Art and the Theory of Relativity: new exhibit examines influence of science on modern art

  • They’re not record players: Vanja Malloy, curator of the exhibit “Dimensionism” at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, speaks about “Rotoreliefs” (optical discs), by Marcel Duchamp. The paper discs, printed on each side in offset color lithography, are set on rotating turntables for full effect. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Photos that are part if the exhibit “Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein” at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. At far left is "Milk Drop Coronet," 1935, by Harold Edgerton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Malloy discusses Helen Lundeberg’s “Self-Portrait,” 1944, oil on canvas, in the exhibit “Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Les Cosmogones,” a 1944 oil on canvas painting by Wolfgang Paalen that was inspired in part by quantum mechanics. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vanja Malloy, left, curator of the new “Dimensionism” exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, talks about Isamu Noguchi's “Time Lock” sculpture of Languedoc marble from 1944-45.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A display at “Dimensionism.” In the foreground is Alexander Archipenko's “Torso in Space,” 1936, bronze on wood base; overhead is Isamu Noguchi's “Lunar Infant,” 1944, magnesite, wood, and electric components. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Composition,” 1937, oil on composition board, by Joan Miró. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Bucky,” 1943, wood and  wire by Isamu Noguchi. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Genesis,” 1942, oil on canvas by Roberto Matta. Image from National Gallery of Art/courtesy Mead Art Museum

  • At top: “E = MC2,” 1944, papier-mâché by Isamu Noguchi. Image by Kevin Noble/courtesy Mead Art Museum

  • “East Indian Dancer, Pravina,” 1937, photo by Herbert Matter. Image from Stanford Universities Libraries/courtesy Mead Art Museum

  • “Microcosm and Macro-cosm,” 1937, oil on masonite by Helen Lundeberg. Image from Los Angeles County Museum of Art/courtesy Mead Art Museum

Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2019 3:50:21 PM

The early years of the 20th century witnessed a wave of new forms of artistic expression that all seemed to end in “ism,” such as Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism and the all-encompassing Modernism. All were basically founded on the premise that art needed to reflect the dramatic changes the new century ushered in, from technology to psychology, and the ways those changes altered everyday life.

But there was another “ism” in the art world from that time that’s not well known today: Dimensionism. 

It’s a movement that dates to the 1930s, when a group of mostly European artists in Paris created a “manifesto” — the Manifeste Dimensioniste, in French — in which artists committed to produce work that would engage with new scientific advances and theories, from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the exploration of quantum mechanics.

At the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, a new exhibition sheds light on this movement, and the artists — including a number of Americans — who became part of it, with a colorful mix of paintings, sculpture, three-dimensional models, photographs and more.

From astronomy to non-Euclidean geometry to engineering, these pieces reflected the artists’ efforts to give form to ideas and advances that excited the public at the time in magazines such as Scientific American (examples of some of these period publications are part of the exhibit).

And the curator of “Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein,” Vanja Malloy — she is the Mead’s curator of American art — says artists were also “inspired by those things beyond what they could see with their eyes,” whether tiny organisms only visible under a microscope or the movement of celestial bodies in space

Charles Sirató, a Hungarian poet who wrote the Dimensionist Manifesto in 1936, put it like this: “All the old limits and boundaries of the arts disappear … [because] this new ideology has elicited a veritable earthquake and subsequent landslide in the conventional artistic system…. We must accept — contrary to the classical conception — that Space and Time are no longer separate categories.”

Alexander Calder, an American sculptor of the early to mid 1900s, evoked some of these ideas with his innovative mobiles, such as “Study for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail” from 1937-38, a painted sheet-iron and wire structure that hangs in one part of the Mead exhibit and moves in the slightest of air currents. Exhibit notes say its “floating appearance suggests its existence outside the physical boundaries of earthly laws.”

“One of the central questions these artists were asking is ‘What is reality?’ ” Malloy said as she led a recent tour of the exhibit. “They were looking for ways to capture these new concepts and understandings … using symbolic art.”

Some of the most interesting examples of that in the Mead show are by Calder and by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor and landscape architect. Noguchi’s pieces, including “Bucky,” a wood and wire sculpture, and the star-shaped, papier-mâché “E=mc2,” offer both a humorous and diverse take on science’s influence on art.

As Roberto Matta, the abstract and surrealist Chilean painter — his vivid 1942 oil “Genesis” is part of the exhibit — put it, for modern artists “Einstein was as important as Freud.”

Micro and macro

The Dimensionist Manifesto, Malloy notes, was signed by numerous leading avant-garde artists of the time, such as the writer/painter Marcel Duchamp, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Alexander Calder. Charles Sirató had already experimented with some of the manifesto’s ideas with what he called “planar” poems, in which he did not write in conventional lines, instead using his words to form graphic images.

Sirató envisioned having a major exhibition of Dimensionist art in Paris and a magazine dedicated to the movement, but those plans fell by the wayside when he became ill and returned to Hungary. Then came World War II and the Cold War, and Dimensionism was largely forgotten — though in the 1960s, Sirató wrote an unpublished history of the movement that has now been reproduced in English in a catalog, put together by Malloy, that accompanies the Mead exhibit.

In the roughly 70 works that are part of the show, Malloy notes that a number of artists explored multiple ideas and fields and the way those ideas related to one another.

For instance, in her 1937 oil painting “Microcosm and Macrocosm,” the American post-surrealist Helen Lundeberg examined the links between the microbial world and the immensity of the cosmos. The painting depicts a partially visible human figure examining tiny, strangely shaped organisms in bubbles, while overhead, against a night sky, a ringed planet and a distant galaxy are also encased in bubbles.

Malloy said Lundeberg, though drawn to art, initially studied biology in college and was fascinated with the curved, abstract shapes of single-cell organisms she observed through a microscope. She drew examples of these forms that were so detailed, Malloy noted, that her teachers “told her she should switch to the art program.”

And in her 1944 “Self-Portrait,” Lundeberg painted herself looking at the viewer as she holds a paintbrush; within the painting, a separate hand appears to holds a small orb — a model of a planet? — against a separate canvas of dark sky.

During the exhibit tour, Malloy also pointed to work by László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter and photographer (and signer of the Dimensionist Manifesto) who painted “Nuclear II” in 1946, in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

It’s a mysterious work, a multi-colored sphere that seems to include an image of billowing smoke, as well as conical shapes that might be missiles. But the painting’s bright, somewhat plaid-like colors could also suggest a less sinister theme — perhaps, said Malloy, the prospect of nuclear power used for electricity rather than bombs.

“It might be about the power of the atom, the promise of nuclear science,” she said, noting that Moholy-Nagy was also receiving radiation treatment at this time for leukemia (he died in 1946).

But it could also be, Malloy said, that Moholy-Nagy believed science and technology also posed questions “that we still have to answer.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein” is on view at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College through July 28. For more information on the exhibit and the museum, where visitation is free, visit






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