But is it art?

I’ve often said that Dorothy Hodgkin* approached her scientific work with the soul of an artist. She saw beauty both in the natural forms she studied and in the geometric shapes that emerged from her painstaking analysis of X-ray reflections. Her goal was to produce a finished structure that was as perfect as it could be. While she was well aware that the structure of insulin, for example, was crucial to its role in controlling blood glucose, she left it to others to make those functional connections.

Thanks to an invitation from the wonderful crew who run the Trowelblazers website and blog (the result is posted today), I have recently spent some time thinking about a painting that Dorothy made as a teenager. It is a faithful reproduction of a mosaic pavement from a 6th century Byzantine church in Jerash, excavated by a team led by her father John Winter Crowfoot in 1928. It is beautiful, its rigid geometry softened by its exquisite decoration and the subtlety of the earth colours of which it is composed.

1938'5999'5004'18~05 close up
Detail of Dorothy Hodgkin’s painting of a mosaic floor from Jerash (© Yale University Art Gallery, with thanks to Lisa Brody)

The 19th century critic John Ruskin believed that learning to draw and colour was a means to the end of seeing the world as it truly was. ‘Not only is there but one way of doing things rightly,’ he wrote, ‘but there is only one way of seeing them, and that is, seeing the whole of them.’

Through making her painting, Dorothy saw how the Byzantine artists had solved geometrical problems to make a pattern that was pleasing to the eye. She also saw that faithfully reproducing the tesserae, or tiles, as individual dots of paint, was the only way to recreate the whole image. And having chosen her method, she executed it with great skill and extraordinary patience.

But is it a work of art? I think this is a matter for debate. As Dorothy ruefully acknowledged in an interview later in life, today there would be no need to make such a painting, because the floor could be even more faithfully reproduced using high-resolution digital photography. Would such a photograph, however painstakingly lit, focused and printed, be a work of art?

I think I will sit on the fence and simply observe that both the artist and the scientist need, as Ruskin urged, to learn to look, and to see the whole while placing the elements that compose it. Dorothy was excited as a schoolgirl that the technique of X-ray crystallography would allow her to ‘see’ atoms. But her great skill was in being able to ‘see’ molecules as the atoms – gradually, painstakingly – swam into focus in her electron density maps.

*Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life is reissued today as an ebook and paperback by Bloomsbury Reader!

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