The relationship between art and science has been a mystery for decades. A sign of the changing pre World War times was the fact that people
were viewing the world differently; one relationship that many art
historians try to make is the connection between the revolutionary
development of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the internal theory
behind the Cubist movement. Arguments for a scientific Cubism compare
revolutionary art and visionary physics with the intersection of
Einstein’s relativity and Picasso’s Cubism. What was never stressed was
the complete absence of contact between the two fields at the time, and
the inherent differences in Cubist and scientific literature.
Art historians have long noted the many existing similarities between
modern science and Cubism. Similar to the dramatic upheaval in physics
in which the oldest traditions of western thought were overthrown, in an
equally dramatic fashion, Cubism eradicated the limitations of the
one-view perspective, and became the foundation in which fostered a new
way of artistic thought. Einstein and Picasso revoked any superficial
resemblances of the fractured perspectives of “four-dimensionality”. Yet
it’s parallel development remains so striking that to this day it
symbolizes a new way of seeing the world: one which abandons common
language and evidence of the senses, and works toward better
understanding the physical world. The artists and journalists of the
times did not embody specific details of the physical theories governing
Relativity Theory. The thought that such a radical art movement’s
disjointed images somehow incorporated the features of Einstein’s
equations, and possessed the ability to subliminally change the way
people see and think about space is entirely questionable.
In order to understand exactly what kinds of connections were attempted
to be made between revolutionary art and modern science, one should
investigate exactly how much the French Cubists could have been aware of
German advancements in science, and exactly where the terms “fourth
dimension” and “non-Euclidean geometry” fit into the literature of
Relativity Theory and Cubism.
The principle of the Special Theory of Relativity made its debut in an
article, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in Annalen de Physik
in 1905. Einstein began his article by beginning his discussion with the
two major obstacles that faced physics at the time. One included the
failure of many experiments in determining the absolute velocity of the
Earth. Experiments, dealing with the measurements of an “ether wind”,
attempted to measure the absolute velocity of an object strictly by a
series of internal measurements. Newtonian physics had long before
proved the impossibility of a mechanical experiment made within a system
ever being able to detect the uniform motion of a system. Another
problem at the end of the nineteenth century dealt with the anomalies
created in the Maxwell equations for electrodynamics when trying to
distinguish between frames of rest and motion. Einstein was able to
extend his principle of relativity to explain that the velocity of every
body must be measured relative to another body in order to have any
This completely eliminated the theory of stationary ether, leaving no
one frame of reference to be considered to be absolute, and thus no
frame of reference should be favored, as now as all systems moving
uniformly with respect to each other become equally valid. Einstein also
discussed simultaneous events, and how the simultaneity of separate
events is definitely relative, and depends upon the frame of reference
of the observer. A coincidence of events was therefore completely
dependent on the reference frame of the observer, and its relative
motion with respect to other frames of reference. As Einstein explained,
“…we cannot attach any absolute signification to the concept of
simultaneity, but that the two events which, viewed from a system of
coordinates, are simultaneous events when envisaged from a system which
is in motion relative to that system” (Henderson, 355).
Following Einstein, in September of 1908, Hermann Minkowski delivered a
lecture entitled “Space and Time” before the 80th Assembly of German
Natural Scientists and Physicians at Cologne. To a room full of
inquisitive physicists, he proclaimed radical views of space and time to
better suit Einstein’s relativistic velocities. He sought to describe a
four-dimensional continuum with three dimensions of space, and one of
time, to synthesize the points of view of all Einstein’s relativistic
observers. Minkowski’s space-time continuum was actually flat; it
contained so-called “world lines” which described the path of a body in
motion with four coordinates. His published results of the same year
claim his four-dimensional structure free of non-Euclidean curvature.
Dissimilar from the n-dimensional geometry, Minkowki’s continuum was
flat, and was accepted by those followers of Euclidean space as
described by Einstein three years previously.
In addition to the popularization of new perspectives in geometry,
misconceptions of Minkowski’s carefully chosen vocabulary became
overused and put into new contexts. By 1910, the “fourth dimension” had
almost become a household word. By now, the science fiction of H.G.
Wells, and the fantasies of Abbott’s Flatland started to lead the
meaning of the fourth dimension in a number of different directions. As a
direct result was the variety of ways in which the fourth dimension was
understood and then approached in visual terms by various artists (43).
When investigating each topics literature, there is no stronger evidence
for belief in a “relativistic Cubism” other than the Cubists’ use of
the terms “fourth dimension” and “non-Euclidean geometry”. While a
fourth dimension does appear through Minkowski, evidence of a curved
non-Euclidean geometry, its usual companion in a historical analysis of
Cubism, is not present. Neither names of Einstein and Minkowski, nor the
mention of relativity occurs anywhere in Cubist literature. Even if the
Cubist artists were aware of Relativity Theory, it is quite unlikely
that Einstein’s denial of absolute simultaneity would have been a source
of encouragement for Cubist painters to show several perspectives of an
object or to bring widely separated objects close together. In fact,
the impossibility of relating Cubist techniques to the Special Theory of
Relativity was pointed out by Paul Laporte by Einstein himself, who
wrote in a letter of 1946: “this new artistic ‘language’ has nothing in
common with the Theory of Relativity” (256).
An important point to emphasize is that Einstein and modern art did not
necessarily connect at the time; Einstein was completely unaware of the
revolutionary contemporary art that was happening around him. “…Consider
the times in which we live… The lack of outstanding figures is
particularly striking in the domain of art. Painting and music have
definitely degenerated and largely lost their popular appeal” (Shlain,
The misconception in dealing with Cubism and relativity has been to read
back to the Cubist literature of 1911 and 1912, while the development
in physics of a non-Euclidean space-time continuum was not completed
until 1915 or 1916. The absence of the term “fourth dimension” from
Relativity Theory until 1908, and the absence of non-Euclidean geometry
until almost 1916 make suggestions of a possible influence of Relativity
Theory on Cubism highly questionable. Furthermore, Einstein did not
emerge as a celebrity until 1919 when his theoretical predictions light
displacement by the gravitational mass of the sun were experimentally
proven by an English astronomer. Einstein’s name was again popularized
later in 1921 when receiving the Nobel Prize in physics, for research
different than mentioned here. It is therefore safe to say that
Einstein’s theories of Relativity could not have had any real impact to
French artists until the early to mid 1920’s. Relativity theory was no
more an impact on Analytic Cubism as it was on Synthetic Cubism, as both
movements were well established by that time.
Although there was a general acceptance of the term “simultaneity” among
the Cubists after 1912, for describing their juxtaposition of several
views of an object, the term “space-time” never appeared in Cubist
literature. It is believed that historians interpreting Cubism in
relation to relativity theory and Minkowski’s four-dimensional
space-time continuum simply adopted the terminology and applied it to
the element of time sensed in Cubist compositions.
It was the “fourth dimension” that art and science first made contact.
Guillaume Apollinaire led historians to investigate the relationship
between art and science:
“Today scientists no longer limit themselves to the three dimensions of
Euclid. The painters have been led quite naturally, one might say by
intuition, to preoccupy themselves with the new possibilities of special
measurements which, by the language of the modern studios, are
designated by the term, ‘The Fourth Dimension’” (Mitchell, 176).
Apollinaire gave the most extensive of French arguments for the seeking
of an artistic fourth dimension in his April 1912 lecture in Paris. He
spoke of this fourth dimension as a dimension, which “represents the
immensity of space eternalizing itself in all directions at any given
moment. It is space itself, the dimension of the infinite; the fourth
dimension endows objects with plasticity”. He stresses later in his
speech that this was to bear no historical interest, and it was of high
importance that this “utopian expression…be analyzed and explained, so
that nothing more than a historical interest may be attached to it…”
(Henderson 75). It was, from the beginning of Cubism, pertinent that
this movement not be linked with anything other than what it was. It
indicated a higher reality, and some sort of transcendental truth, which
was to be discovered by each artist individually.
Similar to the “fourth dimension”, the highly philosophical ideas of
non-Euclidean geometry filtered into Cubism, as well as influencing
their painting technique and use of space. The theories of Pointcare, a
major advocate of non-Euclidean geometry at the time, are included in Du
Cubisme. One specific passage from this Cubist doctorine, mentions that
…[We] tirelessly study pictorial form and the space which it engenders.
This space we have negligently confused with pure visual space or with
Euclidean space. Euclid, in one of his postulates, posits the
indeformability of figures in movement, so we need not insist upon that.
If we wished to tie the painters’ space to a particular geometry, we
should have to refer it to the non-Euclidean scholars… (93).
When first read, it almost seems like Cubists painters are advocating
the “indeformability of figures in movement”; however, in the following
statement, “we need not insist upon that” refers not to this idea among
the Cubists, but to the preceding sentence about the pictorial space
becoming confused with Euclidean space. This means that there needed to
be a deeper, philosophical view of Cubist works; and at the time, most
art critics trying to interpret the works were trying analogize these
ideas with Euclidean space with implications to Einstein’s relativity
theory. The very essence of Cubism allowed the artist to deform his
figures and adjust their proportions; later statements in Du Cubisme
refer to the form in a Cubist painting as being “…tempered or augmented
by contact with another form, it is destroyed or it flowers, it is
multiplied or it disappears”. (94).
Apollinaire uses this term in a metaphorical rather than in a
mathematical sense. When investigating Cubist writings, terms like
simultaneity and the fourth dimension, were often confused with the
terms of modern science, and Minkowski’s space-time continuum. Although
the term “fourth dimension” may have been used metaphorically, its
significance in Cubism does not lead to a scientific approach of nature.
The appearance of the term, however, is significant. Regardless how
imperfectly an art historian understood a Cubist artwork, the emphasis
should have been on the concept of non-Euclidean reality.
The fourth dimension was mainly some temporal means that enabled the
artist to gain further knowledge of the subject. It was a physical and
mental movement that allowed the artist to form a more concrete idea of
an objects total dimensionality. In the first two decades of the
twentieth century, the idea that space might possess a higher, unseen
fourth dimension became a dominant intellectual influence; especially in
Cubism was born into an era full of questioning and a seeking of the
essence of reality. The rise of new geometries, and the depth of their
popularity, made the possibility of a fourth dimension of space beyond
immediate perception comprehendible. The intimate relationship of Cubism
and the new geometries was complex; it involved visual as well as
philosophical aspects of the fourth dimension as well as non-Euclidean
geometry—as well as they were understood in the early 1900s.
Logical explanations of Cubism often involve the idea of simultaneity of
point of view to account for the “impossible” combination of several
profiles and sections of a single face or figure in the same picture.
For example, the many perspectives viewed in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon. It’s first shocking appearance offered a fresh solution to a
unification attempted earlier by Cezanne. In some interpretations, a
cubist head, which in one form fuses temporal and spatial factors, might
indeed serve as a Cubist illustration of simultaneity. Its new and
modern forms masked the older, dualistic view of reality. Still present
is the physical world, formed by the angular background; united with it
is the Cubist simultaneity of empty space turned into a positive form.
A variety of explanations and analogies have been applied to the
understanding of Cubism. Picasso, for example, seemed amused by them,
and other times the emphasis on mathematics somewhat frustrated him, as
when he said in 1923, that “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry,
psycho-analysis, music and whatnot, have been related to Cubism, to give
it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to
say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories”
Picasso’s visionary insight, before Minkowski’s formulation of space
bending time, was the development of an art form that eliminated time.
The sequential frozen moment common to all previous art is gone;
instead, Cubism is an art that had neither implicit nor explicit
sequential time. Before the revolutionary movement of Cubism, all art in
Western culture was a depiction of a specific moment, or a
representation of a timeless ideal. In either case, the element of time
was implicit in the artwork. Picasso and Braque eliminated both
transient and eternal time. In a Cubist painting, time does not exist.
The viewer cannot imagine any next moment in a Cubist painting because
there is no next moment. Furthermore, with the destruction of a single
perspective, Cubism eliminated depth. The genius of Cubism is that it
allows the viewer to escape from this “system of reference” of our
three-dimensional spatial and one dimensional time dependent world.
Through Cubist literature, and with comparison to the writings of Albert
Einstein, one of the most unprecedented modern day physicists, it can
be easily seen how terminology can change hands rather quickly. What was
once referring to a plane continuum to describe relativistic motion was
put into use to explain the fragmentation of the figures in Analytic
Cubism. Although many stones were left unturned, the comparisons are
endless. Theoretical physics to explain a movement in modern art remains
questionable; buried deep in the philosophy of each discipline are
separate attempts to understand the world in a new light.
Barr, Alfred J. Picasso: 50 Years of his Art. New York: The Museum of
Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. Berkely: University of
Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean
Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1983.
Jurkevich, Gayana. In Persuit of the Natural Sign. Azorin and the
Poetics of Ekphrasis.
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. 1999.
Mitchell, Timothy. “Bergson, Le Bon, and Hermetic Cubism.” Journal of
Art Criticism. 36 (1977): 175-183.
Panek, Richard. “A Universe Apart?” The New York Times. 14 February
Shlain, Leonard. Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and
Light. New York:
William Morrow Publishing. 1991.
Vargish, Thomas and Delo E. Mook. Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory,
Narrative. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1999.