Walter Lewin: Looking at 20th Century Art through the Eyes of a Physicist

Physicist Walter Lewin shares his personal insights into major works of art from the first quarter of the 20th century.

Known in the hallways of building 37 for his famous art contests, Lewin succumbs to pressure from students and colleagues to give this lecture as part of an IAP event in advance of trips to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Art Museum. This talk is centered on pioneering artists whose work changed the world.

Lewin begins by providing a framework to understand pioneering art, by dispelling the myth of "beauty" in the artwork. An excerpt follows:

"At the turn of the century we've reached a point that beauty is no longer an issue. Now you may find some of these works beautiful, but the intention of the artists that you've just seen, was definitely not to paint something that was beautiful. They wanted to introduce a new way of looking at the world, and they did that in different ways. The reason why you may now find many of these works beautiful is that their new way of seeing-their new way of looking at the world which they invented has become your world-your way of seeing. Our ideas of beauty evolve. What is plain ugly a hundred years ago can now be beautiful.

And I want to show you today how in the first quarter of the 20th century, this process of removing constraints-of breaking the handcuffs of tradition-was completed in less than 25 years. It was a period that led to total artistic liberation.

If you still think that the goal of 20th century art is to create something beautiful you might as well leave now. It's one of the greatest misconceptions of people who are not educated in art. To appreciate 20th century art you must abandon the idea of beauty. Pioneering art is a new way of looking at the world, and those works of art can be very interesting, they can sometimes be stunning, and sometimes they can knock me out, but I prefer not to use the word 'beautiful'. It can be very confusing. The beauty of a pioneering work of art, no mater how ugly is in the meaning."

Host(s): School of Science, Department of Physics