Excerpt from "Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light" by Leonard Shlain
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, while scientists fidgeted uneasily at their inability to explain puzzling features of space, time, and light, Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists alike incorporated into their art eccentric images that challenged long-held notions about these same three elements. The twentieth century opened with Einstein's brilliant 1905 solution to one of physics' unsolved problems and, simultaneously, introduced three artists who would thrust modern art through a transformative barrier.
Early in their respective careers, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp assaulted the art world with works that both announced and represented three radical movements: Fauvism, Cubism, and futurism. (Although Duchamp, a Frenchman, was not involved in the founding of Italian futurism, his 1910 Nude Descending a Staircase is probably the most universally recognized image of this movement.) Fauvist painters were singing the praises of light in the form of color just as Einstein was enthroning light as the quintessence of the universe. Cubism presented a new way to visualize space, which was the first creative alternative to Euclid's views in more than twenty-two hundred years. Einstein also proposed an alternative concept of space. Futurism declared war on the traditional modes to represent time. By dilating the present into the past and the future, futurist painters captured an idea that paralleled Einstein's lightspeed. It was an extraordinary coincidence that these three different art movements, each focusing on a separate element of the special theory of relativity, erupted synchronistically with Einstein's radical publication. In a strange way, it is as if the art world with forethought decided to fracture the trinity of space, time, and light to better understand each element in isolation. Within a few years clustered around 1905, an explosion of the eye accompanied a hyperinflation of the mind.