By Anna Reser
An Artful Observation of the Cosmos begins by confronting the viewer with one of Galileo’s own copies of Siderius Nuncius (1610), open to the frontispiece that bears his signature. This book is the centerpiece of not only this exhibition, but also the massive campus-wide Galileo’s World exhibition at the University Of Oklahoma. No doubt seeing an original copy of this rare book—which is one of the only signed copies in the world—is a major draw for the exhibition, but there are plenty of other famous works to see here. Rivals to the Galileo text are a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1453) containing a diagram of the heliocentric cosmos, and a 16th century edition of Euclid’s Elements of Geometrie with pop-up diagrams of mathematical solids.
The first room establishes the historical intersection of art and science by pairing astronomy and physics with texts on perspective and principles of art and design. Albrecht Durer’s Institionem Geometricum (1535) and a beautiful study of perspective and chiaroscuro from Lorenzo Sirigatti’s La Practic di Prospettive Del Cavaliere Lorenzo Sirigatti speak to the close ties between art, science, and mathematics in early-modern European culture.
The second room features book spreads about the moon, but the historical focus is actually on the 1960s and 1970s. Lithographs from two portfolios about the American space program missions line the walls, one from Robert T. McCall called Apollo Story (1973) and the other by Lowell Nesbitt, who worked for NASA, called Moon Shot (1969). The prints selected from each feature both artist’s careful attention to the surface features of the moon. The show casts these prints as the natural heirs to the Galilean tradition of studying and rending the moon.
The most sumptuous pieces in the show are wrapped around the corner in the final room. A series of nine map gores printed around 1800 from 17th century plates depict the figures of the constellations in rich hand colored engravings studded with gold-leafed stars. These gores are a real treat for the eyes and reward an extended look. Their excellent condition and vibrant colors almost shame the more rare and valuable, but often dull, books on display.
The last gallery contains more books interspersed with 20th century artworks. An untitled Alexander Calder lithograph, undated, recalls both his mobiles and the bodies of the heavens that they evoke. A 7 inch record by French conceptual artist Bernar Venet, in a sleeve made from green graph paper, contains recordings of data about a particular star—something I enjoyed looking at almost as much as I would have enjoyed listening to. A book by Catherine Whitwell, An Astronomical Catechism (1818) and a mixed media piece by Emmi Whitehorse appear to be the only two works by women in the entire show.
The show contains enough wall text and exposition to give context for those uninitiated to the history of science, and enough sheer visual pleasure (can I mention those map gores again) to sustain even a casual viewer. The wide range of works, paired with the rare books, encourages a deep sense of the historical by making connections between Galileo and 20th century modernism. The show also peers between the invention of perspective and the new views of the cosmos afforded by the telescope, and expounds on the long tradition of the relationship between visual and written print culture and modern science.
Galileo’s World: An Artful Observation of the Cosmos is on view through April 3, 2016
Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art
The University of Oklahoma
555 Elm Avenue
Norman, OK 73019-3003