Crystals, art and culture

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Beyond its importance in science and technology, the word crystal is full of evocations such as purity, transparency, beauty, equilibrium, reason, intelligence, energy, power… the notion of crystal has transcended scientific thinking to also inspire the arts, from literature to painting, from architecture to dance, from music to filmmaking.Did you know that crystals were the first objects to be collected by hominids? Have you noticed the influence the idea of crystal has had in modern architecture? Do you know what the keys to crystalline beauty are?

After the interest of the eighteenth-century romantic poets, literature inspired by crystals underwent a boom in the nineteenth century. Science-fiction masterpieces were written, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, based on electro-crystallization experiments, or Voyage dans le cristal by the imaginative George Sand; but above all it was Jules Verne who masterfully described an unforgettable scene of giant crystals in his famous book, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

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The supposed existence of those great crystals was taken up again in the first half of the twentieth century in comics, in radio and television shows, and in cinema. Undoubtedly the most famous story related to the prodigious power of crystals is that of Superman, in which the crystals from Krypton, his fictitious planet of origin, plays a central role.

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The belief in two worlds of opposing symmetries has pervaded the landscape of the arts and philosophy for centuries. On one hand the mineral world, dominated by the straight line, the cold, periodic and repetitive order of crystals, which is associated with rationality, intelligence, power. On the other hand, the world of life, dominated by the rich symmetry of the curve and ramification, the world of sensuality and passion. Crystallography has played an important role in the intellectual construction of this aesthetic debate.

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The article “Towards the Crystal” written by Amédée Ozenfant y Charles Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau in 1924 is a manifesto of purism, a continuation of cubism. As in the building of the journal itself, the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, designed by Le Corbusier, the power of the straight line was reclaimed, simple shapes liberated from the decorative, and aesthetic value from the machine. Ultimately, it was a manifesto for the purity and exactitude of the crystal. These ideas implacably dominated the architecture of the twentieth century.

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The aesthetic debate between the straight line and the curve, between art as a tool of knowledge and art as passion, is shown in all its profundity in the personal history of two young artists Federico García-Lorca and Salvador Dalí. The Ode to Salvador Dalí written by Lorca is a perfect example of this debate between the crystalline, represented by the young Dalí influenced by the ideas of purism, and the curvy and complex rose preferred by the Andalusian poet. In Poeta en Nueva York, written between 1929 and 1930, the poet still maintained his posture – “always the rose” – in the first verse of the poem that opens the book:

 

Murdered by the sky,

between the forms that go toward the snake

and the forms searching for crystal,

I will let my hair grow.

 

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The monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film by Stanley Kubrick based on a 1948 short story by Arthur C. Clarke, represents a superior intelligence, whether God or an alien civilization. Its form could not be anything other than that of a crystalline polyhedron.

Did you know that…

  • In his romance Preciosa y el aire (“Preciosa and the wind”), Federico García Lorca makes a similar contrast to that of the crystal and the rose when he says:

Playing her parchment moon

          Preciosa comes

         along a watery way

          of crystals and laurels.

  • Superman’s “Memory Crystals” will soon be reality. Researchers from the University of Southampton have succeeded in manipulating the atoms of partially ordered glass in order to develop systems of storage of more than 360 Terabytes that works up to 1000ºC and that has a practically unlimited lifetime.
  • The monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is an opaque prism with proportions of 1:6:14, while in the story by Arthur C. Clarke the film is based on the monolith is transparent with dimensions of 1:4:9.
  • Many artists from all ages have been inspired by crystals. Today this tendency seems more active than ever, such as in the works of Studio Roosegaarde.

To find out more…

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