‘Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein’ at BAMPFA is a scholarly, eye-catching show

Herbert Matter, East Indian Dancer, Pravina, 1937. Stanford University Libraries. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Photo: © Stanford University Libraries

The relationship between art and science in the first half of the 20th century is fascinatingly explored in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s new exhibition about the vital, but little known, Dimensionism art movement.

The Dimensionist Manifesto, a 1936 proclamation authored by Hungarian poet Charles Sirató, sought to expand the ‘dimensionality’ of modern art as a result of novel and exciting discoveries in the fields of physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and microbiology. The manifesto urged artists to respond with their works to new physical realities and scientific concepts, such as the theory of relativity, higher dimensional mathematics, four-dimensional space and quantum theory. Many prominent artists, some of whom had already become intrigued with science, endorsed the manifesto, including Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.

Meticulously curated by Vanja V. Malloy of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, this scholarly, yet eye-catching, show contains almost 70 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs from American and European private and museum collections, along with poetry and other ephemera associated with the Dimensionist movement.

The exhibition examines how early Cubists, Surrealists, Futurists and abstract artists fused scientific ideas into their works, as well as how science helped to advance their thinking into new realms of creativity. Art by Calder, Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Barbara Hepworth, Wassily Kandinsky, Helen Lundeberg, Man Ray, André Masson, Roberto Matta, Miró, Moholy-Nagy, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Picasso, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy and Dorothea Tanning is on display, and the exhibit explains how social and scientific upheavals shaped their approach.


Pablo Picasso, Young Girl in an Armchair, 1917. Gouache and black ink over graphite on wove paper. 12 5/8 × 8 1/4 inches (32.1 × 21 cm). Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Purchase, Museum Art Fund (1962.9). © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Einstein’s 1915 Theory of General Relativity suggested a new type of curved space. The total eclipse of 1919 confirmed his theory and illustrated how light could ‘bend’ around the sun. One of the Dimensionist group members’ early proponents was the artist Moholy-Nagy (see his Kinetic Sculpture Moving, 1930-36), who corresponded with Einstein. Other artists, like Ben Nicholson (see his abstract composition, 1939) were familiar with Einstein’s theories. Edited by Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin, the 1937 book Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art quoted the work of Arthur Eddington, an astrophysicist who publicized Einstein’s theory to a general audience.

Calder (see his Little Blue Planet, 1934), who signed the Dimensionist Manifesto, was a trained engineer, had in-depth knowledge of modern physics and was able to employ his expertise to create kinetic sculpture. Moore recognized how the telescope and the microscope influenced his creation of curvilinear shapes (see his wonderful String Figure, designed in 1938 and cast in 1960). He knew the x-ray crystallographer J.D. Bernal and was especially inspired by his images. Miró (see his Untitled, 1937 and Composition, 1937) did not actually sign the manifesto, but was supportive of its ideas and saw hope in the cosmos.

Later, the development of quantum theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle brought forth a new view of science that was attractive to a different set of artists. Tanning’s surrealist painting, Demi et Midi, 1956-57, which has detailed hidden faces and body parts amid bursts of swirling colors, was painted directly on canvas and may extend beyond materiality, as suggested in the manifesto. Similarly, Picasso’s cubist art was received by art critics in the 1930s with a view towards quantum theory, because of its incompleteness and sense of the unknown (see his small yet powerful Young Girl in an Armchair, 1917).

Some of us may think that art and science are polar opposites. But a viewing of the enlightening Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein convincingly makes the case that scientific concepts advanced bold new forms of creative expression, and still do so today.

Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein is on view until March 3, 2019, at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford Street in Berkeley. For information visit BAMPFA online.