Depicting the too-small-to-be-seen
Is the small ever too small for an artist? Representational artworks depict things we know about. We have seen those mountains, drank from that stream, ridden such horses, walked such paths, remember the circus clowns and balloons, sniffed similar flowers, sat down for coffee and conversation with friends much like those …
But did anyone aside from someone with a strong magnifying glass ever feel anything other than surprise upon seeing the details of a hibiscus flower painted by Georgia O’Keefe? By devoting her entire canvas to just a portion of a single flower, we discover unseen and unsuspected beauty — check out those brilliantly flecked anthers and that towering stigma, which bends like a skewer above the fire of the petals. The artist takes liberties, drawing off our daily experience, making the unseen seeable by our grounded eyes.
Now what about these tiny mites, magnified by factors of many hundreds and artistically colored by Martin Oeggerli (published February 2015 in National Geographic)? It is a fair bet that no one has ever seen any of these details with their own eyes, even using a good magnifying glass. Yet we readily see and comprehend this artistry with feelings and memories that are tuned to our experiences, including our experiences of lobsters and crabs on the beach or at a seafood restaurant, or cast as raging giants in a Japanese scifi film. So just as with O’Keefe’s flower, we instinctively hold onto something, however flimsy, as we venture somewhere new, somewhere exceedingly small, at the invitation of the artist.
In the extreme, when matter is depicted as molecules, when a protein fills a canvas or reposes on a pedestal, what will you, the artist, offer to the viewer as guidance for entering the molecular world? Is there any biology that is too small to be shared as art?