, when Christie’s sold an Alfred Stieglitz photo for $398,000 at an art auction.  Hubble images are in the public domain and therefore cannot be assigned a price.  Fortunately, money is not the only way in which art can be appreciated.  Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, boldly declared in 2000 that a Hubble photograph of a star-birth region “is one of the most flamboyantly beautiful artworks of our time.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, by now Hubble images have been exhibited as part of art shows both at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, Italy (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Hubble images on display at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, Italy.

Given that Hubble images may be regarded (at some level at least) as works of art (in addition to their scientific value), one may still ask which of those images would qualify for “Hubble’s Best.”  Note that here I am completely ignoring the importance of the images for scientific research, and am considering only their artistic impact.  Even so, the question does not have a clear or immediate answer.  In fact, it would probably be no easier to determine which is Hubble’s greatest image than trying to choose Rembrandt’s best painting.  To make progress, I decided to use my own (clearly subjective!) judgment and to select the ten images that I consider to be the most visually appealing.  I then presented those ten images to a few dozen of my colleagues, asking them to point to the one they liked best.  I present below the five stunning images that came out on top (Figures 2–6).  Even though there was one clear winner, I deliberately refrained from rank-ordering the five images.  Which one is your favorite?

Figure 2. The majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104).

Figure 3. The Cat’s Eye Nebula: a dying Sun-like star creates a heavenly sculpture of gas and dust.

Figure 4. A giant Hubble mosaic of the Crab Nebula—the remnant of a supernova explosion recorded in 1054.

Figure 5. Hubble captures view of “Mystic Mountain”—pillars of gas and dust, with jets emanating from the centers of disks around young stars, in the Carina Nebula.

Figure 6. A “rose” made of the interacting pair of galaxies Arp 273.

Jul 052012

Figure 1. “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby. National Gallery, London.

The eighteenth century English painter Joseph Wright of Derby is sometimes described as a painter of portraits and lavish landscapes, but his two works that have always impressed me the most are those depicting candlelit scientific demonstrations given to a lay audience.  Wright set out to beautifully communicate the shift in attitude towards science in the minds of ordinary people.  Examine, for instance, the first of these paintings—“An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” (Figure 1).  You will immediately notice that it is not so much the experiment itself that arouses Wright’s interest.  Rather, it is that the excitement of scientific discovery is being brought down to earth and made accessible to all—for lay people could understand the essence of the experiment.  The air pump, by the way, was invented in the mid-seventeenth century, and was soon recognized as a device that could demonstrate the effects of near-vacuum on both animate and inanimate objects.    As air was being extracted from the glass bowl, the bird would grow increasingly convulsed, and then when air was readmitted, it would recover.  Some scientists, such as self-taught Scottish physicist James Ferguson, realized that using a live bird in the experiment might be “too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity.”  Consequently, Ferguson recommended substituting some form of mechanical lungs in place of a live animal.

Figure 2. “A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby.

Wright’s second painting, “A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery” (Figure 2), is equally fascinating.  The Orrery was a device to make the principles of solar system astronomy palatable to the uninitiated.  A lamp (hidden behind the older boy’s sleeve in the painting)  played the role of the Sun, and the Earth, Moon, and other planets were arranged around it at the appropriate distances.  The orrery could reproduce the motions of the celestial bodies with the correct relative speeds.  The “philosopher” in the painting was most likely the gifted clockmaker and geologist John Whitehurst, although Wright clearly painted him with characteristics reminiscent of those of Sir Isaac Newton (see, e.g., Newton’s portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller; Figure 3).  At the left of the painting, the person taking notes was Wright’s personal friend, the cartographer Peter Perez Burdett.

Figure 3. “Sir Isaac Newton” by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Owned by the 10th Earl of Portsmouth.

Wright took great care to present the scientific experiments as accurately as possible, never taking any artistic license.  This may have been partly influenced by Wright’s close connections to the “Lunar Society”—a group of scientists, philosophers and industrialists that included the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather.  Impressed by Wright’s talent, Darwin even wrote about Wright’s painting of Mount Vesuvius:

“So Wright’s bold pencil from Vesuvio’s height
Hurls his red lavas to the troubled night.”

Overall, there is very little doubt that Wright, called the “painter of light” by one of his biographers, left us some of the most dramatic descriptions of British enlightenment.  His paintings provide a breathtaking chronicle of early scientific “outreach” activities.

Jun 052012

Figure 1. Hundertwasser, “First Spiral Painted in Japan.”

Over the long holiday weekend I happened to run across and browse through a new book on the 20th century Austrian artist Fritz Hundertwasser (1928–2000), whose exhibition I saw nearly 40 years ago.  Hundertwasser is one of those artists that you either love or hate, but it is virtually impossible to stay neutral.  While some think that Hundertwasser has been somewhat overrated as an intellectual, there is no doubt that he has left a huge body of work in painting, architecture, and environmental projects, much of which is fascinating.  I found three elements in his painting, in particular, to be intimately related (at least to my mind) to current scientific interests.


Figure 2. Hundertwasser, Koru flag, suggested by him as secondary flag of New Zealand.

First, starting from about 1953, he became obsessed with spirals, which to him symbolized creation and life (see, e.g., Figures 1–2).  Needless to say that spirals—or their 3D incarnations, helices—indeed play a crucial role in the emergence of life, on scales ranging from the molecular (the structure of DNA) to the cosmic (the structure of spiral galaxies; Figures 3–4). In galaxies, the spiral patterns represent density waves, where new stars and planets are being born.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.








Figure 5. Hundertwasser, “The Last Raindrop to Pass By.”

The second prominent element in Hundertwasser’s work is that of water.  In fact, he even changed his name from Stowasser to Hundertwasser (meaning “a hundred waters”), because “sto” means “a hundred” in some Slavic languages.  Later, he also added a second last name “Regenstag,” meaning “Rainy Day,” because he noticed that colors glow more vibrantly on rainy days (Figure 5).  Modern astronomers are, of course, eager to discover water-bearing extrasolar planets, because water is believed to be a necessary ingredient for life.  On one hand, water can act as a solvent—creating a “primordial soup”—which gives simple molecules an opportunity to come into contact and to form longer chains, and on the other, as a protector from harmful ultraviolet radiation.  One of the chief goals of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), for instance, would be to discover extrasolar planets with liquid water on their surface.


Figure 6. Hundertwasser, “Rain.”

The third characteristic of Hundertwasser’s work is what he refers to as “Dunklebunt,” meaning “dark colorful”—he often surrounds saturated colors with a black background (e.g., Figure 6).  I don’t need to tell you that most astronomical images are naturally surrounded by dark space (e.g., Figure 7).  Finally, there is no doubt that in his passion for the environment, Hundertwasser was far ahead of his time—see his spectacular architectural project in Bad Blumau, Austria (Figure 8).


Figure 7.


Figure 8. Hundertwasser, Rogner Spa in Bad Blumau.

May 152012

The opening of the exhibition “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (running May 6–August 12, 2012), is as good an excuse as any (if one is needed!) to say a few words about this artist, perhaps the most poetic painter among the surrealists.  In particular, I have always been impressed by those paintings in which, metaphorically or emotionally, Miró expressed his views on our world at large.  Twenty-three paintings, collectively known as the Constellations, are clearly at center stage for this theme.  Miró painted this entire series between January 1940 and September 1941.  André Breton, the founder of the surrealistic movement, wrote about that period of time:  “The situation in art… has never been so precarious as it was in Europe during the summer of 1940, when its doom appeared to be sealed.”  With these words in mind, take a look at the ominous Sunrise (Figure 1), with one Sun painted black, and another partially eclipsed.  However, even in those dark hours of extreme anguish, Miró found hope in what he regarded as the grandeur within the human spirit—see his optimistic Awakening in the Early Morning (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Sunrise.

Figure 2. Awakening in the Early Morning.










Another Miró painting I find extremely evocative is The Birth of the World, painted in the late summer and fall of 1925 (Figure 3).  The title was actually suggested by André Breton.  Here Miró, the devout surrealist, is a clear forerunner to Abstract Expressionism.  The most amazing thing about this masterpiece is that Miró actually used the artistic act of creating the painting—the spilling of thinned-out paint, together with brushwork and blotting—to symbolize the genesis of the world.  Subcon­scious­ly following the biblical description, Miró started with a “chaos” of spots, splashes, and smearings, from which figures somehow emerged (such as the triangle with a tail, perhaps representing a bird).  To the red circle, which he had originally introduced for color balance, he added a yellow streamer to symbolize a comet, and so on.  The last figure to be “created” was the white-headed “human” at the lower left, next to some spider-like creature or a star.  This completed the birth of his lyrical universe. Compare to a deep image of the universe taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.  Miró was not a scientist.  He did not attempt to understand the world.  He just had an enormous capacity to feel it!

Figure 3. The Birth of the World.

Figure 4. An eclectic mix of galaxies as seen by Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Blakeslee & H. Ford (JHU)