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Brainscapes and Anna Atkins’s cyanotypes

In March, the Williams College Museum of Art held a symposium that brought together artists and neuroscientists for a day of talks and discussions as part of Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain.  It was during that time that one of the artists in the show, Susan Aldworth, visited us from her home in London.  Susan is an incredibly engaging person, a wonderful artist, and lots of fun.

One of the things that has stayed with me most about Susan’s series of Brainscape etchings and their corresponding Location Drawings are their close affinity to nature.  When I look at the Brainscapes I think of celestial imagery or early botanical drawings.  The most obvious visual references that are called to my mind are Anna Atkins‘s (British, 1799-1871) cyanotypes, often called  ‘sunprints.’  These images or ‘photogenic drawings’ are made, as the Getty Museum’s website explains:

“. . . by carefully placing the specimen onto a sheet of paper that had been made light-sensitive by a coating of a combination of chemicals. The resulting print is called a cyanotype because of the blue color produced by the chemicals. Securing the specimens to the paper with a sheet of glass, the glass and paper were then placed in the sun; after sufficient exposure to light, the paper was washed in water, which caused the image to appear in its final form. Because the specimens were solid objects that light could not pass through, they appear as negative images.”

The relationship between science and art here is key, as Atkins was trained as a botanist and developed an interest in photography as a means of recording botanical specimens for a scientific reference book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).

The first image below is one of Aldworth’s Brainscapes; the second image below is a cyanotype by Atkins.

Not only is the bright blue indigo of Atkins’s cyanotype echoed in Aldworth’s Brainscape etching, but so is the fluidity and quality of line that Aldworth is able to achieve using a marker as a resist on the etching plate.  Aldworth has pioneered a ‘negative line’ etching technique to depict her interpretations of patients’ cerebral angiograms as portraits.  Atkins pioneered the cyanotype as an early form of photography, also using chemical processes to describe the ‘personality,’ as it were, of the specimens she recorded.

– Kathryn Price, Interim Associate Curator and co-curator of Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain

Above images: Susan Aldworth, Brainscape 17 and 11, 2006, etching and aquatint on paper, Collection of the artist.  Anna Atkins, Himanthalia lorea and Fucus ceranoides, cyanotypes, orignially published in British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).

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