23 November 2005

Art and Math



One of the best movies I know of that introduces the idea of mathematics in western art is Disney’s 1959 Donald in Mathmagic Land. I’ve only seen it once, and that was a decade ago. Donald goes exploring in a magical world of numbers and the harmonies they create in many examples of nature and art. It gives a lot of “gee-wiz” type information, and I wish I had a copy, but not unless I can get it for a good price (used VHS for $50 on amazon? That’s a joke, right?).

Here is a nice snippet on quicktime if you want to see a bit of it.

I remember that the movie specifically discussed the golden mean, which is a ratio, a perfect form, that just somehow feels right. Here’s a picture


If you want to learn more about it, this site provides a good overview. Anyway, for a lot of Greek art, maybe for all Greek art, the mathematical principles Donald learns about are right there. The same is true of what we might as well call “Post-Greek” (Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, etc. etc.).

The math thing doesn’t seem to hold true for anything that isn’t Post-Greek, except for ancient Egypt—they’re in on the whole numbers thing. Anyway, I’ve never seen anyone try to make the math-underlies-everything argument for 11th century illuminated manuscripts, the art of Japan or China, or indigenous art in South America.

It is easy to think that the math as described by Disney and others is really universal—and I guess it is, so long as it is understood to be universal only among Post-Greek movements. This kind of "universal" is just as irrelevant as our eight note scale is for music outside the western world.

5 comments:

MalikElBatata said...

this picture is of the greek number Phi ? it was the recurrent mysterious number that's supposed to exist quite abundantly in nature...i saw that in a movie :D

d.g. said...

Admittedly, calling anything "universal" is asking for trouble. That said, here's an interesting confluence of art, math, and attempted universality.

Mary Ann said...

Oh my! For years I had this half-memory of seeing that in a movie in elementary school. I'd been wondering if I had imagined it because it seems like such s dumb thing to do.

joe said...

There are several copies on eBay, but this is the one I would buy.

Mary Ann said...

I say get it.