Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Art of Mathematics

When I was in 5th grade, around 1954-55, I had a math teacher who was probably brilliant but what did I know at the age of 10.  In retrospect, however, I believe he was somehow involved with early computers.  Anyway, he was teaching us about “Random Number Tables”.  I have always had a very linear mind and I thought at the time how ridiculous, why would you want a random number table.  I naively asked, “how do you set up a random number table?”.  I am sure you have guessed his answer, “Randomly”!  It only took me about 65 years to understand.  Today, for almost anything I want to do, log into a financial website or sync my remote keyboard with my monitor, they send me a 6-digit number which is, of course, randomly picked by a computer.  I actually marvel at all the combinations and possibilities.

This has had me thinking about mathematics and art. They say that art works on emotion and imagination to create a reaction in the viewer or listener.  Some people find emotional reactions in the perfection of mathematics.  Certainly, line and proportion are part of both visual arts and mathematics.

I am sure that one of my old schoolbooks had the Vitruvian Man created around 1487 by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to represent what he believed were the ideal human proportions. The drawing was accompanied by Leonardos’ notes based on the calculations of Vitruvius, the 1st century BC Roman architect and engineer.

When I started to delve further into the subject there was kind of a “dah” moment when I related the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) to my geometry class. His early work was quite traditional painting landscapes and still-lives and, for my taste, his flowers were beautiful. Without going into his philosophy too deeply, when he came to believe that art surpassed the mundane and wished to find a higher level, he became a leader in modern abstract art.  If you care to review a geometry lesson based on the artist click here 

Here is an iconic Mondrian Image, “Broadway Booggie Woogie” painted in 1942.  It can be found in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I cannot comprehend the scientific definition of a fractal, but I did find a relatively simple definition: fractals exhibit similar patterns at increasingly small scales. Can the same shape, repeated over and over again at smaller scale be turned into an image to which one can form an emotional attachment?  Research done by a physicist, Richard Taylor at the University of Oregon and others claim that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are fractals.  These complex geometric shapes have been studied by mathematicians since only in the 1970’s.  Jackson Pollock died in 1956!  Here is a Fractal Canvas Print by Jason Padgett and a Jackson Pollock Drip Painting called “Lavender Mist # 1” from 1950 and now in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

The lengths that some will go to, to explain a painting shows why I have stayed away from math all my life and centered on the arts!

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