Science and art, art and science

When in 1827 Humboldt allowed women to attend his popular physical science lecture-series given at the Berlin Singakademie, it is apparent that the sheer number of women who turned out for these events were both a surprise and a source of bemusement. Fanny Hensel wrote to Karl Klingemann that ‘Gentlemen may laugh as much as they like, but it is delightful that we too have the opportunity given us of listening to clever men.’ It is clear from this that even in the face of a continuing contempt for the idea of higher education for women, there was a hunger for knowledge that overrode social strictures.

It was no accident that the Berlin Singakademie was chosen as the venue for Humboldt’s lectures. The hall was home to the choir founded by the visionary Carl Friedrich Fasch, who saw no reason to exclude anyone from his choir, regardless of class, religion, sex or musical experience. Women members learned to compose; amateurs learned high-level musicianship. It was remarkably inclusive for its time.

Of course, there were already many women working in the sciences, and had been since Hypatia and Hildegard of Bingen. And even more can we see the tendrils of science reaching into women’s art. The relationship between art and science has always been a fusion of fascination and scorn, recognition and bemusement, magnetism and repulsion, in both directions. Poetry has been a language of scientists; science has been a subject for poets. It is not only an understanding of the beauty of science to which sometimes only the beauty of art can do justice, it is also an understanding that through culturally acceptable arts for women, there can be a broadening of knowledge. Anne Bradstreet’s humorous poem about an argument between the four elements hides a serious scientific debate:

The Fire, Air, Earth and water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,
Who was of greatest use and might'est force;
In placide Terms they thought now to discourse,
That in due order each her turn should speak;
But enmity this amity did break
All would be chief, and all scorn'd to be under
Whence issu'd winds & rains, lightning & thunder
The quaking earth did groan, the Sky lookt black
The Fire, the forced Air, in sunder crack;
The sea did threat the heav'ns, the heavn's the earth,
All looked like a Chaos or new birth:
Fire broyled Earth, & scorched Earth it choaked
Both by their darings, water so provoked
That roaring in it came, and with its source
Soon made the Combatants abate their force
The rumbling hissing, puffing was so great
The worlds confusion, it did seem to threat
Till gentle Air, Contention so abated
That betwixt hot and cold, she arbitrated
The others difference, being less did cease
All storms now laid, and they in perfect peace
That Fire should first begin, the rest consent,
The noblest and most active Element.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Three centuries later, Sofia Gubaidulina’s sublime The Canticle of the Sun visited the same theme, setting St Francis of Assisi’s hymn of praise. The second section is Glorification of the Creator, the Maker of the four elements: air, water, fire and earth: Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento…’ (Praise to you, my Lord, through brother wind…)

 Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet

 Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina