Are the histories of technology and art one and the same? In truth, they overlap more than you might think.
Take three of the most famous works of art ever to imprint themselves on the popular imagination: The Scream by Edvard Munch, American Gothic by Grant Wood, and The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. At first glance these revered masterpieces may seem at furthest possible remove from the concerns of scientific discovery.
Look closer and each is in fact hardwired with a previously overlooked detail that, once spotted, transforms these iconic images into profound meditations on the technological advances of the generations that conceived them.
In my new book A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works, I investigate how The Scream, The Kiss, and American Gothic—arguably the most famous works of art ever to issue from the countries in which they were created—pulse with intense anxieties about electricity, hematology, and astronomy. The broader aim of my new study is to invite readers to see afresh works of art that are so familiar, we no longer really look at them.
Munch’s portrait of a shrieking figure has become an archetype of existential angst. More than a century after it was painted, its elastic countenance still hypnotizes, like a bare bulb swaying above cultural consciousness.
In 1893, the year that the Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch created The Scream—his famous depiction of an androgynous figure eternally shrieking along an elevated road under an ominous sky—electricity was in the air. This was the year that the celebrated Serbian-American engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla marveled audiences with his prediction that “power” could one day be conducted, like an invisible surge through nature, “to any distance without the use of wires.” “I do firmly believe,” Tesla proclaimed, “that it is practical to disturb, by means of powerful machines, the electrostatic conditions of the earth.”
While many contemporaries were in awe of such potential, others were disturbed by the prospect of disturbing the earth’s delicate balance. Munch was among them. Prone to bouts of melancholy, he was anxious about how the unchecked acceleration of science and technology might impact on the fabric of nature. In his private journals, the artist confessed to being haunted by a mysterious shape whom “everyone feared”—a shadowy, apocalyptic presence:
the wires—and held
the machinery in
Having briefly pursued engineering at a technical college, Munch was acutely attuned to how technology is wired and wires the world. He took a keen interest in the scientific advances of the day, and one can only imagine how he reacted to the spectacle at the Exposition Universelle (which sprawled across Paris when he was living there in 1889) of the elaborate exhibit devoted to celebrating the manifold inventions of the American innovator Thomas Edison.
In addition to showcasing Edison’s vast array of patented products (nearly 500 of them), the exhibit featured an enormous and dazzling curiosity that rose upon a pedestal in the pavilion, a breathtaking spectacle consisting of 20,000 incandescent lamps arranged into the luminous shape of a single gigantic light bulb. Like a bulging glass skull whose bulbous cranium tapers to an elongated slender jaw, the apotheosized lamp rose above the pavilion’s visitors as if it heralded a new idolatry—the crystalline countenance of a futuristic god.
As a venerated shape, the Edison bulb had gradually emerged in cultural consciousness as the very emblem of the electric age. In time, its archetypal form would serve as universal shorthand for the very idea of an idea, as cartoon light bulbs popped up above caricatures of anyone thinking. In the meantime, the shape, as a symbol, appears to have seeped deep into the imagination of Munch, whose own invention of an iconic form a few years later (the yowling eye-hook head that glows at the center of The Scream) would echo with uncanny precision the proportions of Edison’s exalted lamp.
It has long been entertained by art historians that another exhibit at the Paris Exposition, a Peruvian mummy petrified into an aghast expression, its hands raised in horror to either side of its open-mouthed skull, likely influenced the facial expression around which Munch’s painting rotates (as indeed that same mummy had influenced the imaginations of Munch’s contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin). Given Munch’s anxieties about modern culture, it is easy to see how the newly patented symbol of science, the light bulb, may have merged in the artist’s mind with the mien of the evocative mummy, an unsettling relic of a civilization long since extinguished.
Placed side-by-side, Munch’s screaming skull and Edison’s monstrous lamp create an unexpected aesthetic logic of technology’s threatening thrust. Suddenly, one senses, pulsing through Munch’s own famous description of the inception of The Scream, another kind of energy:
I was walking along the road with two friends—the sun was setting—suddenly the sky turned blood red—I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
Under an end-of-days sky whose fierce complexion may have been tinged by the memory of smoke drifting from the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa in Indonesia, Munch detected an excruciating wireless surge that, to use Tesla’s language, composed the same year, “disturb[ed] … the electrostatic conditions of the earth.” When seen as a symbol of abject dread at the direction in which technology was shoving society, The Scream transcends the melodramatic articulation of one man’s angst and is elevated into something incandescently universal. Munch’s elastic skull, kindled by the ghost of electricity that howls in the bones of its face, is more than merely an emblem of an age. It is plugged into the very generator of the soul.
The most famous painting ever to emerge from America, Wood’s heartland vision extends well beyond the humble horizons that appear to hem it in, to the undiscovered cosmos beyond.
Every great work of art has a twist. Grant Wood’s cryptic double portrait American Gothic, frequently described as the most famous work of art in the United States, has two. Helixing in sync, the pair of seemingly unrelated eye-hooks, once revealed, corkscrew the eye into a consideration of distant cultural realms, far removed from the surface contexts of heartland hayforks and homespun aprons that dominate the painting’s foreground.
Rivers of ink have been spilt by art historians endeavoring to detect and decrypt hidden meanings in a work that has held America transfixed ever since a panel of judges at the Art Institute of Chicago awarded it a $300 prize in 1930. Much of that effort has been spent scrutinizing the architecture of the wooden farmhouse that rises behind the pair who crowd the front of the work with blank, inscrutable expressions. According to local legend, the structure’s “pretentious” Rural Gothic style caught Wood’s attention on a drive through Wapello County in his native Iowa shortly before the artist began work on his iconic painting.
Every embellishment in Wood’s translation of the house’s design into the fictional dwelling we see depicted in his work has been interrogated by critics—from the exaggeration of the roof’s incline to Wood’s fabrication of a red barn beside the house. Focus, too, has been drawn by those obsessed with comprehending the work’s mysterious allure to the presumed relationship between the painting’s central figures and whether Wood’s intention is to celebrate or lampoon the Midwestern values they appear to embody.
Modelled after the artist’s sister Nan and his dentist, Byron McKeeby, the prim duo were meticulously costumed for their roles as “tintypes,” or so Wood would later characterize them, “from [his] old family album,” before being inserted artificially against the backdrop of the so-called Dibble House (named after its first occupant, Charles Dibble, who lived there after its construction in 1881).
While some attention has been paid to the possible meaning of the fallen tress of hair that hangs loosely from Nan’s prudish pinned-back coiffure (interpreted by some as a humanizing feature that softens an otherwise severe portrayal), what has gone utterly unnoticed is how that detail converses with another neglected element: the twisted stem of the weathervane that is bolted to the Dibble House roof at the very top of the painting.
It is this rod that ineluctably leads our eye from the pointed apex of the farmhouse to the universe beyond the painting. Spinning against the weathervane’s slender tendrilled staff is a small gleaming blue sphere (or “globe,” to use the precise language of such meteorological instruments). Wood’s curious cropping of the scene—a consequence of his elongation of the house’s gable—has disconnected the globe from what we cannot see above it: the conventional ornament (probably a rooster) that would have capped off the weathervane.
Severed from its utilitarian function as part of the weathervane’s rotating apparatus, the cerulean globe is suddenly transformed into a symbol of its own, like a freshly discovered planet hoisted in the heavens, as if forever rising and falling in the sky along its vertical axis. A few short months before Wood began work on American Gothic, the world was gripped by reports of a new planet swimming in our solar system, one that an 11-year-old girl in Oxford, England, proposed should be christened “Pluto”—the Roman name for the pitchfork-wielding Greek god of the underworld, Hades.
News of the exciting cosmic discovery and its fresh mythological identity was rapidly orbiting the world, igniting global interest in astronomy at precisely the instant that Wood began conceiving his work. “SEE ANOTHER WORLD IN THE SKY” exclaimed the headline of The Chicago Tribune, as if speaking directly to Wood’s imagination.
Sliding down the weathervane’s truncated axle into the heart of the painting, the observer’s eye eventually finds itself skewered by the leftmost prong of the farmer’s intimidating trident at the dead-center of the work, a visual trajectory that invisibly links the small blue planet and the enigmatic figure who dominates the painting.
Suddenly, we are trapped in the gloom of a modern re-imagining of the classical underworld, summoned before its irascible ruler, Pluto, who glares at us accusingly as he grips his weapon. And who is this standing beside him, gazing vacantly into the distance, as if admonished to remain silent? The brooch pinned demurely to her chest makes it impossible to mistake her true identity: Proserpina, the goddess of grain and agriculture whom Pluto has abducted and raped.
Blurring the boundaries between art and life, Wood had given a brooch adorned with a portrait of Persephone (the name of Proserpina’s Greek precursor) as a gift to his mother, Hattie, who in turn loaned it to Nan for her American Gothic wardrobe. Persephone’s cameo appearance in Wood’s painting makes implicit the violent relationship between the work’s main characters.
Where many observers of the painting have wondered whether the two are intended to be father and daughter, the preponderance of subtle clues points in a different direction: He is her captor. In light of their true identities, it is difficult not to interpret the fallen wisp of hair as evidence of Persephone’s recent ravishing by Hades: the final twist in the tale.
Klimt’s famous double portrait is more than a glitzy study of the superficies of intimacy. It is a work that gets under the skin and infiltrates the blood.
If you want to understand what makes The Kiss, Gustav Klimt’s famous double portrait of embracing lovers, so widely and wildly adored, you will need to get the measure of its blood. To appreciate the painting’s pulsing brilliance, we must first place it, and the moment it was conceived in 1907, within a wider frame of intellectual and personal reference.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1894, the Austrian symbolist had been hired to decorate the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. Though Klimt’s acceptance of that commission may seem, in retrospect, at odds with the anti-academic temperament of the art movement that he would soon help found (the Vienna Secession), the artist nevertheless agreed to design three large panels devoted to a range of scholarly disciplines: Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence.
When Klimt, in 1900, unveiled the first installment of these works, an image allegorizing Philosophy that featured a cosmic cascade of despairing figures forever suspended in forlornness, the image was sharply criticized for its depressing portrayal of intellectual thought. Nor was the ensuing submission in 1901 of a panel illustrating the spirit of Medicine any more enthusiastically received. Its ominous torrent of skeletons and sedated figures, caught in a waterfall of woe that calls to mind the plummet of souls in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, was lambasted for its failure to convey any promise of hope or healing.
It would be easy to surmise that Klimt’s opulently obtuse panels betrayed an indifference to their subjects. Yet Klimt was, in fact, profoundly interested in the body. He merely doubted medical science’s capacity to cure it. In Klimt’s mind, the body is controlled by destiny—its fate subject to the ebb and flow of invisible forces.
A black ink-and-brush work on paper that Klimt created around this time, entitled Fish Blood, portrays a stream of bodies carried along in a supernatural current of surging mystical blood. As a realm of intellectual interest in its own right, blood was becoming a subject of intense research and exciting biological discovery coincidentally at the very same institution where Klimt had been commissioned to create his controversial ceiling panels.
At the forefront of that research at the University of Vienna was Karl Landsteiner, a leading immunologist who, in 1900 (just as Klimt was working on his Medicine panel), was keen to determine why blood transfusions were successful in some patients but failed in others.
Landsteiner’s pioneering investigation led to the discovery, in 1901, of human blood types and to the realization that if blood is transferred between individuals who share the same type, the procedure can succeed. The air in Vienna was abuzz with talk of platelets and plasma, red blood cells and white, as the opposing forces of destiny and science were suddenly beginning to cohere.
1907, the same year that witnessed the first successful blood transfusion based on Landsteiner’s groundbreaking discoveries, also saw a resilient Klimt endeavour to rebound reputationally from the debacle of the Great Hall paintings, a contretemps that had motivated nearly 90 faculty members to protest and resulted in the offer to Klimt of a professorship being rescinded.
Labelled a “pornographer” by critics who believed his panels had transgressed social mores, Klimt had to choose his next move carefully. He answered by creating a new work to which even his most fervent detractors could hardly object—a life-affirming embrace of pure passion: The Kiss.
Set against a gloam of gold leaf that levitates their clinch into the spiritual splendor of a medieval icon, the interlocking couple in Klimt’s work are forever frozen in a flex of poignant passion. The large square painting has been admired for its alluring collision of contrasting patterns that adorn the couple’s robes, as if signifying the unity of the old (symbolized by the homespun spin of ancient spirals) and the new (symbolized by the austerity of Art Nouveau-esque rectangles). But it may be less what shapes shroud these refulgent figures that triggers our fascination and affection than what pulsates beneath their skin.
Look closely at the woman’s resplendent slender frock, and the stylized pattern is constellated with a vertical alignment of ovate slides and round Petri-dish-like lenses. Within each of these ellipsoidal eye-hook slides, vibrant platelets and agglutinating blood cells judder and throb, as if a microscopic glimpse into her cellular constitution has been obtained.
Having only recently refrained from celebrating the progressive thrust of science, Klimt now appears determined to crystallize, into an eternal archetype of what it means to be, the paradoxical states (flesh and spirit) of the universe’s life force; to capture the impossible—a luminous biopsy of never-ending love.
Excerpted from A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works, by Kelly Grovier. Text © 2019 Kelly Grovier. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.