Breaking Away

The Innocent Eye

by Roger Shattuck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 362 pp., $18.95

During the last century a distinct break in European sensibility affected all the arts and led to a new post-Romantic version of the cult of originality. The artists, poets, and writers who created this new vision were called avant-garde. But where did the ideas of the avant-garde come from? Could it be from a conceptual change within the physical sciences? Roger Shattuck, arguing that it was at least in part, quotes a sentence from Leonardo’s manuscripts that appears in Paul Valéry’s first essay on Leonardo, written in 1894:

The air is full of infinite, straight, radiant lines crossing and interweaving without one ever entering the path of another, and they represent for each object the true FORM of its cause.

Valéry associated this sophisticated natural philosophy of the sixteenth century with the undulatory theory of light that was then in vogue, and also with the discoveries of Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin. “Remember,” Shattuck writes,

this is a disaffected poet aged twenty-three writing in 1894…. He was discovering in Leonardo da Vinci an early formulation of field theory, something that had not yet taken clear shape out of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory published twenty years before.

Science was returning to a visionary and imaginative phase that had preceded the complete dominance of Newton’s mechanics, hitherto thought to be final and unquestionable.

The interesting suggestion that new conceptions of science affected the arts runs throughout the essays and reviews collected here, most of them previously published and four unpublished. It is particularly prominent in Shattuck’s chapters on Baudelaire, Valéry, Apollinaire, Duchamp, and Monet. Shattuck suggests that the abrupt changes in physical theory, which became widely known in the decades before 1914, had a deep, even if oblique, effect on writers and painters during this period, the main subject of Shattuck’s work since The Banquet Years appeared in 1958. Leonardo, as he was revealed in his notebooks after his death, became, Shattuck writes, a “culture hero” to the avant-garde because his wit and invention crossed all the divisions between metaphysics, the natural sciences, and the visual arts. The act of graphic representation was often for Leonardo an intellectual investigation into natural forms; a set of drawings could be placed alongside a hypothesis in hydrodynamics or physiology, and their beauty resided in the underlying structure guessed at and revealed as present in nature. Valéry took Leonardo as a model as much for his own long abstention from literature, which he saw as parallel to Leonardo’s abstention from painting, as for his scattered critical writings and for his philosophical declarations and pretensions.

The same dominating mind, Valéry implied, could proudly turn from poetry to mathematics and back again, and he was continually speculating on the varied powers of thought, both abstract and sensuous, and displaying them to himself. He insisted that if modern artists or scientists were to recapture a lost wholeness, reason and imagination could not be segregated and specialized. The mind is not an assembly of distinct faculties. This was…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.