Hermann Haller  |  Art and Science – branches from the same tree?

When Nena and I first met in the red brick villa in Berlin-Dahlem I was already firmly entrenched in two different worlds: on the one hand it was Science (at that time chemistry, now it is biomedical research and medicine) and on the other hand it was the Arts or Humanities (in that case it was art history). It was obvious that these two fields were worlds apart (in the real world, however, it was not that far from the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Altensteinstraße to the Chemistry Department in Fabeckstraße). However, everything felt different: the people were different, they didn’t even wear the same clothes. And the way they spend their days: Experiments in the laboratory versus heated discussions in seminars. Hours in the library versus hours at the bench preparing scientific experiments. The questions asked were totally different and it was obvious that most of the questions asked in each camp were not understandable for the others. Not that the questions asked were not interesting on a general level. But there existed no dialogue between a hard-core analytical chemist and a researcher looking into the intricacies of baroque church architecture in Rome. Even then, it was obvious that this was a question of communication, a question to make others understand the relevance and importance of your scientific work. And it still is an open and mostly unsolved issue.

The gap between Science and Humanities has been observed and recognized for years, and in the 1960s the term of the two cultures was efficaciously coined by C. P. Snow. Yet already in 1937, Albert Einstein wrote, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom”.1 And there have been many approaches to bring together these two different worlds and to start conversations between specialties and specialists. On that note (Branches from the same tree) the National Academy in the US has started several approaches to bridge this gap – last not least to educate students and make them familiar with the concepts and strategies in the different worlds. The famous quote from Albert Einstein is also the motto of a new program which we have started at Mount Desert Biological Laboratory MDIBL in Maine to bring together art and science, these two spheres which on first glance belong to two different worlds.

Abb. 1: Medical problems of Mona Lisa

Where do you start this dialogue between the different scientific fields? How do you get the dead-serious specialists in each field interested to even look at the science of the other side? This is the first challenge: to get an entry into the scientific approaches of these different fields, to find an angle where more than a spark of fleeting interest but an interest to communicate is generated. It is not just the brief exposure to science during the newspaper read of the latest breakthrough in biomedical research or the weekend visit to a fashionable exhibition of Vermeer. What I am aiming at is a discourse between different fields where it is obvious that there is much interesting to find, a lot to learn from each other and, maybe, new (scientific) insights to be generated. I have been dealing with this problem for a while and I would like to stroll down this avenue and talk about several aspects of the relationship between arts and science I have been involved with.

Perhaps we have to go back a few hundred years to a time when the two branches were more close to each other, when scientists could be artists and artist were scientists – both driven by the desire and interest to understanding of nature and the world. One of the first names which always comes to mind when one starts thinking about arts and science of the past is Leonardo da Vinci. Both, his art work and his manuscripts and drawings dealing with such diverse topics as water movements, geology, flight, warfare and anatomy, are considered to be masterpieces of a genius. We know that he himself saw no distinction between the different ways he tried to grasp the essence of nature. His experiments with colours and novel techniques of painting (mostly unsuccessful as the famous Last Supper of 1502 in Milan demonstrates) but also very influential with his definition of sfumato and a better understanding of optical phenomena, are both “science” and “art”. The description of water movement and the design of hair are directly connected in his work. His wide-spread interest, tackling problems of warfare, irrigation, anatomy, how to fly, the origin of the earth, and the way water flow and goldilocks are displayed, is at the same time awesome and very amateurish. Amateurish, because although we honor the concept of an all-embracing “Renaissance” person we strongly believe now in the value of the specialist. The “Renaissance” man or woman is an over-used example where both arts and science seem to be united. However, it comes at a cost: the ideal of Il Cortegiano is closely associated with amateurs who can lead any conversation, while they use their swords with one hand, not forgetting to order a cappuccino using the other. We have become critical of this behaviour as a means of scientific discourse and prefer the focused specialist communicating from the lonely room of the ivory tower. Obviously, the question of specialization and the specialist is closely connected to the topic at hand – how to communicate across language barriers and between historically developed fields. However, I do not want to discuss this interesting problem of the becoming of a specialist. I also do not want to discuss whether Leonardo’s breadth of interests with paintings, sculpture, technical problems of warfare and festivities, not to forget his reflections and jokes at the dinner table are more a sign of his genius or just mirrors his job description at the Sforza court.

I am more interested to explore if and how the analysis by different disciplines influence and alter the interpretation of objects of art and to find out how the discourse about objects of art from different angles can enhance our understanding not only of art in its context but may reflect back on the context itself. Will the view on a piece of art in its historical context from a natural science angle or from a medical position also change our view on the context of science and medicine and allow a critical assessment of Einstein’s tree.

As a medical doctor interested in diagnostic procedures  and molecular mechanisms of disease I am interested to see how a critical analysis using my tools provides (hopefully) new  and interesting insights into art and sciences and allows at the same time further questions into the present. My first encounter with Leonardo was as a medical doctor looking at one of his most famous portrait paintings. If you look carefully at Mona Lisa you observe a distinct whitish lesion in the inner angle of her left eye. The lesion sits above the eye lid, is about 1 cm wide and displays a smooth and even surface. Knowing about Leonardo’s diligence and how obsessed he was with this painting we may assume that this is what he saw and tried to reproduce it as careful as possible. Looking at the lesion as a medical doctor a couple of diagnosis come to mind. Ruling out warts and pimples, and considering the typical location the lesion it is most likely a xanthelasma, a deposition of cholesterol-loaden cells in the skin. We can find xanthelasma on other parts of the body, for example on the elbows (which we can’t see in this case). Why it is very often found above the eye we (the medical profession) do not know. However, it is the most probable diagnosis and the question is what medical condition leads to such a lesion. The lesion is always a sign of very high cholesterol levels in the blood. The high cholesterol may either be of genetic origin (a defect in cholesterol metabolism) or it is induced by an acute disease. In order to proceed further with our diagnostic procedure we have to make a couple of educated guesses: if we assume that Mona Lisa is actually Lisa Gherardini (who died at the age of 72) a genetic cause of hyper-cholesterolemia is not likely since the average patient dies young for atherosclerosis. This leaves us with two acute causes of high cholesterol: either hypothyroidism or acute kidney disease with a massive loss of protein in the urine. The first diagnosis is associated with a puffy, swollen face (and indeed some have speculated about such signs in Mona Lisa) or, in the latter case, with fluid accumulation in the tissue and edema formation. Looking carefully one recognizes that Mona Lisa has swollen fingers and the knuckles are barely visible. It helps again that our artist is such a keen observer of nature and the patient. If you compare Mona Lisa’s swollen knuckles with the bony fingers of Cecilia Gallerani you are easily convinced about the tissue swelling and would, as a curious medical doctor, like to assess her ankles to find there the classical signs for edema and tissue swelling. Although far from certain, we have now exercised the necessary medical discourse of differential diagnosis and come up with a suspected diagnosis. The last step is a final conclusion: the suspected kidney disease can disappear spontaneously and since we have no reports of her suffering from chronic disease later on a diagnosis of acute nephrotic syndrome, most likely at her age on the basis of an inflammatory kidney disease, focal sclerosing glomerulosclerosis FSGS, is possible and likely.

Does such a conversation piece between specialists help to better understand the painting? At best, it will add an interesting piece of information. But the brief conversation bridges for a moment the gap between different fields and get us to reflect about the other side. And more interesting conversation topics immediately follow: what did Leonardo know about the blood circulation when he made his exceptional anatomical drawings? What was considered disease in 1503? Were his drawings known (and of value) for the famous anatomy books from Padova a couple of years later? These questions broaden our understanding of the historical background and form the basis of an interdisciplinary discourse which not only helps to better situate the art in a context but also lead to an important reflection about science and medicine today.

Over the years many examples of medical diagnosis in paintings have been accumulated in my lectures and seminars: neurological signs in Sandro Botticelli, damaged Italian noses and spines in Piero della Francesca, left sided abdominal pain and infectious disease in Albrecht Dürer, gangrene and hallucinations in Matthias Grünewald, infectious epidemic of the 1500 in Bronzino, causes of blindness in Pieter Brueghel, autoimmune disease in Rembrandt, scoliosis in Rubens, dagger wounds in Jacques Louis David, sarcoidosis in Flint and others. As mentioned before, most of these examples are only a small part of the interpretation of the paintings. However, they elicit a novel view for the audience, lead to interesting discussions and build thereby bridges between disciplines. In seminars and lectures I have discussed these questions with students during the last 15 years. We have learnt from each other. And we were bridging the gap – this is why students attended. Did we actually change the relationship between arts and science? The lectures continue and the curriculum we developed is still asked for and established at other institutions. In any case, this discourse on medical diagnosis and biomedical science in historical paintings makes better doctors because the students look more carefully at paintings and reflect critically about the historical foundation of their future profession. No small feat.

Coming back to our example of Leonardo bridging between art and science, one may argue that this ideal of a Renaissance man is only possible once upon a time where the world was less complex and science and art still could go hand in hand. Today, specialization and complexity makes this approach impossible and not even useful. However, Leonardo is just one example of many during the time. The mathematical treatise of Piero della Francesca in 1485 were based on complicated mathematical texts translated from Arabic and used in schools. His ideas about arithmetics and geometry are directly related to his frescoes in Arezzo and his paintings at the court of Urbino. Art historians know well how these mathematical “scientific” books were considered to be the solution to the underlying problem of perspective and painting. Albrecht Dürer described in one of his letters from Venice that he planned to meet with somebody understanding the (mathematical) secrets of the trade (Luca Pacioli?) as a highlight of his stay in Italy which may have led to the foundation of his Four Books on Human Proportions of 1528. In fact, mathematics and the science of optics has helped us to understand the origin of perspective and its important role in western art. It is interesting to observe how in the time of Panofsky this paradigm of science and art has become the standard proseminar introduction into art history and has shaped our view of representative painting. Is this all? How much more science is there in art?

This approach leads very fast to more profound underlying questions of art and science. We know that artists and painters had recipes and experimented with their tools. To what extent were painters involved in the sciences (or what you would call science in 1500)? We all know how important the imitation of nature in the 15th century became. Altdorfer, Dürer, Grünewald, they all excelled in the realistic and hyperrealistic imitation of nature. But it is not only the desire to imitate nature per se but other motives exist as well. In Grünewalds Isenheimer Altar the depiction of herbs, grass and leaves is not only imitiatio natura but reflects the sue of the depicted herbs as remedies for the medical condition (St. Anthony’s fire after alkaloid intoxication). It is possible to identify specific plants and put them into the medical context. And if one searches for sources and connections one finds more than six different illustrated textbooks on medical plants were on sale in 1530 in the bookshops of nearby Strasbourg. In these books the proper identification of the herbs and plants is of crucial importance and clearly a question of life and death for the patient (and the doctor). First the identification of the characteristics of a specific plant and then the masterful drawing of the speciment are both generating an imitation of nature and establish a (proto)scientific database for toxicology and pharmaceutical use. From there it is not far to discuss the famous ointment of the Antonites and its composition, the business side of medicine in 1514 and last not least the establishment of the first European hospital chain (with an excellent business model) by the Antonites.

And this unexpected relationship between science and art is true 400 years later. At a time when representative painting slowly disappeared (for a while) the solution for the art world seemed to become more scientific. Seurat was praised by Marcel Duchamp for being the only “scientific” painter. His paintings are obviously painstaking “experiments” where concepts and theories replaced impressions and aesthetics. The influence of modern colour theories on earlier impressionist painting has been often mentioned (and rarely further investigated). Science and art are not partners you think immediately of. It is easier to associate Wagner and Gluck in the artsy atmosphere of the 1870s in Paris and the influence of music on French Impressionism than to tackle the science (and the technology) of the day and how it may have contributed to the problem solving of the painters (or how it may have started the artistic process in the first place). One of the obstacles is understanding and training of the researchers. To unravel these relationships between science, technology and art one needs a deep understanding of the respective research areas and a comprehensive view of the historical concept. I strongly believe that to have an educated “amateur” conversation one needs highly specialized experts to provide the knowledge in the respective fields and the expertise to communicate this knowledge. The dialogue between science and art needs more than one scholar, in fact it asks for collaboration and communication between educated scientists.

40 years after the impressionist “revolution” the cubists referred to the non-euclidian geometry of Riemann (in the trivialized French version of Poincare) to underline that their way of experiencing and painting the world was more than an individual choice. How was this knowledge communicated? In the literature a French teacher of mathematics is mentioned who actually lived In the same house with these painters. Marcel Duchamp used the same sources to justify and generate his enigmatic pieces of art. I have always found that standing in front of the Big Glass in Philadelphia is more like watching an experiment in the chemistry lab than experiencing a piece of art. And Marcel Duchamp would have half-heartedly agreed; once again, to start a discourse on these topics specialists of mathematical theory, the history of philosophy and art historians have to come together and start academic discourse in its best tradition.

It is easy to argue that the communication between art and science was likelier back then because the complexity and the specialization of science was less compared to today’s scientific specialties. While this may be true, after walking the Science Museum in Florence, the Museo Galileo Galilei, right next to the Uffizi galleries, I am not so sure any more. Both, the beauty of the scientific instruments on display and the complexity of the science are staggering. In fact, to understand the exhibits in this wonderful museum one needs both, an art historian and an experienced scientist to make us understand art and science in the 1600. And this discussion then reflects back to the art scene of the day. We have known for some time that Adam Elsheimer painted both, the first view of the Milky Way and the surface of the moon as described by Galileo. But we also know that Galileo only arrived in Rome when Elsheimer was sitting in prison (and died shortly thereafter). So there seems to be no direct link between Galileo’s visit to Rome and the execution of the famous painting. However, the missing of a direct connection makes the questions about the obvious knowledge exchange even more important and interesting: how did Adam – who painted in Frankfurt successfully on very small copper plates – learned about telescopes, the surface of the moon and the new cosmology? Was it his Rubens friends and its circle in Rome? Do any links are traceable between Elsheimer and the beginnings of the Accademia dei Lincei? And what do Elsheimers paintings tell us about the science of the time? It is tempting to speculate about William Harvey in England and the discovery of the blood circulation in the veins of the forearm and the dissection of a forearm by Rembrandt during the same years. Or the obvious relationship between the discovery of microscopy in the Netherlands and the drawings of insects and small animals by Jacob de Gheyn and other artist; the paintings of alchemists in the 16th century provide us not with the unsuccessful and unenlighted members of the scientific community but can also be used to start a discussion on the scientific process in the 17th century – what remains and survives, how “progress” happens and allows us a critical review on our own situation. And it not only tells a story about discoveries, art and science but also gives us a glimpse of international communication, exchange of ideas, the development of an academic community and the possibility of an educated view of the world.

Another aspect of the topic Branches from the same tree is the work process, i.e. the ways artist and scientist operate. At first glance the scientific and the artistic process looks very different. However, with a closer look and a better understanding beyond preconceived ideas about artists and scientists they become more of the same coin. Both scientist and artists work hard to learn the principles of their profession and to attain the technical skills to be successful. They both develop new methods, improve their skills and work by trial and error. Artists and scientists aim for a product, a result of their work which provides new insight into how the world functions and how we experience the world. Art and science are both expressions of what it is to be human. Each one is driven by discovery, curiosity, and a profound longing to know oneself and the surrounding world. Interestingly, a discussion about how scientific evidence is generated by intuition (at night and in the dark) on the basis of experimental data (generated in daylight during working hours) has started and the difference between day and night science has become a topic. However, despite these similarities there is not much communication between these worlds – scientist and artists rarely speak to each other. There is not much dialogue between these “silos”.

And there is so much to learn from each other. Pamela O. Long has covered several of the above-mentioned examples in her research on visual representation and the investigation of nature. She and others have outlined the historical context of how artists, artisans and academia exchanged ideas and concepts and how this cross-talk has influenced the artistic, commercial and philosophical development. Last year we took a small step in this direction with a symposium at our research institution on  visualizing nature, producing knowledge through art and looking at the market of art and science. Together with Pamela H. Smith and Linda Seidel we discussed concepts of our research animals (lungfish) in the laboratory at MDIBL during the last 50 years and compared it with the important role of lungfish in Nigerian art. And we also  learnt how important the visualization of nature was for patenting in the 16th century (enlightening for our efforts to get new discoveries patented ).

This lack of communication is even more astonishing when one looks at the “products” which are generated both in science and art today. We all know that modern artists are not only limited to the classical tools of the trade as the brush and the easel. However, few of us (even scientists) have realized, how much more “artsy” the scientific results have become. Tissue sections with histological stains or electron microscopy have always been considered to be artful. However, the occurrence of advanced microscopy, single cell analysis and bioinformatics have dramatically changed how scientific results are presented and experienced.

I have recently curated a small exhibition at our institution in Maine together with an art historian from Boston. Our exhibition compares and confronts ”pieces of art “ with “original scientific results”. All our objects on display are astounding and impressive and it is not easy to see the difference between science and art just by looking at our displays. So with all these similarities, why is there not more communication between these two branches of human experience? Why do molecular biologists experience art only in spectacular exhibitions and why do only few artists ever look at original scientific publications?

It is obvious that we have generated the “silos” of the modern world ourselves. While the Uffizi are overcrowded and most visitors look at preconceived paintings and images, the Museo Galileo leaves us with the impression that early science is astonishing and overwhelming but without a real understanding of its objects. Both museums seem to be situated in different worlds. However, most of the art and the science in Florence was generated and discussed during the 100 years of the Medici era and are closely connected. To understand the objects, their spaces and their purpose we need contextuality. As a Vasari painting needs an elaborate explanation (what we may consider a ridiculous iconographic program) the scientific instruments of Galileo need a scientific discourse on optics, astronomy and mathematics.

And this discourse is possible. In Florence it was the Accademia del Disegno which opened in January 1563 where this discourse took place between the “specialists” of the time. Its list of membership in Wikipedia mostly shows male artists and reduces the academy to a forerunner of the academies of art (another way to generate silos!). But actually in the early Florentine academy there were poets such as Laura Battiferri, her husband the sculptor Bartolommeo Ammanati, historians and philosophers such as Benedetto Varchi, language specialist such as Vincenzo Maria Borghi, actors we would call today real scientists, such as Galileo Galilei and MDPhDs such as Girolamo Fracastoro. And there were lively discussions between these “specialists” on methods, technologies and how the best results can be achieved. Poetic texts served as a basis for scientific discourse, the classical competition between writing and painting reflected in the poems and paintings of Bronzino, and, last not least, early scientists and natural science contributed to the arts.

A wonderful example of the exchange between art and science is the visit of Galileo Galilei at the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome in 1610 where he presented his work and was elected as a member. Founded 50 years after the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the members of the Lincei were more diverse, with mathematicians, botanists (Johannes Faber, the close friend of Rubens), philologist (Johannes Scheck, Jesuit in China), but also painters such as Adam Elsheimer. Elsheimer’s painting The Flight into Egypt is famous as the first apparently naturalistic rendering of the night sky. It was painted at almost exactly the same date as the invention of the telescope and predated Galileo’s discoveries described in his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610. I do not believe that Elsheimer was using a telescope himself but that it was the astronomical discussions at the Accademia during the visit that made him include recent scientifical findings into his art.

An important reason is the lack of suitable meeting places for such a discourse. While the communication by books and written material is the basis of a scientific discourse for the discussion of the complex relationships described above I believe that an academic campus is needed besides the loneliness of the study, the laboratory and the library. One of my dreams is to generate such an academic campus where open-minded specialists meet and spent time together telling stories, thinking about the relevance of their topics for others and start a discourse using their special knowledge they have accumulated in the course of their studies. Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory MDIBL could be one of these places. MDIBL and its campus are ideally suited for this.  MDIBL is a model institution of advanced science and research. The small institution and its scientists are well established in the world of science and are famous for their contributions to better understand the molecular mechanisms in kidney function, organ regeneration and aging. We are a research institution where scientists embark on their journey armed with modern research tools, equations, and experimental approaches laid out in a neat and tidy linear fashion. On a first glance, this is a long way from the world of art and artists. Artists are driven by a much less linear and messier exploration of ego, culture, and contradictions. While artists battle with trying to communicate their vision, scientists often struggle with gaining new insights within their.

MDIBL is the perfect place for similar discussions and the dialogue between specialists and the discourse on Branches from the same tree. Excellence in research is the basis to start such a discourse. Only when the science is advanced and at the cutting edge of the field you are able to think and talk about discoveries and how they are made. Being a specialist is a condition sine qua non for an academical discourse. Only then you are open to learn from others and try to understand how they tackle their problems. For this purpose we need academic places such as the campus of MDIBL. We bring together at MDIBL not only leading scientists from all over the world but expose them to artist world (and vicevera) to initiate this discourse between the specialists. Last not least, this discourse is very important in our educational program. The National Academy has started several years ago an initiative for the The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education. Expert panels discussed the evidence behind the assertion that educational programs that mutually integrate learning experiences in the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) lead to improved educational and career outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students. We at MDIBL strongly believe in this hypothesis and will test it in the future. I have mentioned our small exhibition at the institute. This exhibition at MDIBL to celebrate our 125 anniversary is in the tradition of the communication between art and science. Despite all the specialization and all the complex difficulties to understand art and science it is the actual discourse between artists and scientists which brings the branches together and let us look at the tree. Standing in front of our exhibits let your eyes and your thoughts wander, read the texts and hopefully experience that art and science are from the same tree. And it all started in the red brick villa in Berlin-Dahlem almost 50 years ago. Ad multos annos, dear Nena.



Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Hermann Haller, Art and Science – branches from the same tree?, in: Dialoge. Magdalena Bushart zum 65. Geburtstag, hrsg. Henrike Haug, Andreas Huth, Veronica Biermann, Oktober 2023, https://dialogemb.hypotheses.org/2823 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
haughenrike (2023, 30. September). Hermann Haller  |  Art and Science – branches from the same tree? Dialoge. Magdalena Bushart zum 65. Geburtstag. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/nlum

  1. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years. The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words, London, 1950. []
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