Microscopy in Art

Did the invention of the microscope influence art?

I find the micro world to be really fascinating. That we are all, most of the time, oblivious to the fact that there are multiple entirely separate microcosms that exist all around us; and even inside of us. This in itself is a fairly new concept to us in terms of human history and understanding.

The science of optics has been known since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. The Ancient greeks added to the pantheon of knowledge through their careful studies and philosophy of light. Early microscopes were simple convex lenses allowing a restricted amount of magnification, growing in refinement until the 17th century. After the invention of the compound microscope in 1590, which allowed an image to be magnified by a single lens; it was discovered that you could achieve further and greater magnification by a second or more lenses. In the mid 17th century Englishman Robert Hooke and a Dutchman, Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, refined the technology.

Hooke’s illustrations in his book ‘Micrographia’ are wonderfully detailed, and I would pose that this most certainly is the mark of a skilled artist, or at the very least draughtsman. I bought myself a book on the Microscope printed in 1855 by Dr Schacht, (translated by Frederick Currey). The illustrations are lovely, but not a patch on the famous ‘Flea’ by Robert Hooke. (See above).

The book is illustrated, and has very good instructions on how to get the best viewing results from your gas lamp or candle apparatus. (See above). I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been for those first experimenters with microscopy! But, I can imagine the rush of excitement that they would have felt upon seeing cells and the structure of living things, minerals, or in this case vegetables.

The same excitement was on everyone’s faces when we took the microscopes out to festivals as part of #wearexperimenting project. Upon delivery of the microscopes I spent a good couple of hours looking at anything interesting I could find in the house! It would have been a lot easier for me with the additions of battery LED lights and a smartphone to view or record with. It was really addictive. Something I definitely want to mess around with again.

Since ancient times there have existed people who were called polymaths. They were people who were talented across many subjects. These include people like Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Berthe Hoola Van Nooten, and Al Kindi. All naturally merging the skills they had in an array of different technical or philosophical matters, and creating amazing observations that are woven together through the lens of human beings capacity to be creative. (Ha! I aspire to to be a polymath, and not a jack of all trades master of none).

The early to mid 1960’s saw the beginnings of a definitive Sci-Art movement. This has promoted much discussion as to whether or not it can really be classed as art, or science at all. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that art could be created using scientific tools, but that scientists were mainly using art skills, such as drawing, photography, or filmmaking only as recording mechanisms. The lines in recent years have most definitely been blurred, and the boundaries continually redefined or just smashed down. Our global internet-connected society is embracing the ease of communication between all of the arts and sciences.

Sea Monkeys RIP

I am only currently dipping my toe into the wonderful world of Sci – Art. I’m exploring more things with my expensive microscope (by expensive I mean £100, but I’m an impoverished artist so that’s a hell of a lot of crumpets!).

I can program it to create a time-lapse using intervals I set. The microscope is in my studio currently and my first attempt was corrupted by the cold weather. My sea monkey’s froze in the hatchery, and my SD memory cards were having corruption problems (there’s no format option on the blooming microscope!).

I don’t know if it’s true but I once heard that you are more human when you are born than at any other point in your life. In that moment you are 90% human and 10% bacterium. By now age 33 it’s the other way round. Like I say, I really can’t attest to the accuracy of that statement, but I found the implications of the hypothesis fascinating. Every human is an island. Like that episode of Rick & Morty where they go inside the battery. We are teeny-verses surrounded by teeny-versus’s all inside of a universe that for all we know is inside another universe ad infinitum. So, yes. I think the microscope has influenced art. Yep.

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