27 Oct Einstein – Picasso (ARTHUR I. MILLER)
Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, exemplars of genius, inspiration for generations of artists and scientists, are icons of the twentieth century. Modern science is Einstein and modern art, Picasso. How this came about is one of the great sagas in the history of Western thought.
While it is a truism that one can always find amazing coincidences between any two people, in the case of Einstein and Picasso the similarities in their personal lives, working lives and creativity are uncanny and documentable. The parallels between the two during their period of greatest creativity—the first decade and a half of the twentieth century—show us much more than the common points of their own thinking. They also offer glimpses into the nature of artistic and scientific creativity and of how research was carried out at the common frontier of art and science.
In those exhilarating days at the beginning of the last century, when everything seemed possible and realizable everywhere, Einstein and Picasso made no distinction between their personal and working lives. From a single cauldron emerged ideas that set into motion everything we call modern. I am more interested in why Einstein and Picasso made their discoveries than in how they went about developing insights. The psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim has written: “How then are we to discover what takes place when a work of art is created? We can listen to what the artist reports about himself.” This holds for scientists, too.
Pablo Picasso’s biographer John Richardson quotes a comment by Dora Maar, one of the artist’s more perceptive mistresses. Although she was speaking of Picasso’s postcubist days, her remarks apply best to the period in which he discovered cubism. “There were five factors,” Maar said, “that determined his way of life and likewise his style: the woman with whom he was in love; the poet, or poets, who served as a catalyst; the place where he lived; the circle of friends who provided the admiration and understanding of which he never had enough; and the dog who was his inseparable companion.” These factors began to come together in May 1904, when Picasso moved into 13 rue Ravignan, a dilapidated tenement in the Montmartre district affectionately known as the Bateau Lavoir. By midsummer of 1907 he had produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the painting that brought art into the twentieth century. Whereas many of Picasso’s artist and literary friends had already achieved some notoriety in their own right and greatly respected his artistic acumen, none of them was prepared for what emerged from his atelier that July.
Except for the dog, Albert Einstein’s situation was similar in spring 1905, when he and Mileva moved into a cramped third-floor walk-up at 49 Kramgasse, in the old city center of Bern, Switzerland. Einstein’s close friends in Bern were obscure civil servants like him, and certainly none of them had the remotest clue to what he would soon produce.
The general line of argumentation among art historians is that the roots of cubism are in Paul Cézanne and primitive art. This view discounts completely how astounding developments in science, mathematics and technology contributed to the very definition of “avant-garde.” It has long been known that the roots of science were never totally within science itself. Why then should the roots of the most influential art movement of the twentieth century lie totally within art? By widening our viewpoint of the origins of Picasso’s Demoiselles to include science, mathematics and technology, we gain deeper insight into Picasso’s monumental struggles.
Parallel biographies are thus a means to explore the intellectual climate at the beginning of the twentieth century, an era of genius unmatched since the Renaissance. The best works produced in that era will be forever among those that define the high road of civilization. Relativity and Les Demoiselles represent the responses of two people—Einstein and Picasso, although geographically and culturally separated—to the dramatic changes sweeping across Europe like a tidal wave.
At the epicenter of these enormous transformations was the debate about representation versus abstraction. In art, there was a strong countermovement to the figuration and perspective that had held center stage ever since the Renaissance, which surfaced most forcefully in the postimpressionism of Paul Cézanne. New developments in technology such as airplanes, wireless telegraphy and automobiles were altering everyone’s conception of space and time. The multiple images in the pioneering cinematography of Eadward Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey permitted change with time to be portrayed either on successive frames of film or on a single frame, in addition to depicting different perspectives on serial frames. In science the discovery of X rays seemed to render inside and outside ambiguous, the opaque became transparent and the distinction between two and three dimensions was blurred. Radioactivity, with its apparently limitless amounts of energy, seemed to prove that space is full of alpha, beta, gamma and X rays flying everywhere and opening up everything. Even more abstractly, mathematicians mused over exotic new geometries that could be represented in dimensions greater than three. People were especially fascinated by the idea of four-dimensional space, with its implication of motion in space or time.
All of this was discussed in newspapers, magazines and cafés, as well as in elegant and accessible philosophical writings by people like Henri Bergson and the great French polymath Henri Poincaré. These developments and what they meant were debated among the tight group of friends known as la bande à Picasso who met in Picasso’s atelier, on whose door hung the sign Rendezvous des poètes. The group comprised poets, devotees of the occult and avant-garde literary fantasists such as Alfred Jarry, who had published parables on non-Euclidean geometry, the fourth dimension and time travel. Coincidentally, in Bern, Switzerland, a comparable study group debating similar themes called itself the “Olympia Academy.” They met in similar, if less flamboyantly romantic, bohemian poverty. Each group took all knowledge as its province and orbited a central sun: in Paris, Picasso; in Bern, Einstein.
Ideas were everywhere and so was the desire for change. Alongside the developments in mathematics, science and technology was the discovery of the conceptual quality of African objets d’art. All of these ideas helped Picasso to free himself from earlier modes of thinking. Everyone involved in cubism considered it a highly intellectual adventure with the specific goal of reducing forms to geometry. Picasso’s exploration of space in his groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon employed notions of four-dimensional space described to him by Maurice Princet, an insurance actuary interested in advanced mathematics and a member of la bande à Picasso.
The two men were introduced in 1905 by Princet’s notoriously unfaithful mistress Alice Géry, who at one time had been involved with Picasso. Although never a central figure in Picasso’s group, Princet was frequently seen with them in cafés, participated in their hashish sessions and visited the Bateau Lavoir during critical times in spring 1907, when Picasso was struggling with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso listened to his discourses on non-Euclidean geometry and the fourth dimension, which Princet gleaned mostly from Poincaré’s widely read book La Science et l’hypothèse. Whereas Bergson wrote poetically about time and simultaneity, and Jarry in ways that were fantastically subversive, it was Poincaré, via Princet, who delivered the goods about simultaneity and non-Euclidean geometry.
Poincaré is a common denominator in our story. In 1904, Einstein read the excellent German translation of La Science et l’hypothèse and likewise was inspired by the sweep of its mathematics, philosophy and science. Just as his suggestive play with higher dimensions was among the factors that spurred Picasso’s discovery of geometry as the language of the new art, Poincaré’s insights on time and simultaneity were inspirational to Einstein’s discovery of relativity.
In the intellectual atmosphere of 1905 it is not surprising that Einstein and Picasso began exploring new notions of space and time almost coincidentally. The main lesson of Einstein’s 1905 relativity theory is that in thinking about these subjects, we cannot trust our senses. Picasso and Einstein believed that art and science are means for exploring worlds beyond perceptions, beyond appearances. Direct viewing deceives, as Einstein knew by 1905 in physics, and Picasso by 1907 in art. Just as relativity theory overthrew the absolute status of space and time, the cubism of Georges Braque and Picasso dethroned perspective in art.
Einstein’s approach to space and time was not primarily mathematical. Notions of aesthetics were essential to his discovery in 1905 of relativity and a new representation for light, and then in 1907 of a means to widen relativity theory to include gravity. Nor were Picasso’s studies of space totally artistic in the narrow sense of this term, as his interest in scientific developments reveals. Picasso’s new aesthetic for the Demoiselles was the reduction of forms to geometry.
Cézanne’s influence on Picasso was complex, inasmuch as it was less significant for the Demoiselles than for later developments. Of great importance was Cézanne’s bold new manner of producing spatial ambiguity, which he accomplished by merging foreground and background in a way that fused planes and integrated objects and space. This is called passage. Cézanne went on to further organize his paintings so as to create several perspective points, which change as you view the painting from different angles. This required of Cézanne at least an intuitive understanding of spatial relations that verged on the geometric. Picasso referred to Cézanne as his “one and only master.”
Einstein’s Cézanne was the great Dutch physicist H. A. Lorentz, of whom Einstein wrote, “I admire this man like no other; I might say, I love him.” Although Cézanne made the great leap to free art from a single perspective point, he remained rooted in the nineteenth century. Similarly Lorentz had almost formulated a proper theory of electromagnetic phenomena, and yet could not bring himself to interpret it as predicting the relativity of space and time. Einstein and Picasso, on the other hand, because they sought realities beyond appearances, each accomplished something entirely new.
Both men emphasized that despite their apparently revolutionary advances, they were actually extending the work of past masters. Les Demoiselles contains vestiges of Cézanne, El Greco, Gauguin and Ingres, among others, with the addition of conceptual aspects of primitive art properly represented with geometry. Likewise in Einstein’s relativity theory we note legacies of Lorentz, Ernst Mach, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Poincaré, to name but a few of his scientific and philosophical ancestors. Technology too played a role in Picasso’s development of cubism, as we see from his adroit use of photographs as models for paintings and his interest in cinematography. Similarly did technology provide key input into Einstein’s thinking toward relativity in 1905, particularly the design of electrical dynamos and practical problems of wireless telegraphy.
Yet at first, both their seminal works were terribly misunderstood. That Einstein had accomplished something new in 1905 would not be apparent to everyone until 1911. If relativity was appreciated at all before that, it was mostly for the wrong reasons. Let us not forget that Einstein sat in the Swiss Federal Patent Office from 1902 until 1909 and received his first academic position on the basis of research results that had nothing to do with relativity theory. The initial reaction to the Demoiselles by three members of la bande à Picasso was an embarrassed silence, and in a subsequent viewing Braque was scandalized. In the fall of 1907 Picasso put the painting aside and did not exhibit it again until 1916. It was not widely recognized as anything revolutionary until the early 1920s. Just as only Einstein understood his 1905 paper on electrodynamics as a major conceptual advance, so did Picasso with the Demoiselles.
Picasso’s and Einstein’s personal lives bear similarities and differences that, to some extent, reflect their intellectual and social milieus. Recently discovered love letters between Einstein and his college girlfriend, Mileva Maric, reveal a side of him as yet unexplored. By 1909, Mileva, Einstein’s wife since 1902, was in a position of disfavor not unlike that of Picasso’s then-mistress Fernande Olivier. Like Picasso with Fernande, Einstein had learned to harness Mileva’s moods to his vision, and his passions provided some of the dynamics for his greatest creations.
By 1911 many artists were familiar with X rays, radioactivity and Poincaré’s writings on geometry. All of this influenced their practice of art and was instrumental in producing early offshoots of cubism that were formulated specifically to diverge from cubism’s “figurativeness,” as this term had been reinterpreted. An early representative of this trend was Wassily Kandinsky, who produced the first entirely nonfigurative painting in 1910. He was among artists who were especially interested in the mass-energy equivalence, X rays and radioactivity, which they took as proof that, ultimately, everything is amorphous. While art was moving toward a highly abstractive phase, physics underwent a parallel movement after the geometrization of space and time in Einstein’s general relativity theory of 1915, and then even more dramatically in the 1920s with the development of quantum theory. Yet pure abstraction was a Rubicon that Picasso never crossed, and Einstein never agreed with the high abstractions of quantum theory. Each man ultimately lost contact with the implications of his own revolution.
Instead of referring to an “interplay” between art and science, we must begin to speak of ideas that were developed in common by artists and scientists. The age-old quest of both art and science has been to seek new representations of phenomena beyond appearances. This effort becomes focused at the nascent moment of creativity, when boundaries dissolve between disciplines and notions of aesthetics became paramount. Coming to grips with this phenomenon requires delving into the nature of creative thinking.
Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc
Arthur I. Miller