Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry

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This revealing study considers the remarkable alliance between chemistry and art from the late eighteenth century to the period immediately following the Second World War. Synthetic Worlds offers fascinating new insights into the place of the material object and the significance of the natural, the organic, and the inorganic in Western aesthetics.

Esther Leslie considers how radical innovations in chemistry confounded earlier alchemical and Romantic philosophies of science and nature while profoundly influencing the theories that developed in their wake. She also explores how advances in chemical engineering provided visual artists with new colors, surfaces, coatings, and textures, thus dramatically recasting the way painters approached their work. Ranging from Goethe to Hegel, Blake to the Bauhaus, Synthetic Worlds ultimately considers the astonishing affinities between chemistry and aesthetics more generally. As in science, progress in the arts is always assured, because the impulse to discover is as immutable and timeless as the drive to create.

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Editorial Reviews

The Guardian - Steven Poole
"Fascinating. . . . Filled with sparkling things, as the story progresses to the Vorticists, Walter Benjamin's arcades and chemical corporation I.G. Farben's links with the Nazis."
Scotland on Sunday - Andrew Crumey
"Leslie quotes fascinating passages in which [Friedlieb Ferdinand] Runge saw his coloured pictures as indicative of the self-organising principle of life itself. She unearths other writers of equal interest to support her thesis. . . . The changes in attitude which she charts are interesting and important."
Art Monthly - Ian Hunt
"An original account of the material history of colour as synthesised by chemistry. . . . Writes both beautifully and forcefully."
Modern Painters
"A gripping, mostly German history of a 200-year period during which perceptions about the relationship between art and nature were profoundly affected by the chemical industry, sometimes with devastating consequences. . . . Absorbing, shocking, and funny."
Times Higher Education Supplement - John Emsley
"A remarkable work of scholar that is rewarding to read on many levels. Although 'page-turner' is not an adjective normally associated with reviews of academic books, it is one that sums up the enjoyment that I had when reading Synthetic Worlds. . . . an enjoyable read to the very last paragraph. . . . It offers a source of well-researched information, thought-provoking debate and an enjoyable read."
Times Literary Supplement - Joseph Rykwert
"Synthetic Worlds by Esther Leslie is an absorbing account of the development of dyestuffs chemistry and technology in Germany, showing howw it tentative beginnings grew rapidly into a powerful synthetics industry. . . . There is, too, something sinisterly magical about the true historical process she chronicles. . . . The protests of the Situationists against the 'Society of Spectacle,' the poems of J. H. Prynne which analyse the commercializing of the direct aesthetic experience, the satirical lyrics of the band Poly-Styrene (named after an IG product), the novels of Iain Sinclair—all are fragments shored against the ruin Leslie so compellingly describes."
Isis - Agust� Nieto-Galan

Synthetic Worlds revisits several aspects of our knowledge of the fascinating story of the emergence of artificial substances from the mid-nineteenth to the twentieth century; in doing so, it serves as an excellent example of how we might furthere explore a major technological change in history. The book opens new avenues of research. It examines synthetic products in a very different way than the approaches standard with the community of historians of science and technology. . . .  This is a daring and original book that will raise many interesting questions for historians of science and technology. Despite its heterodoxy, as a whole it challenges an overly optimistic image of science, technology and progress that is still a subtle component of our research agendas."

"Leslie's astonishing volume is at once eclectic and subversive, a pastiche of principles and practices laced into the lives and times that defined some of the most interesting and important chemical discoveries and inventions. . . . Enjoy the artwork and the extraordinary quality of the publisher's efforts."
"Leslie has produced a sparkling, kaleidoscopic exploration of what happened to art, aesthetics and the human condition when natural products were replaced by synthetic ones, and how industrial progress and consumerism have thrown up waste and pollution that even chemists cannot transform into value within a human timescale."– Ambix: The Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
"Leslie's astonishing volume is at once eclectic and subversive, a pastiche of principles and practices laced into the lives and times that defined some of the most interesting and important chemical discoveries and inventions. . . . Enjoy the artwork and the extraordinary quality of the publisher's efforts."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781861892485
  • Publisher: Reaktion Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 1/16/2006
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Esther Leslie is lecturer in English and humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and Hollywood Flatlands: Critical Theory, Animation and the Avant-garde.

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Table of Contents

Glints, Facets and Essence
Substance and Philosophy, Coal and Poetry
Eyelike Blots and Synthetic Colour
Shimmer and Shine, Waste and Effort in the Exchange Economy
Twinkle and Extra-terrestriality:  A Utopian Interlude
Class Struggle in Colour
Nazi Rainbows
Abstraction and Extraction in the Third Reich
After Germany:  Pollutants, Aura and Colours That Glow
Nature's Beautiful Corpse
Select Bibliography

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