I read a great little book over the weekend: Numbers: The Universal Language. I had picked it up on a visit a week ago to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, which is a brilliant place to see modern and contemporary art, and was the last place I would have expected to walk away from with a little book about maths rather than art, but it just sort of caught my eye, and I was feeling it was about time I extended my horizons on the book front.
Sadly I couldn’t make notes as I went along, and I particularly regret this since there was so much in it of interest to artists, and I’m now finding I can’t remember the artsy bits. There was a lot of more generally fascinating stuff as well; I was intrigued to read about different types of infinity, for example, and have bored most of the family rigid with this and other little gems.
One revelation was that it was in fact Indians over 2000 years ago who invented figures for the digits 1-9, and who then went on to develop the principle of place value and the concept of zero in the 5th century AD. Through place value, it was possible to write the number fourteen million two hundred and thirty-six thousand seven hundred and thirteen using just eight digits: 14,236,713 in a treatise written in Sanskrit in 458 CE. This knowledge passed to Europe via the Arabs in the centuries which followed. But gradually the Indian origin was forgotten, and only the immediate source was remembered. So Indian digits became known as Arabic numerals and the zero was thought to be an Arabic invention. However, Arabic tradition continues to identify India as the true source.
But back to the art connection. If you leave aside the turn taken by the relatively recent anti-aesthetic tradition, it is interesting to see how so many in the field of maths and art have tried to express harmony in their use of number or visual language. The Golden Number or ratio, for example, is thought to express perfect harmony of proportion, and it is true that there is something particularly pleasing about any composition based on this system of calculating proportion, under which the ratio of a smaller part to the larger part is the same ratio as the larger part bears to the whole. Very, very, very roughly, it’s a third:two-thirds.
The thing which struck me most forcefully about the book though were the illustrations, and that’s probably why I bought it. The book was filled with images of art by artists obsessed with exploring number and maths. There are far too many to list here, but one which caught my eye was a head by the Dada artist Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971). Made in 1920, it is a portrait of the individual in the modern age, obsessed with numbers. It seems to me it is equally , if not more so, relevant today in a society which is ruled by number. As the book says, we have made number responsible for expressing all things material. In doing so, we lose sight of the qualitative meaning of life.