Marie Curie (2007) corner painting

acrylic on canvas 510mm x 510mm x 2

My second corner painting, and a compliment to my previous painting of Oppenheimer. Marie Curie was notable not only for her two Nobel Prizes, an accolade shared with only one other scientist, but perhaps for her obsessive pursuit of results in the face of adversity. The scientific establishment of the early 20th Century was not a hospitable place for a woman, despite her remarkable discoveries of the elements Polonium and Radium and their associated methods of extraction from Pitchblende.

She noted that exposure to Radium prompted the skin to heal without scarring, and realised the therapeutic ramifications for the treatment of cancer. Her many years of exposure to radioactive elements precipitated her early demise, at 67. Her bone marrow was destroyed and she died of the very disease she strove to cure.

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Linnaeus, Mendel and the Platypus (2007)

Acrylic on canvas 914mm x 610mm

2007 marks 300 years since the birth of Carl Linnaeus, “the father of taxonomy.” He was the first to apply a rigorous hierarchical naming system to all living things. By closely observing the structure and behaviour of plants and animals, taxonomy allows us to place each living thing in relation to each other. This method of classification is universal today, though some of the assumptions have been challenged by genetic molecular systematics.

Carl Linnaeus

Gregor Mendel is the “father of modern genetics“. His work on heredity in pea plants was of minor interest in his lifetime, but his ‘laws’ describing the communication of traits between generations are the basis of our current thinking on heritability.

Gregor Mendel

The Duck-billed Platypus is a Monotreme with both mammalian and apparently bird-like attributes. It has fur and produces milk, but lays eggs and has no nipples – it so baffled European Naturalists that when they first encountered a preserved specimen they believed it to be a hoax.

Indeed, at aside from its oddness in taxonomical terms, investigations into the genome of the Platypus have shown that it has ten sex chromosomes, compared to two for mammals and birds (the male Platypus is always XYXYXYXYXY) and quite how sex is determined in the Platypus is still unknown.

This creature lives in a hinterland which defies fully satisfying classification in normal mammalian taxonomy, or simple fit in a ‘genetic tree of life’. The quote on the painting is from Linnaeus “Nature does not proceed by leaps and bounds” – a portent of both Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and Genetic Heritability.

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Igor and Johnny (2007)

Acrylic on canvas 914mm x 610mm

Music is fundamental to human culture, and some would argue to language itself. The human auditory system at the lowest level is able to differentiate chord from dischord, while the brain itself is hungry to find melody, rhythm and structure from almost any vaguely musical source. However, sometimes culture – and neural expectation – can be shocked by the sound of the new, and strong primal emotions released.

Igor Stravinsky is considered to be one of the most influential classical composers of the 20th Century, John Lydon has been a huge influence on ‘rock’ culture since he first appeared with his band The Sex Pistols in 1976. Both of them produced music which was to induce revolt and riot in those first exposed to it. Stravinsky’s first performance of The Right of Spring in 1913 caused such differences of opinion in the audience that fist fights broke out. Similarly, public outrage in response to the Sex Pistols notorious interview with Bill Grundy led to John fearing for his very life, and performances on the subsequent tour of the UK frequently resulted in crowd violence.

Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky was finally ‘understood’ and his genius rewarded once the audience had time to prepare themselves for the onslaught of new sound. In fact, within a few decades, the piece of music which had caused riots in Paris, was used by none other then Walt Disney in the film Fantasia – which prompted the quote of his you see on this painting: “My music is best understood by children and animals”. Similarly, the Sex Pistols now seem somewhat tame in comparison to where some rock music has traveled since the days of punk.

John Lydon

What is interesting to me is that both these musicians were able to produce a profound, non-intellectual response to their music. Listeners quite literally ‘lost their minds’ when their cognitive systems were overwhelmed by the newness of the noise and performance before them. By producing something so at odds with the prevailing culture they were able to change it’s very landscape – in what could be considered a paradigm shift in the cognitive capabilities of their listeners.

It is one of the perversities of the human mind that it seeks out what is new and shocking and almost immediately assimilates it and diminishes its power.

I’ve painted Igor at 31 – his age when Rite of Spring was first performed, and Johnny at 21, as he was in 1976 when the Sex Pistols first performed. This painting is a departure from my usual themes of Scientists and Philosophers, and is the first, aside from my personal first hand portraits, to feature a living subject. I trust that should John stumble his way to this corner of the internet he will see fit to leave a comment…

As usual, I have made a time lapse recording of the painting process:

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