Splitting the Apple

This year marks the anniversary of two monumental human triumphs: the discovery of linear perspective and the Theory of Relativity. Six hundred years ago (ca 1415) Filippo Brunelleschi used geometry, mirrors and a great deal of ingenuity to create a process that would add a realistic three-dimensional depth to painting. His method centered on the observation that parallel lines appear to converge to a single point at the horizon. By applying this principle, he was able to create an easy to implement scheme that would allow him and future artists to produce highly realistic images on a flat surface. For 500 years this method and its derivatives dominated Western art. Post-impressionist Paul Cézanne planted the seed for the next wave of visual perspective, cubism, which Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso created in 1907. This new style radically departed from Brunelleschi's by showing parts of an object from different perspectives to give the viewer the impression that they are seeing the object from multiple vantage points simultaneously.

1907 was also an important time in physics thanks to Albert Einstein's work on his Theory of Relativity (which he presented 100 years ago). This was the year that Einstein had "the happiest thought of [his] life." His thought experiment was based on a falling man dropping a ball. He concluded that the man would be unable to observe gravity's impact on the ball. This led him to generalize a 300 year old observation (that is, that locally all objects, regardless of size, fall at the same rate due to gravity) stating that we "assume the complete physical equivalence of a gravitational field and a corresponding acceleration of the reference system." This conclusion and his use of Bernard Riemann's "strange" new notion of geometry were two of the fundamental insights in his Theory of Relativity that was presented in 1915 to the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

As an artist with years of mathematical training, I am continuously looking for inspiration and find much in Cézanne's and Einstein's work. Cézanne's work, particularly his posthumous exhibition at the Salon d'Automne in 1907, also had a major impact on Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Picasso was quoted as saying "My one and only master . . . Cézanne was like the father of us all." Cézanne had a novel approach to the still life, which helped elevate the genre from its traditionally inferior state to a central cubist style. He once stated, "I will astonish Paris with an apple," and it is that apple and Newton's falling apple which have inspired me to bring together the two seemingly disparate ideas behind these apples for a different interpretation on the "still" life.

Cézanne and the Making of a Still Life by Nelson Saiers. Screen print on painted wood.

A still life by its very name has no motion, so is it possible for one to paradoxically create a still life by adding accelerated motion to a painting? By applying Einstein's observation that a falling person cannot detect gravity's impact on a falling object next to him (or its corollary that all objects fall at the same rate), I am challenging viewers to explore stillness in motion. If we paint an object on the roof of an elevator carriage, obviously this would not be a still life because the object would be in the process of falling to the floor. However, if the elevator cable is cut, to an observer inside the carriage, the scene would be frozen in motion. This yields a new mechanism for exploring many forms of art. Imagine Jackson Pollock's drip paintings within a "falling" carriage--they're impossible, as the paint would descend at the same rate as the canvas and brush.

Pollock Stymied No. 5 by Nelson Saiers. Acrylic on wood.

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2"? Impossible, as "gravity" is required to walk down stairs. Salvador Dalí's famous "soft" clocks, in "The Persistence of Memory", would no longer bend or fall off their surreal branches.

This idea and the use of abnormal geometric shapes and perspective are the essential elements of a series of artwork I've created focused on the still life. They pay homage to particular artists--from their styles to their lives. For example, Cézanne's extremely slow process and awkward use of his models (demanding they sit like apples while he painted) are referenced in my piece "Cézanne and the Making of a Still Life".

Brunelleschi's significant contribution to art was made possible by his understanding of the math and physics of his day. Our understanding of both has transformed over the past 600 years, so when we look for art's next innovation, math and physics can be a tool for finding new ways to explore concepts of beauty and the human condition.

Now that we've split the atom, perhaps it's time to split the apple.