Seen, unseen. Art, science and intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble telescope.

Seen, unseen. Art, science and intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble telescope. 

Martin Kemp 

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2006 | 352pp | ?25 (HB) | ISBN 0199295727 

Reviewed by Mary Daniells

Martin Kemp, professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, UK, has written and broadcast extensively on imagery in art and science from the Renaissance (especially Leonardo Da Vinci) to the 20th century. 

Kemp writes a regular ’Science in culture’ column in Nature, and themes from these columns are explored in Seen, unseen. The consequences of a series of key events in the sciences and visual arts are explored, showing how scientists and artists have responded to pattern, shape, symmetry etc in their researches. Renaissance art, early astronomy, botanic drawings, scientific diagrams, early photography, medical x-rays and particle physics are all touched on in this book, which, while not an easy read, keeps the reader thinking and finding new insights and unexpected connections. 

Personally I particularly enjoyed the section entitled Discerning designs  because I have always been interested in the mathematics-biology interface. Kemp explores the work of D’Arcy Thomson and the less well-known Theodore Andrea Cook at the beginning of the 20th century to the more recent revival of visual mathematics, as seen in fractals, chaos and computer graphics. 

The latest computer technology has the same problems as paintings, drawings and photographs of making visual sense of the order and disorder of nature. Today visual experiences and visual culture are everywhere and Kemp sees these best understood in their historical context. Looking into the future, Kemp sees visual intuition as a powerful tool for the 21st century. 

This well-illustrated book will appeal to anyone interested in form and perspective in the visual arts, as well as to science readers interested in perception and aesthetic sense.