1905. A YEAR THAT CHANGED OUR VISION OF THE WORLD

Marco Pierini and Francesco Tampieri

On dry land at last, the sailors get drunk at the inn. When they come out, they wander randomly; we do not know where each of them will end up. The explanation of Brownian motion (Einstein, 1905) teaches us to foresee how the crew will scatter over time (supposing that the crew is fairly numerous). The model was produced by students of the Laura Bassi High School in Bologna.

If the passing of time is like the flow of sand in an hourglass, 1905 was – by chance? – the watershed moment that withheld so much of the past of art and science, and marked the start of a great worldwide visual revolution. Events, exhibitions and publications came into being over a magical year which brought together past heritage while at the same time carving paths towards the future. 1905 was a strangely paradigmatic year, and it is interesting to trace it with sufficient light-heartedness to grasp the atmosphere, the astral conjunction (as some might call it), and perhaps dwell on a few elements shedding light on the present day.

It is well known that the start of the 20th century was full of novelties in all fields of human activity; we also know that events deemed age-changing today were often in fact minimal shifts, others were not understood and so momentarily removed, while yet others were violently contested. Indeed, it is well worthwhile focusing on five elements that are traditionally associated with distant spheres: the foundation of the Die Brücke group in Dresden; the publication of three articles by Einstein on light quanta, Brownian motion and relativity; and the exhibition held by the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff wanted to turn around the conventions of the painters that had come before them, and express their emotions with a renewed intensity. They were young rebels who wanted to build a bridge between the great German expressionists of the past and their own future. Heavily pervaded by a sense of existential angst which placed them in conflict with bourgeois society and seemed to preempt the insurgence of war, they gave life to a deformed, estranged, restless ‘parallel universe’, no less ‘real’ and authentic than that conventionally known as “reality”.

We might say that Albert Einstein believedin an inner consistency among the laws of nature, one which drove him to work on hugely revolutionary hypotheses in order to safeguard his own vision of the world (and we’re not talking about the history of science here, but rather the need to put various shreds of knowledge in place). And so his heuristic hypothesis – defined as such in the title of the article that provided the explanation of the photoelectrical effect – on the quantisation of the energy radiated by a black body set out to give a single, physically sound description of the partially applicable empirical hypotheses which had been put forward to account for experimental results. His analysis of Brownian motion and the formulation of a stochastic equation to describe the collective behaviour of a group of objects – such as the inanimate particles observed by Brown more than half a century before – may be read as if the tension towards the understanding of complex phenomena had to come to a halt in the face of an unsurpassable limit – the impossibility of knowing in advance all the single details of such motion – yet the human mind may formulate new schema of interpretation and prediction. The resolution of the paradoxes that arose from the application of Maxwell and Lorentz’s laws of electrodynamics, imposing the Newtonian notion of absolute time and space, led him to formulate the theory of relativity, in order to guarantee that the principle of relativity that Galileo had laid out for classical mechanics might also hold true for electromagnetic waves.

Henri Matisse and André Derain headed a group of artists inebriated by light and colour who were given the central room of the Salon d’Automne in Paris on 15th October 1905. The critic Louis Vauxcelles, noting a marble statue in the middle of such a stark, dazzling and garishly furbished chamber, burst out with the famous condemnation: “un Donatello parmi les fauves”, thus unwittingly attributing the name to the group. The vision of the ‘beasts’ was less dramatic and more mundane than that of their German colleagues, yet of whom they shared the same vigour, energy and subversive intent, at least in the aesthetic field.

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