Thoughts & Insights

A Daring Take

When the astronomer Dr. Cecilia Scorza of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg first encountered OUBEYs painting Einstein’s Tears, what she saw in it was an image of the very early stages of our universe over 13 billion years ago when matter began to form, the first galaxies began to take shape and light was created. When she had shown all this and explained it by reference to the painting, she added “That’s a daring take, a very daring take.” What did she mean by this? What did she find so daring about this painting?

She herself gives a first answer to this question in the video filmed of this encounter when she says, “We still haven’t reached the stage when we can see all this with our present generation of telescopes. Perhaps in two or three years’ time.“ She said this in 2010. Even twenty four years after the picture was painted it still showed a view of the depths of outer space that nobody could possibly have seen. Only OUBEY could. In this painting he revealed something that no human eye up to then had ever seen. That’s what she found so daring.

OUBEY painted this picture in 1986. That was the year when the Hubble Space Telescope was set to commence operations. Yet the start of this mission was postponed by four years because the tragic accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986 in which seven astronauts lost their lives. And when the telescope finally began transmitting images back to earth in 1990, they turned out to be disappointingly bad or even unusable. This was due to a flaw in the polishing of the telescope’s primary mirror which could only be rectified in 1993 when two courageous astronauts floating in zero-gravity installed corrective optics. Ever since then the Hubble Space Telescope has been sharing its view of the universe with us. Its images of the birth of stars, black holes and gigantic iridescent nebulae bathed in light are breath-taking and thrillingly beautiful. And now celebrated across the whole world.

So in 1986 when Einstein’s Tears was painted – it was first given its title much later on – there was no telescope and no human eye that could have given such a view of the universe. OUBEY was painting nothing that he could have seen with his own eyes. In this painting he was revealing to the outside world what had crystallised in his innermost being from his exhaustive study of astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and elementary particle physics. By processing an incredible amount of data, facts and figures about the universe, his brain generate an image of what this universe must have looked like in its very beginnings some 13 billion years ago.

Such a way of proceeding is, so to speak, the very reverse of what we usually understand by “seeing”. When we speak about seeing something, we generally mean that we perceive something visible that falls within our field of vision. And by using optical aids like magnifying glasses, binoculars and telescopes we can even see and recognise the tiniest and most far removed objects. The path through which light-born information from the outside reaches our brain lies through our eyes. They are the outpost of the human brain as someone once said.  Our eyes collect information which they send to the brain which forms it into an image. Yet for OUBEY – as he himself once remarked, this process tended to run in the reverse direction: “I want to blast them out of my eyes against the canvas, my pictures”.

A ten year old boy from Uganda who encountered quite a different picture by OUBEY marvellously expressed this particular quality of OUBEYs art when he said, “He didn´t draw what he saw but what he thought.“

From his deep understanding of physics, astrophysics and astronomy, OUBEYs mind created an image of the beginnings of the universe which is astonishingly similar to that which the Hubble Space Telescope gave us many years later. And he did this, as it were, all by himself in pursuit of his own spiritual and intellectual adventure.

What he created is no visualisation of scientific data. It’s the aesthetic flowering of the processing of science-based facts and data in conjunction with the philosophical issues that haunted the brain of a man who was as familiar with philosophy and science as he was with art. And who was capable of turning such a picture formed in his innermost being into a work of art that could withstand his rigorous critical scrutiny. I am quite sure that OUBEY would have rejoiced to have been there in person when Dr Cecilia Scorza encountered his painting.

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