Friday, February 9, 2018

19th Century Diagrams and Infographics to De Stijl, Constructivism and Bauhaus

Oliver Byrne, geometric diagram from Euclid's Elements
You are likely to recognize the geometrical art of Mondrian, usually in primary colours and black, space divided into variable grids with rectangles of colour, and perhaps the work of Theo van Doesburg and others in the De Stijl (Dutch for “the style”) group. Their work, is often seen as a response to the chaos and horrors of WWI and a desire to impose order and structure by taking Cubism to its logical, geometrical extreme. "The Style" has been immensely influential on 20th century art, through other movements like Constructivism and the Bauhaus movement in art, craft and architecture. I don't just these artworks and movements as simply a rejection of chaos, but as an embrace of the tools of scientific and mathematical communication and data visualization of the 19th century.

Consider the 19th-century civil engineer and mathematician named Oliver Byrne and his well-loved 1847 edition of the foundation of geometry Euclid’s Elements. When you look at at his diagrams with modern eyes, De Stijl is what comes to mind. His diagrams in primary colours, red, yellow and blue along with black, on a white field, his use of space all look eerily familiar, though published almost seven decades earlier.

Oliver Byrne from The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (public library)

Oliver Byrne from The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid

Oliver Byrne from The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid

You can see such striped down, elegant graphical design in 19th century data visualizations too. Consider this lovely diagram from  the superintendent of the US census for 1870, Francis Amasa Walker, aided by colour lithographer Julius Bien, and how he displayed the data on religious observance:

Francis Amasa Walker, Ninth Census of 1870 (with colour lithographer Julius Bien), chart of religious observance
which brings to mind not only the rectangular shapes of Mondrian but the colour field paintings of Marc Rothko and others (such as this painting by Robyn Denny from as late as 1960). Or this image of demographics by state;

Francis Amasa Walker, Ninth Census of 1870, Principle Constituent Elements of Population of Each State
In the mid 19th century, Elizabeth Peabody made quilts with abstract visualizations of American history so she could take them on tour and discuss drivers of history with students! She designed these grid quilts for her own U.S. history textbook (1856).

Elizabeth Peabody, historical visualizations quilt (1856 - Image by the Digital Humanities Lab at Georgia Tech)

Writer, sociologist, activist and Pan-Africanist William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois worked with his students in Atlanta to create beautiful, immediate and effective data visualizations of demographics and economic life in Georgia for the “Exhibit of American Negroes,” (organized by  Du Bois, Thomas J. Calloway and Booker T. Washington to represent contemporary black contributions to life in the US) at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Others have noted these images hint at the coming De Stijl movement; Alison Meier wrote in Hyperallergic, that “they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky”.

W. E. B. Du Bois' data visualizations for the assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition

W. E. B. Du Bois' data visualizations for the assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition

W. E. B. Du Bois' data visualizations for the assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition

W. E. B. Du Bois' data visualizations for the assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Data visualizations which clearly made their way into artists' hands, and in fact were often made by artists themselves, include colour charts, like these by American artist Emily Noyes Vanderpoel (1842-1939) from Color problems: A practical manual for the lay student of color.

 But these are not dissimilar to scholarly works of analysis, not strictly aimed at artists, like this diagram:
Frontispiece to Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter’s Thought-Forms (1905), ascribing colours to particular emotions – Source.

To me, it does not seem a large leap from these grids of colours squares, or clean, simple geometric data visualizations to De Stijl.

Theo van Doesburg, Kleurkwadraat, 1926

Theo van Doesburg De zaaier Design for Leaded Light Window 1921 Collection Museum Drachten.

A 1921 painting by Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian. Broadway Boogie Woogie. 1942-43

Or the near contemporaneous Constructivism movement in art, with monochromatic shapes "constructing" art and Suprematism with its limited palette, and geometrical shapes and lines, in Russia, and of course the Bauhaus school in Germany which cast long shadows across art, craft and architecture of the entire century.

Wassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle, 1923

Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935)

Malevich "Suprematist Composition"

"Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (18 May 1883 – 5 July 1969) from Bauhaus Manifesto

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Composition, 1937

See also:

Maria Popova, Mondrian Meets Euclid: An Eccentric Victorian Mathematician’s Masterwork of Art and Science
W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900), The Public Domain Review 

Allison Meier, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Modernist Data Visualizations of Black Life,  Hyperallergic,  July 4, 2016 

Library of Congress collection W. E. B. Du Bois' data visulizations for the assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition 

Susan Schulten, 11 Of The Most Influential Infographics Of The 19th Century September 25, 2012

Jason Diamond,  Colorful Victorian-Era Illustratons for Euclid’s ‘Elements’

The Shape of History: Reimagine 19th Century Data Visualization” by Lauren Klein at Columbia University

 also, don't miss Helen Friel's 3D paper sculptures of Oliver Byrne's diagrams


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