ScienceOnline2010: Art & Science - what works?

At the upcoming ScienceOnline2010 in January, Felice Frankel and I will be on hand again to lead a session discussing art & science.

To follow this series of posts, click the "scio10art" label below. (I will also be doing a workshop about digital painting with a tablet - for more on that, look for posts labelled with "scio10tablet".) You may also comment or check in with our session's wiki page.
Part 1
- Art historical background to metaphor

Part 2 - Categories of visual metaphor in science art

The type of metaphor I spend a lot of time thinking about could be called narrative or allegorical metaphor. I like to use one object as a symbol for an idea, or sometimes multiple objects, to tell a story or give an image meaning.

An image I am very familiar with (and many Flying Trilobite readers will be as well) is the oil painting Darwin Took Steps I made in 2008. I'd like to use it as an example for some questions for the session. I think Darwin Took Steps is useful due to its relative popularity; it has appeared on a magazine cover, two book covers, numerous blogs, is on display in
a museum in Spain and caused a ruckus on the art network deviantArt last year.

Okay, so; the Darwin painting.

1) What are your first thoughts about this painting and what it may mean?

2) How necessary do you think knowing the title was before seeing the painting to the metaphor's success? Does the title point too blatantly?

3) Is the painting disrespectful to you? Irreverent? Exalting? Does it imply worship or mockery?

4) I stuck stairs on the head of an esteemed (sometimes reviled) naturalist. How
do your feelings match the metaphor?

5) Portraiture has a long history, and it's likely most people have seen portraits, possibly even the Charles Darwin photos I used as reference for this painting. What mental scaffolding does the idea of a portrait raise in your mind?
How do you know when you are looking at a portrait

6) Although I'm proud of most of my paintings, this one seems to resonate with people. Let's be specific: Um why? Why a portrait of Darwin with stairs?


7) Years ago, I did another painting of an elderly gent with stairs on its head, called Disease (below). Its popularity does not approach anywhere near Darwin Took Steps.Is it the colour and skill-level of the painting? What does Charles Darwin bring to the painting that this random figure does not? Which is a more conventional portrait and why do you think so? Despite the similarities, how do the titles change your perceptions of each painting?

8) A clue to the baggage any image of Charles Darwin specifically brings is through the comments on deviantArt. Darwin Took Steps was an image-of-the-day on Feb 12 2008, and kicked off over 500 comments from dA users debating Darwin's contribution from both a scientifically & historically literate stance and a creationist stance. Few comments were directed at the painting itself.

Is the power of a metaphor through suggestion rather than explanation?


Comment below with more questions you would like to discuss, responses or directions you would like to see the discussion session move to. You don't have to be attending the un-conference to contribute!


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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A portion of the sales of reproductions of Darwin Took Steps go to benefit the Beagle Project.