Genius Across the Centuries

At the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, visitors can expect to meander amongst capsules and satellites that have grazed the constellations, or to crane their necks as they behold flying machines inscribed forever in the books of history.

But recently, numerous paintings and photographs line the walls on which, one would believe, gliders should. Three visual art exhibits currently occupy these rooms, the first of which is High Art: A Decade of Collecting,  on view through December 1. Featuring 50 works of art from the museum’s nearly 7,000-strong collection, curators Dr. Tom Crouch and Carolyn Russo hope the exhibit will aid in bridging art, science, and technology.

“One of the reasons we have an art collection is because our museum is full of sharp, pointy, shiny objects,” said Crouch. “The artists’ visions help our visitors reach an entirely new take on the rest of what this museum does.” Two other exhibits, Searching For Goldilocks  and Suited For Space, will also run through December 1.

Until recently, the museum had another key treasure that bridged the worlds of art and science: Leonardo da Vinci’s original Codex on the Flight of Birds, which had been on loan from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy. Written in his renowned “mirror handwriting,” da Vinci’s Codex is full of observations and doodles regarding the mechanics of birds in flight, revealing the Renaissance artist’s passionate scientific explorations. The Codex was exhibited next to a replica of the Wright Flyer, the first successfully powered aircraft, in order for visitors to visualize the Flyer’s early artistic sources.

All four exhibits bring visitors on a journey from the earliest conceptions of aviation to modern fantasies of flight; from theorized mechanics to futuristic mastery. The following slideshow represents works of art from each show.



Page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds. Pen and ink on paper, 210 x 150 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Da Vinci’s Codex

“Da Vinci’s approach to art, engineering, and science was very much a piece,” says Chief Curator Peter Jakab. “He studied at a school that began to deal with the basic elements of scientific investigation, experimentation, deduction, and analysis.” The lines between art and science were purposefully blurred as Da Vinci cultivated his craft. “That was the environment he matured in,” Jakab continued. “Art as the foundation for engineering, and engineering the representation of art.”

“Excerpts of the Codex appeared in a volume called the Aeronautical Annual that the Wright Brothers did have access to,” said Jakab. “We’re aware that they did see snippets of it, but they obviously did not use it terribly much as a starting point for their own work.” Nonetheless, Jakab believes the Wright Brothers would have been “honored” to know that the Codex was living in their gallery. “It’s one of the reasons I put it here,” he said. “It’s ‘Genius Across the Centuries.’ [The Flyer] is a seminal object that, in terms of design, all airplanes flow from. So, to have that seminal object in the same place as the da Vinci item is, I think, a powerful experience for our visitors.”

Jakab proudly noted that a digitized copy of the Codex on the Flight of Birds is currently accompanying the Curiosity rover on Mars. “This museum is heavily involved in Mars research. One of our planetary geologists drives the rover from the third floor of this museum. So, to have the Codex on board is a nice connection for us. This is the best place for the Codex to be.”



Apollo Intravehicular Glove, by Albert Watson, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, 1990. Archival Pigment Print. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Apollo Intravehicular Glove by Albert Watson

“[Albert Watson] was like an artist-in-residence here some years ago,” said Curator Dr. Tom Crouch. “He was fiddling around with our objects; objects from our collection. Curator Carolyn Russon is a photographer, too, so she worked with him on and off over the years and decided to include a couple of images in this show. Again, like the rest of the show, it’s that bridge between art and technology.”


Room with a cloud.

Nimbus Munnekeholm by Berndnaut Smilde, 2012. Digital C-type print on Dibond. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Nimbus Munnekeholm by Berndnaut Smilde

“[Berndaut Smilde] picks interesting, geometric spaces,” explained Crouch. “Using chemical reactions, he creates clouds. He has a couple of minutes to take an image that he likes. I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition to have the outdoors inside; to have the notion of flying in space, the freedom of flight, clouds, angelic stuff, trapped in this interesting space.”



This 1964 A4-H “Universal” helmet, designed for more than one suit, could fit on more than one suit. The x-ray reveals ball bearings in the neck ring that allowed the helmet to move right and left without restriction. Image by Mark Avino courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Helmet X-Ray by Mark Avino

Appearing in the exhibit Suited For Space, photographer Mark Avino sent various pieces of NASA space suits through X-ray machines to capture the complexity of their design. “He wanted to show non-astronaut people what it was like inside a spacesuit,” explained Crouch. “Though his pieces are not a part of High Art, they belong together.”



Searching for Goldilocks by Angela Palmer. Engraved Mirogard Glass, 2012. Photo Courtesy of Richard Holttum

Searching For Goldilocks by Angela Palmer

“This is called Searching for Goldilocks,” said Crouch. “It’s the work of Angela Palmer who is based in Oxford. She links science and technology. She’s worked, for example, with physicians and archaeologists to map mummies. All of these projects link science and art. That’s what she does. What you’re looking at is the Keppler Observatory, one of NASA’s largest observatories. It was designed to look for solar systems that had planets. Scientists called them ‘Goldilocks’ because they are not too hot, not too cold—just right for life. She took real scientific data and transformed it into a work of art. Each of the dots represents a system with the potential for life. You can see the ones with planetary orbits. Each sheet of glass is a ¼ of a million light years between each. So, you’re looking back through time as well as across distance. It’s about the possibility of life in the universe. Expressed in a work of art that’s really pretty cool. It is beautiful.”



Practice Day SFO by Lise Lemeland, 2009. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Practice Day S50 by Lisa Lemeland

An aerobatic pilot and artist based in California, Lemeland superimposed images of aerobatic maneuvers over a painted aeronautical chart.

“She’s combined her own sensibilities as an artist with her skill as an aerobatic pilot,” explained Crouch. “These pilots do maneuvers in an imaginary box that they aren’t allowed to leave. That’s what she’s showing you here, the box she was flying in in that plane.”

Another Lemeland painting featured in the exhibit shows her conception of “blacking out.” “She’s playing with the same thing here: aerobatic images connected with her vision of the ground,” said Crouch. “These pilots black out doing these maneuvers—the blood’s draining out of your brain. This is her notion of what it looks like as your vision starts to tunnel.”


Flying boy

Flying Boy Over Truro's Pond, 2009, by Fran Forman. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Flying Boy Over Truro’s Pond by Fran Forman

Utilizing vintage photographs of family members and ancestors, Forman integrates her personal relations with surrealistic conceptions of flying. Ultimately a digital piece, Forman’s work is a prime example of combining technological and traditional art forms. Appearing in the High Art exhibit, Crouch thought it an appropriate piece to feature.

“I think one of the oldest attributes of being human is the desire to fly,” said Crouch. “I mean, it’s the one thing in the animal kingdom that we can’t do. We can run, swim, lots of things, but we couldn’t fly. And the envy of the birds and flying insects, I think, is part of what made us who we are.”