Since creativity concerns the emergence of the genuinely new, it is a theme that crosses many disciplines, including art and science. Traditionally, artists and scientists evaluated their works differently, with scientists viewing their creations as universal (and verifiable through empirical evidence), whereas artists treated their creations as personal (and successful if they awakened meaningful emotions). However, as scholars have studied creators and their creations, they have found that this traditional description is seriously flawed. Arthur I. Miller, a physicist turned historian of science, believes that studies in his adopted discipline reveal that the roots of great scientific ideas extend far beyond science itself. Analogously, he holds that great artistic achievements have sources that spread far beyond art itself. Excellent examples of this complex origin of revolutionary works in science and art occurred early in the twentieth century when Albert Einstein, the archetypal modern scientist, and Pablo Picasso, the archetypal modern artist, created their most original and influential works in ways that Miller finds enlighteningly similar.
Modern culture began with new ways of understanding space and time, and in Einstein, Picasso, Miller ferrets out why and how Einstein and Picasso radically changed long-established ideas of space and time. In science, Einstein was the agent of change through his special and general theories of relativity; in art, Picasso was the agent of change through Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that fragmented natural forms and helped initiate cubism. By telling parallel lives of these creative geniuses, Miller illuminates not only how each made his breakthrough, but also how their accomplishments were interrelated. Since Picasso and Einstein neither met nor communicated with each other, their interrelationship was indirect. They worked in similar social environments and their revolutionary ideas had underlying common causes. For example, Miller believes that the geometric ideas of mathematician Henri Poincaré profoundly influenced both men.
Miller’s own life has influenced the subject and approach of his book. Originally a physicist, his metamorphosis into an interdisciplinary scholar was influenced by Gerald Holton, a Harvard physicist and historian of science, and by Einstein’s paper on special relativity. Miller’s 1981 bookAlbert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity: Emergence (1905) and Early Interpretation (1905-1911) showed him that, to understand Einstein’s theory, it was necessary to elucidate its scientific and mathematical as well as its philosophical and historical sources. His later books, such asImagery in Scientific Thought: Creating Twentieth-Century Physics (1984), continued this interdisciplinary approach.
Einstein, Picasso, which was written for anyone interested in creativity, is very much a part of Miller’s continuing evolution as an interdisciplinary scholar. Sandwiched between the introductory and concluding chapters is his balanced treatment of Picasso and Einstein, with three chapters for each. Against this biographical framework, Miller scrutinizes the interactions between aesthetics and science, technology and art, philosophy and painting, space and time. He is also intrigued by how geniuses conceive, gestate, and give birth to great works of art and science. He enriches his discussion by detailing the personal, cultural, and intellectual contexts that help to explain how Picasso and Einstein changed the ways we understand the world. Though Einstein and Picasso considered themselves loners, their lives were inextricably intertwined with colleagues, friends, and lovers who influenced these creators and their revolutionary creations.
One of these creations is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso treated its subject—five prostitutes surrounding a client—in a shockingly new style in which he depicted the figures simultaneously from multiple perspectives. Miller, a historian of science, analyzes the painting differently from art historians, and his analysis has both strengths and weaknesses. His account of the biographical background of this famous work depends heavily on such secondary sources as the first two volumes of John R. Richardson’s A Life of Picasso (1991-1996). What is original is Miller’s emphasis on themes largely neglected by writers who see this painting evolving from Picasso’s reaction to such artists as El Greco, Jean Ingres, and Paul Cézanne, as well as to primitive art, especially African masks. Miller believes that discoveries in mathematics, science, and technology strongly affected Picasso’s technique of representing different views of the bordello scene all at once.
Miller’s theory of the nonartistic origins of this great work of art goes against Picasso’s own accounts of why and how he came to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Miller is skeptical of Picasso’s denials that...
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