Science Book a Day Interviews Martin Kemp

Martin Kemp

Special thanks to Martin Kemp for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University. He has written and broadcast extensively on imagery in art and science from the Renaissance to the present day. He speaks on issues of visualisation and lateral thinking to a wide range of audiences. – From Martin’s Homepage

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#1 – Your book is based on the Louise Smith Bross Lectures you gave in 2000. What motivated you to convert these lectures into a book?

The benefaction for the lectures includes the book as part of the obligation and remuneration. I had researched various relevant topics over the years, and it seems like a good opportunity to join them up into a book. The lectures, as spoken, were different from the written book, which is in effect an independent work on the same theme.

#2 – There are close to 200 illustrations in your book. How did you decide which illustrations to leave in and which to leave out?

I included all those illustrations without which it is very difficult to follow the text; that is to say any image that is discussed in visual detail is illustrated – as far as is practical. For me, the illustrations in themselves carry a key part of the narrative. The benefaction allowed a sum to meet illustration costs, but Chicago University Press spent way over this without warning me. I lost over £3000 on the cost of illustrations, and ended up owing my agent money!

#3 – What would be the “take home message” you would like people to take away from your book?

2 related “messages”:

1) that there we have an enduring propensity of read animals in human terms and humans in terms of animals, particularly their faces;

2) that they way this has been expressed in art and science over the years is very malleable in relation to a series of factors, above all how different societies have viewed animals in relation to human beings. An obvious, big example, is that how “primitive” people and primates are viewed has been radically affected by Darwinian evolution.

#4 – It’s been 6 years since your book came out. What has been the response to it?

It was well received, particularly in the media, but was reviewed less widely that I hoped. Cross-disciplinary books tend to slip between the gaps in specialist periodicals and tend not to fall under neat categories for other publications than run book reviews.  I was not impressed by Chicago’s marketing, which is way below that of Oxford University Press. It has sold less well than most of my books. I have some sense that it has disappeared.

#5 – Are you working on any new books or projects at the moment you can tell us about?

I have just finished the book of the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia. This is, Structural Intuitions. Seeing Shapes in Art and Science, which looks at underlying orders in nature (from the biggest to the smallest) as perceived by artists, architects, engineers and scientists from Leonardo to now. (I do not have a publication date yet).

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