Face to Face with Professor Martin Kemp on Lateral Thinking, The “University” and “Structural Intuition.”

kempThanks to a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Professor Martin Kemp, art historian and the world’s leading authority on Leonardo Da Vinci (which is just one of his many astounding credits) was delivered live via Skype from his studio in England to our “50 Sacred Objects” class at the Jesuit Seminary at the GTU.

I arrived early to get a front row corner seat so as to have a much more face to face encounter with Prof. Kemp who was on big screen about eight feet away.

I had been asked by my superb professor, Kathryn Barush (who was mentored by Kemp at Oxford) to prepare two questions and also submit photos of a pice of art from the 15th Century for Kemp to comment on. I had already sent on pictures of  Lorenzo Ghiberti’s amazing “paradise” door in Florence – and I had reviewed probably 3-4 hours of Kemp lectures on neuroscience, Leonardo, perception, art history and ways of “thinking.”

We had already done one of these “Webinar’s with Iconographer Aiden Hart – and it had been unreal. So I knew what to expect.

I cannot say that Kemp actual lecture to us yielded many surprises because I had watched so many lectures of his and soaked it all in already.

(I will list a brief bio at the end of this, but it is by no means exhaustive – like it doesn’t mention his work helping construct Leonardo’s “flying machines” – which apparently worked a lot better than anticipated; or his work on the “Codex Leicester” – which Bill Gates bought a few years back for $30 million – the single highest amount EVER for a book – and has engendered a friendship between the two) .

I digress. I got to engage Kemp directly not on art but on THINKING, the University system and how we do both Science and Art.

It was kind of thrilling.

This is the view from my seat and the camera in return is pointed at us and we can talk back and forth.

My first question:

“The University system seems quite linear, competitive and high;y compartmentalized. Your presentations happily promote “lateral thinking” – although you don’t like that term and prefer “looking sideways” as a better way of putting it I believe – and seem to move across disciplines eagerly. I find this compelling. In fact, it is what my M.A. is supposed to be about at the GTU – but I am not sure is possible. My question: How can this view be promoted at ground level?”


“Well I quite agree that the University system is highly compartmentalized…it has been getting more and more so since the turn of the Century even to the point now where many disciplines have their own language that is not decipherable to others. It is quite a problem. 

But there is a balance. We must have experts in their fields of study. Some people think they can just waltz right in and get an immediate grip. That being said it is often the Outsider who does bring in the new perspective. Look at Watson and Crick and DNA. One a chemist, the other a biologist and they change the who world of molecular biology. 

If a person has the discipline of knowing how to do science – how to ask the right questions and then follow through they can learn a great deal about a new discipline in a short period of time. “

I am sure he said quite a bit more. I think they are, no?) I think the thing that impressed me so was – and I had found this in his lectures too – was the measured response. I could have been a crackpot or zealot (I do not think I am either but then crackpots and zealots usually do not, no?)

Yet – the wise and measured response that encouraged further exploration – but with caution.

No one else was asking questions (he can be a tad intimidating given his brilliance I suppose – I am too old to be intimidated – plus I lived on the streets of West Oakland for  year)…so I asked a follow-up (related):

“Leonardo had an uncanny boldness and you describe the normal ‘six degrees of separation” as – in Leonardo – as ‘one degree of separation’ in pretty much all he did. This touches on your talk of ‘Structural Intuition” – as that intuition about the pursuit of a truth that is prior to its investigation or production. I have experienced myself many times – like when I was once asked to produce a product that was patent-able in a few months. I just kinda ‘knew’ it could be done and how to do it – then – as you say – you have to do the work. Can you comment on this idea of Structural Intuition as it relates both to the Scientist (in our case as theologians) and then then Artist?


KEMP:”Well we have all had this experience starting as children observing things in nature. We see how water swirls down a drain, or the shape of a nut and we are fascinated and ask ‘why?” 

(Kemp then quotes from memory from a letter from Einstein on many of his ideas coming prior to even language – being “somatic.”  This is in a lecture online which I will add here later – it is amazing.)

Professor Kemp then gave a few other examples which my notes (grrr) will not help with. One was the invention of Carbon 16 (or “Q-Carbon”) which could have only “have arrived at by intuition as a start.”

Again he counseled boldness – but responsible boldness. He said it had worked for him, but that he had started early simply in the hard sciences.

When it came time to do the slides of the art…my slides (the doors) was second (hey…hey chose the order) and Prof. Barush asked me if it was okay if we skipped me.

I mean I had kinda been the only one to really engage Kemp in a spirited back and forth and taken enough time.

I heartily and readily agreed (and asked later if I had overstepped? – No, not at all.)

I dearly love Prof. Barush as she is the only Prof. I have really had at the GTU who allows for “free speech.” The days of that in Berkeley are OVER. It’s really much more like daily walking through a minefield.

But yesterday was an extraordinary day – and I got some great answers from a truly great man of faith, intellect and vision..


Martin Kemp

Kemp was trained in natural sciences and art history at Cambridge University(Downing College) and the Courtauld Institute of Art,University of London. He was British Academy Wolfson Research Professor (1993–98). For more than 25 years he was based in Scotland (University of Glasgow andUniversity of St Andrews). He has held visiting posts in Princeton, New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Kemp has written books about Leonardo da Vinci, including Leonardo (Oxford University Press, 2004, rev. 2011). He has published on imagery in the sciences of anatomy, natural history and optics, including The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale University Press).

Kemp has focused on issues of visualisation, modelling and representation. He has written a regular column called Science in Culture in Nature (an early selection published as Visualisations, OUP, 2000). The Nature essays are developed in Seen and Unseen (OUP, 2006), in which his concept of “structural intuitions” is explored. His most recent[when?] book is Christ to Coke: How Image becomes Icon (OUP, 2011). Several of his books have been translated into various languages.

He has curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, includingSpectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 andSeduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007. He was also guest curator for Circa 1492 at the National Gallery of Art inWashington in 1992.

In 2000, he advised skydiver Adrian Nicholas as he constructed a parachuteaccording to Leonardo’s drawings from materials which would have been available in his day. In 1485 Leonardo had scribbled a simple sketch of a four-sided pyramid covered in linen. Alongside, he had written: “If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards (11 m) on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury.” In June 2000, Nicholas launched himself from a hot air balloon 10,000 feet (3,000 m) over South Africa. He parachuted for five minutes as a black box recorder measured his descent, before cutting himself free of the device and releasing a conventional parachute. Leonardo’s parachute made such a smooth and slow descent that the two jumpers accompanying Nicholas had to brake twice to stay level with him.


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