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Arts & Humanities

Portrait of a Spanish Scientist as Artist

Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1915Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1915. Legado Cajal (CSIC). Instituto Cajal. Madrid, Spain.

At the intersection of art and science is a Spanish Nobel prizewinner named Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Many in the scientific world today recognize Cajal as a pioneer in cell biology and neuroscience, and a renowned medical illustrator. Now he is being more fully recognized as an empirical observer and dedicated photographer.

In her latest book Lens, Laboratory, Landscape: Observing Modern Spain, Claudia Schaefer explores the uses of observation for the acquisition of knowledge about the world in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spain, set within the context of the country’s problematic road to modernization and its participation in the European scientific community.

Schaefer focuses on the time between the second part of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century during which Cajal experimented, documented his discoveries, created photographic images, and practiced science in the laboratory and in the family setting.

From Bridging Fellowship to Book

For Schaefer, who is Rush Rhees Chair and Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature and of Film and Media Studies, the book represents “an intellectual labor of love and a personal challenge to find a language of intersecting interests between the humanities and sciences.”

A Bridging Fellowship in fall 2010 gave her the opportunity to work with colleagues from the University of Rochester, George Eastman House, and the Instituto Cajal in Madrid. From these and other cross-disciplinary collaborations came a 2012 Humanities Project exploring the role of observation in the arts and sciences.

A second component stemming from the fellowship is a course she is currently teaching called “Politics, Portraits, Public Spaces: The Power of Photography in Spain and Spanish America.” The course explores the development of the photographic image, and the social and economic potentials of observation in both scientific and pictorial terms, from 1839 to today.

Lens, Laboratory, Landscape is the third component of the original Bridging project.

Tracing Modern Spain

Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Valencia, SpainSantiago Ramón y Cajal in Valencia, Spain, in 1885. Legado Cajal (CSIC). Instituto Cajal. Madrid, Spain.

Contrary to most beliefs about Spain’s scientific heritage, a culture of science has existed—and was actively promoted by intellectuals as a central component of building the nation—from the 1830s to the 1950s.

References to technologies of the eye—such as cameras, microscopes, and lenses—proliferated in public discourse and in the press, as the technologies themselves took pride of place in laboratories, the home, photographic studios, topographic studies, and exhibits.

Schaefer argues that with the independence of the American colonies by 1898, and a consequent end to empire, Spain sought to follow the lead of scientists such as Cajal, whose speech on admission to the Spanish Royal Academy of Science referred to “research [as] a fever.” It was dedicated scientific research in all areas of life that would open the door to modernity, he proposed.

In the transition from scientific drawings to photographic images and experiments with processes of development, Cajal made the Spanish scientist visible and documented scientific activity (including the practice of photography) as a profession. For Cajal, the power of photography was its documentation of specific moments and preservation of youthful faces that would in the natural world suffer the ravages of time. His quest for faster and better images was spurred by the challenge of creating something (an emergent image) from nothing (blank paper) and by supplementing the lens of the eye with the lens of the camera. It was not magic, but science, that brought images into existence; the photographer had to be a man of (chemical and optical) science as well as trained with the camera.

Much of Schaefer’s book follows Cajal, from collecting natural artifacts in his youth to sharing the Nobel with Camillo Golgi, but she sets the man and his work within a broader historical and cultural context of “scientific laboratories, photographs, artwork, travel writings, urban development, and cultural geography produced in Spain” during the same decades.

To demonstrate how observation pervaded art and science, the public and the private, Schaefer also examines the legacy of Cajal in other fields such as the “retinal vision” of philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, the topographic studies of geographer Manuel de Terán, and the fascination with (and later distrust of) lenses and sight of artist Salvador Dalí.

Modernity, Interrupted

Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Valencia, SpainSantiago Ramón y Cajal in Valencia, Spain. Legado Cajal (CSIC). Instituto Cajal. Madrid, Spain.

Aided by innovations in visual and observational technologies during those decades, Spanish society developed a passion, curiosity, and concerted interest in fostering its culture of science and scholarship into a professional enterprise. Ultimately, politics and the civil war from 1936 to 1939 disrupted the momentum of scientific inquiry, with many scientists going into exile.

But moribund intellectual life was counteracted by the continued support for the Instituto Cajal, the oldest research center for neurobiology in Spain. The Institute, founded in 1902, houses both the material legacy of Cajal—his slides, drawings, and photographs—and the practical future of scientific laboratories and scientists in Spain.

Schaefer’s research demonstrates that modern Spain was part of the conversation about competing modes of observation, the value of the empirical, and the speed of modern life that would challenge the tenets of observation. Ways of seeing, and learning the conventions of sight, formed the focus of debates still present today.

Learn more about Schaefer’s research and the University of Rochester’s department of modern languages and cultures.