the mathematician of cubism

“Pythagorean Crimes” by Tefcros Michaelides is a murder mystery set at the beginning of the 20th century. It starts with Hilbert’s address at the 1900 ICM in Paris (in which he gives his list of problems, such as the 2nd, his program for a finitistic proof of the consistency of the axioms of arithmetic) and ends in the early 1930ties (perhaps you can by now already guess which theorem will play a crucial role in the plot?).

It depicts beautifully daily (or better, nightly) life in mathematical and artistic circles, especially in Paris between 1900 and 1906.

Bricard, Caratheodory, Dedekind, Dehn, De la Vallee-Poussin, Frege, Godel, Hadamard, Hamel, Hatzidakis, Hermite, Hilbert, Klein, Lindemann, Minkowski, Peano, Poincare, Reynaud, Russell and Whitehead all make a brief appearance, as do Appollinaire, Casagemas, Cezanne, Degas, Derain, Max Jacob, Jacobides, Lumiere, Matisse, Melies, Pallares, Picasso, Renoir, Salmon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo, Zola.



Both lists contain names I had never heard of. But the biggest surprise, to me, was to discover the name of Maurice Princet, “le mathématicien du cubisme”.

Princet (1875-1973) was a mathematician who frequented the group around Pablo Picasso at the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre (at least until 1907 when his wife left him for the painter Derain).

Princet introduced the group to the works of Poincare and the concept of the 4-th dimension. He gave Picasso the book “Traité élémentaire de géométrie à quatre dimensions” by Jouffret, describing hyper-cubes and other polyhedra in 4 dimensions and ways to project them dowm to the 2 dimensions of the canvas.



This book appears to have been influential in the genesis of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (the painting also appears, in an unfinished state, in “Pythagorean Crimes”).



Some other painters tried to capture movement with projections from the 4-th dimension. A nice example is Nude descending a staircase by Marcel Duchamp (mostly known for his urinoir…).



Maurice Princet loved to get the artists interested in the new views on space. Duchamp told Pierre Cabanne, “We weren’t mathematicians at all, but we really did believe in Princet”.

I don’t know whether Duchamp liked Princet’s own attempts at painting. Here’s a cubistic work by Maurice Princet himself.



Brancusi’s advice : avoid vampires

My one and only resolution for 2018: ban vampires from my life!

Here’s the story.

In the 1920’s, Montparnasse was at the heart of the intellectual and artistic life in Paris because studios and cafés were inexpensive.

Artists including Picasso, Matisse, Zadkine, Modigliani, Dali, Chagall, Miro, and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi all lived there.

You’ll find many photographs of Picasso in the company of others (here center, with Modigliani and Salmon), but … not with Brancusi.

From A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (Vol 3) by John Richardson:

“Brancusi disapproved of one of of Picasso’s fundamental characteristics—one that was all too familiar to the latter’s fellow artists and friends—his habit of making off not so much with their ideas as with their energy. “Picasso is a cannibal,” Brancusi said. He had a point. After a pleasurable day in Picasso’s company, those present were apt to end up suffering from collective nervous exhaustion. Picasso had made off with their energy and would go off to his studio and spend all night living off it. Brancusi hailed from vampire country and knew about such things, and he was not going to have his energy or the fruits of his energy appropriated by Picasso.”

I learned this story via Austin Kleon who made this video about it:


Show Your Work! Episode 1: Vampires from Austin Kleon on Vimeo.