We picture him with an unruly mop of hair, a rumpled suit and a dreamy expression: Albert Einstein, the subject of a major exhibition now at the Skirball Cultural Center, is the rare scientist since Galileo who’s become a cultural icon, known to people without the vaguest grasp of his theories of relativity.
But to an increasing number of observers, Einstein was more than a physicist, however brilliant. He was in effect an artist of his day, as much a figure of Modernism as Cubist painter Georges Braque or novelist James Joyce.
In the 2002 book “Einstein/Picasso,” science historian Arthur I. Miller describes his two subjects as driven, unconventional bohemians who made their breakthroughs -- Einstein’s special theory of relativity and Pablo Picasso’s painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” -- almost simultaneously at the beginning of the last century, while breathing the same cultural air. Theirs was an era, Miller writes, when “it was first becoming apparent that classical, intuitive ways of understanding time and space are not adequate.
“In the most important sense,” he writes, “they were both working on the same problem.”
On the phone from London, Miller adds: “The nature of space and time, and the notion of perspective, were key points in the avant-garde, all the way across the line from music to architecture.”
Einstein’s work also shares with the artistic advances of his time a disorientating quality, “a confrontational difficulty,” as Thomas Vargish and Delo E. Mook put it in “Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative.”
The difficulty, they write, is not the same as that of the Baroque arts, with their opulent complexities, but rather “a violation of common sense ... a bewilderment at something left out” that’s as true of Cubist paintings as of the frequently “abrupt, laconic” work of Joyce or Franz Kafka. Physics has often been tricky for the layman, but Einstein’s work could be unintelligible even for specialists.
And there are more earthbound similarities. In the period leading to his breakthrough, Einstein was a ragged, sometimes unemployed, often misunderstood character who mesmerized and exasperated friends and lovers. Those years could belong to the early struggles of a French Symbolist poet.
In fact, for four years after his epochal special theory, Einstein continued toiling, more or less in obscurity, at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. And it was not until 14 years later, after a solar eclipse, that his ideas were validated, making him -- like an artist with “overnight” success -- instantly famous.
THE MIRACLE YEAR
The year 1905 saw Einstein’s greatest burst of creativity. It is this annus mirabilis the Skirball is marking with a show that will remain on view until the end of May. (The center is the last U.S. stop for the exhibition, which has been on display in New York, Chicago and Boston.)
It was in 1905 that Einstein, then an obscure, 26-year-old, self-described “patent slave,” came up with the special theory of relativity -- an idea, Bill Bryson writes in his “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” that “was one of the greatest that anyone has ever had.” He goes on: “In essence what relativity says is that space and time are not absolute, but relative to the observer and to the thing being observed, and the faster one moves the more pronounced these effects become.” Or, to use an image familiar to science-fiction aficionados, a twin traveling at near the speed of light will age more slowly than his twin at rest.
Einstein also concluded that mass and energy were different forms of the same thing. The crisp but not so simple distillation of this was his famous equation E=mc2, which means that enormous amounts of energy can be released from tiny bits of matter.
The general theory of relativity took special relativity a step further, arguing, among other things, that space-time would curve because of gravity. Hence, light passing a star would appear to bend.
Some of this still sounds startling, and thinkers of all kinds are still reeling. The Skirball show, accompanied by projects by several other institutions, aims to demonstrate why.
Yet for all his prescience, Einstein was first and foremost a man of his age. The turn of the 20th century, the period in which he and the Modernists worked, occurred to a remarkable tempo of change.
From the early 1890s until the development of special relativity came the inventions of the X-ray, the telegraph and the airplane; the discovery of radiation; the birth of motion pictures; the spread of the automobile; and the maturing of innovations such as photography and telecommunications.
Hourly time zones, driven largely by international politics and the need for railways to coordinate their schedules, were standardized around Greenwich mean time, and time was synchronized by Western governments, mostly in the 1880s and ‘90s.
These were developments known to virtually everyone in urban Europe, and Einstein, toiling in his patent office, knew them well. Stephen Kern, a historian and the author of “The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918,” calls the era “a cultural revolution of the broadest scope.”
“The telephone and wireless telegraph revolutionized communication,” Kern says from Ohio State, where he is a professor of history. “They detached communication from transportation. Suddenly, you could communicate across a distance.
“Many critics at the time spoke of these inventions as having ‘annihilated time and space’ -- their phrase, not mine -- and said they would create a sense of internationalism, a sense of being able to experience many different places simultaneously.”
Kern’s book argues that this new technology set the stage for not only relativity theory but Cubism, psychoanalysis and the stream-of-consciousness novel -- “a transformation of the dimensions of life and thought,” as he puts it.
Says cultural historian Michael Roth, president of the California College of the Arts in the Bay Area: “There was a general sense in early 20th century Modernism that the linear, simple, chronological approach to time was inadequate -- with the discovery of different cultures that had their own rhythms, the discovery of different levels of organisms, the discovery of a world beneath the visible that seemed to have its own pulse, its own time. There was a sense that everyday notions of time were hiding something.”
So while Einstein was studying how time appeared different depending on one’s frame of reference, Marcel Proust was going “in search of lost time” with a six-volume novel about memory, Kafka was writing about characters oppressed by official time, and Joyce was compiling a novel about a single day that experimented with time and rhythm.
In Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” anarchists plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory, an almost literal symbol of “absolute time.”
Kern cautions that much of Einstein’s work was a response to problems specific to physics; he was more concerned with Isaac Newton than with Conrad.
But Miller goes further. He emphasizes the cultural ferment of the day -- the greatest since the Renaissance, he says -- in which serious ideas circulated in European newspapers and through the air of coffeehouses. He points out that Einstein surrounded himself with a “think tank” of dilettante friends who brought him cultural views. Picasso had a comparable group of associates steeped in the day’s thinking, which included topics such as multidimensional geometry.
“The friends were specially chosen because they read widely,” Miller says of both the Picasso group, which met in cafes and the artist’s Montmartre studio, and Einstein’s crowd, which gathered in apartments over tea and Gruyere.
Through these groups, literary and philosophical concepts penetrated Einstein’s world just as mathematical and scientific ideas filtered into Picasso’s and led to Cubism’s reduction of form to geometry; though Paris was more cosmopolitan than Bern, both thinkers were drawing from the same intellectual well.
“Then, when it came time to do the creative work,” says Miller, “they just shut out everybody. Picasso didn’t answer his door any longer, and Einstein just went underground.”
A few years before, Friedrich Nietzsche had declared the death of God, a pronouncement that echoed across Europe.
The radical thinkers of the day, meanwhile, were overturning 19th century positivism -- the idea that the world could be explained through our senses and controlled experiment.
“Picasso and Einstein believed that art and science are means for exploring worlds beyond perception, beyond appearances,” writes Miller. “Just as relativity theory overthrew the absolute status of space and time, the Cubism of Georges Braque dethroned perspective in art.”
These efforts had a literary dimension too. “The idea of perspective and relativity is already being worked out in experiments in literature from the 1890s on,” says Katherine Hayles, a UCLA English professor who examines the overlap of science and literature, “culminating in work like Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ Those experiments were about fragmenting frames of reference based on the observer, and juxtaposing those fractured frames with each other.
“In Picasso, multiple perspectives are all put in the same frame -- so you get not only the fracturing one sees in Cubism but also the sense that a correct picture would require all these perspectives.” Her description fits almost exactly the painter’s 1907 “Demoiselles,” which depicts five prostitutes, all standing together, from several points of view.
Similarly, Einstein proceeded “by thought experiment, by means of his imagination, combined of course with some empirical data,” Miller says. “That’s what distinguished Einstein from what everyone else was doing. Using his imagination like an artist or writer did, just sitting in his chair to think, playing with visual imagery.”
Not surprisingly, when he presented his special theory as one of a series of three papers in the journal Annalen der Physik, it got mixed reviews from the scientific community.
Two years later, the great physicist Max Planck sent his assistant to meet Einstein; the emissary traveled first to the University of Bern, assuming the scientist must be there, and was then redirected to the patent office.
But as he later said, “the young man who met me made such an unexpected impression on me that I did not believe he could be the father of the relativity theory. So I let him pass, and only when he returned from the waiting room did we actually become acquainted.”
It wasn’t until 1909 that Einstein got a university appointment -- for research having little to do with relativity -- and not until two years later that he became esteemed in the world of physics.
In this way, he also resembles Picasso, who put away “Demoiselles” -- the first great painting of Cubism, a movement that shaped much of 20th century art -- for nine years after its debut.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
Einstein’s deification came in 1919, when British scientists observing an eclipse off the west coast of Africa found that light bent in response to gravity, as he had predicted.
Instantly, the eccentric was vindicated. “Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to Be,” a front-page New York Times headline roared, “but Nobody Need Worry.” Somehow, the revolutionary was a reassuring figure.
Says Miller: “You had this image of a man who looked like he had witnessed Creation itself -- who, it turned out, had been right all along.”
Roth notes that having achieved iconic status, Einstein also resembled Sigmund Freud.
“They represented something to the culture,” Roth says. “Freud was considered someone who saw through the lies of sexual hypocrisy,” while Einstein was seen as the pursuer of “secret or hermetic formulae that get you to the invisible.”
And he had a special appeal to artists. “There was an element of personal creativity to Einstein that was more apparent than it was in other scientists,” Roth says of the classical-music-loving physicist. “He exemplified it in his unconventional but benign persona. Einstein seemed to link science to introspection -- to thinking really deeply rather than paying attention to the laws of the world.
“This notion that he goes off by himself and, out of his own creative genius, discovers the formula is a very romantic, artist-friendly version of science.”
Einstein became, for anyone who thought conventional experiment or positivism was deceptive, a legitimizing figure. All sorts of notions of objectivity, from scientific models to the writing of history, were challenged by his discoveries.
Decades later, says Hayles of UCLA, Einstein was inspiring writers such as Lawrence Durrell, whose “Alexandria Quartet” is based on relativistic notions of points of view, and Vladimir Nabokov, who played with the idea of a mirror universe in “Ada, or Ardor.” Science fiction found nearly endless uses for his work, while Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams” transmutes his thinking into prose poetry, and Steve Martin turned an imaginary meeting between the physicist and Picasso into the premise of a comic play.
Einstein’s fame resonated beyond artists and writers, of course. Through his efforts for global peace, humanitarianism and Zionism, he developed into a wise sage for a world that was growing more unknowable and complicated year by year; Time magazine judged him Person of the Century.
In some ways, his fame resembled that of silent film stars. But ultimately, he created his own category. In 1931, he appeared with Charlie Chaplin before adoring crowds in Los Angeles at the world premiere of “City Lights.”
“They cheer me because they think they understand me,” Chaplin told him. “And they cheer you because no one understands you.”
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 29
Price: $12 adults; $8 seniors and students; free for children 11 and younger
Contact: (310) 440-4500