The Martial Heavens

If you follow this blog you’ll know that I am interested in the interactions between art and science and in trying to understand the benefits that art can bring to science and vice versa. Art and science (or, for that matter, art and other academic disciplines) do not always dovetail neatly: science is evidence-driven, art deals with experiences.   Academic study, generally, requires there to be a critical distance between subject and investigator and there are situations where too much “experience” may compromise this. But, at the same time, the friction at the art-science divide can generate synergies that are mutually-beneficial.

There is a good example on show in Newcastle at the moment: Matthew Flintham was the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence in the Geography Department at Newcastle University, working with my colleague Alison Williams, and has produced a series of depictions of the restricted airspace above military training areas in the UK.   His exhibition, the Martial Heavens, is currently displayed at the Ex Libris Gallery in the University and one of the pieces is illustrated below. In the foreground you can see a large-scale map of an area of Northumberland that includes the Otterburn training area. Resting on this is a to-scale wireframe model that shows the limits of the restricted airspace above the training area.


Matthew Flintham: the Martial Heavens exhibition. Ex Libris Gallery, Newcastle University, January 2015.

Broadly speaking, I see art-science interactions working in two ways: firstly, where the art acts as a creative adjunct that allows a scholar to examine the available evidence in new ways and open new perspectives and, second, as means of visualising the outputs of scholarship in order to make them more accessible.   Martial Heavens is a very good example of the latter.   I homed in on Matthew’s depictions of Northumberland because it is an area of the country that I know well. In particular, I could trace the upper section of the River Coquet, which has featured in my work (see “A journey to the headwaters of the River Coquet…”) on Matthew’s map as it forms one of the boundaries of the Otterburn training area.   The casual visitor driving along beside the Coquet enjoying the spectacular landscape is likely to be unaware of many facets of both the human and physical worlds that knit together to create these vistas.   Martial Heavens opens up one of these by extending our awareness of the military’s presence from the fluttering red flags and “Danger Area” signs on the hillsides to a series of virtual boundaries that extend 10000 metres into the sky.

And then you have to adjust your focus again from the clouds high above to the stream that flows alongside the road.   The same principle applies in my work, which draws on art-based approaches in order to bring facets of Coquetdale’s geography alive to audiences who would otherwise just drive past.   My own explorations were at the microscopic scale, highlighting a microscopic world that lives on every submerged stone but, once again, it is the chemistry between art and science, between evidence and experience, that allows us to clothe the bare bone of “data” or “evidence” in a manner that makes it more real to the wider world.


More about my own work in this publication:

Kelly, M.G. (2012). The semiotics of slime: visual representation of phytobenthos as an aid to understanding ecological status.   Freshwater Reviews 5: 105-119.

The Geography of Art


Feeble excuse of the year coming up:

I have a meeting with some Italian colleagues next year but the flight times on Monday were not very convenient, so I decided to spend a weekend in Venice so that we can get down to work bright and early on Monday.   The reward for this noble act of self-sacrifice is the opportunity to gorge myself on art for the weekend.

As a part-time lecturer in a Geography Department, I find myself walking Venice’s narrow streets and pondering how art has geographies of its own. I have been fascinated by the history of art for some time, but my travels this year have made me acutely aware of just how time and space are tightly knitted together.   Why, for example, does Venice have relatively few paintings by Titian, its most famous Renaissance painter, yet so much by Tintoretto?   Why haven’t I yet seen a Canaletto here? Or, take the story back a few steps, what was it about Venice that allowed Titian to flourish in the first place?


Left: A Canaletto-free zone: the Accademia gallery in Venice; right: Titian’s Tobias and the angel, photographed in the gallery.

I was at the National Gallery’s Making Colour exhibition a couple of weeks ago, which reminded me how the pigments from which artists derive their colours also have complicated stories, none more so than ultramarine, the intense blue pigment so conspicuous in Titian’s work. Once you know that it is derived from a rare mineral extracted from mines in Afghanistan it cannot be a coincidence that a city that built its wealth on trade with the Orient also bred artists who made bold experiments with colour.

The Titian / Tintoretto distinction is interesting.   I don’t have internet in my rented apartment as I write this so what follows is speculation but Titian was a superstar artist of his time who worked for many clients around Europe. Many of these paintings were sold over time and made their way to the art markets.   Napoleon, apparently, removed many Titians from Venice, which is why the Louvre has a good collection. Tintoretto, on the other hand, spent most of his career in Venice producing religious-themed art for institutions, several of which are still extant.   The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the supreme example of this.   If you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel to Venice.   Indeed, if you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel around Venice.   There are cities where the great art is concentrated in a few galleries – London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, New York, for example. And then there are cities such as Rome and Venice which are, themselves, the galleries.

Canaletto’s absence is easier to explain: he was the eighteenth century equivalent of the many, many purveyors of tourist gee jaws that line the streets around the tourist honey-pots.   His canvases are really glorified postcards, telling the world about a Grand Tour undertaken by wealthy young men in the eighteenth century. That is why there are so many scattered around stately homes in Britain.   I am, frankly, not missing them. There are so many other artistic delights in Venice – Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini have fascinated me as much as the Tintorettos – that I expect to be fully entertained without venturing beyond the end of the seventeenth century at all.