Walking through “Seeing Is Believing: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration,” the unendingly rich, often stunning exhibition organized by Jennifer B. Lee and Miriam Mandelbaum at the New York Public Library, is as humbling as it is stimulating. It made me recall a particularly humiliating daydream of mine. Somehow I’m back in the Stone Age, where I want to help mankind along a little by imparting some modern wisdom. But I can’t explain anything because it turns out I don’t actually know how anything works. Airplanes, X rays, penicillin, internal combustion, Velcro. Nothing. I want to be a hero but I’m a nitwit. I say things like, “There’ll be matches—little sticks with stuff on the end that makes them catch fire.”
“Seeing Is Believing” is about people figuring out how things work. While it may not remedy visions of Stone Age incompetence, the show makes one see that knowledge comes in its own time, that it is hard won, and that abstract thought has a difficult and ponderous life of its own. “Seeing Is Believing” pictures the mind picturing itself as it comes into fuller and fuller awareness of where it is: in a body, on a planet, within a solar system that is passing through an immense, and immensely complicated, universe.
This show is so far-reaching you can get giddy viewing its flights of fancy and deadpan description. With over 250 drawings, engravings, color lithographs, woodcuts, and photographs ranging from intricate depictions of wood grain, algae, and sound waves to showstoppers like the giant rendition of a flea (made by Robert Hooke and based on observations through an early microscope, it helped change the hygiene habits of the world in 1665), the exhibition is organized into groupings such as Medicine, Natural History, Astronomy, and Physics, with further subcategories like Botany, Ballistics, Biology, and Magnetism. Rife with things that sound too strange to be true (the flying steamship) and so true they sound strange (the tiny valves in our veins), the show might have been modeled on Borges’s description of “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” which divides animals into “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”
Close up, the proceedings become more real—sometimes too real—as the price of figuring things out can make for unhappy endings. Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger, published in 1610), which includes drawings of the phases of Venus and three of the moons of Jupiter, cost the astronomer his freedom when he was placed under lifelong house arrest for proving that celestial spheres do not revolve around the Earth. Or consider the delicate depiction of a stork’s wing by Otto Lilienthal, who quietly investigated theories of flight for a lifetime, proving after thousands of drawings that “lift” occurred as air passed more swiftly over the top of the wing than the bottom. In 1896, after adjusting the rudder of his glider accordingly, Lilienthal died in the name of these observations.
Many of these illustrations are beautiful in their own right. If not quite works of art, they are often remarkable nevertheless. They involve imagination, patience, penetration of mind, and leaps of faith. The work in “Seeing Is Believing” falls into a marvelous no-man’s-land bordered by science, madness, metaphysics, and art. The art world has candidates for this realm—most of them male. Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings belong here, as does the work of Alfred Jensen, Alice Aycock, Mark Dion, Kim Jones, Dennis Oppenheim, and Will Insley. Eminent in this area are Mel Bochner and Barry LeVa. Lately, there’s Matthew Barney’s Vaseline-coated drawings of biological impossibility, Matthew Ritchie’s deranged notations of some mythic-scientific dimension, Mark Lombardi’s quasi-paranoid investigations of power and money, Erik Hanson’s gentle meditations on the inner life of listening, and the UFO art of Ionel Talpazan, whose extraordinary exhibition at American Primitive in Soho just closed.
“Seeing Is Believing” is an incremental journey through time of a very particular sort. Measured in obsessions, hunches, curiosity, and imagination, we see how growth comes in leaps, or in a life’s work spent on a tiny detail. You can almost hear the sound of history being made when looking at Copernicus’s unassuming diagram of concentric circles charting a heliocentric solar system; published in 1543, it’s called “the most justly famed illustration of Western science” by the show’s organizers. Other times, you feel the weight of weirdness, as in the depiction of a nose reconstruction accomplished by sewing said schnoz to the patient’s forearm for six weeks in order to spur tissue growth—a method occasionally employed today, one doctor at the exhibition told me, “for especially disagreeable patients.” Yikes! I guess seeing is believing.