Alien Microbes: The Microscope, The Telescope, And Symbolist Artistic Vision

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Alien Microbes: The Microscope, The Telescope, And Symbolist Artistic Vision

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In this dissertation, I use artworks created by Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, and Loie Fuller between 1888 and 1905 to address how artists of the Symbolist movement incorporated imagery inspired by the microscope, telescope, and other specialized optical instruments into their work. Like scientists, the Symbolists were interested in the unseen, frequently suggesting moods, emotions, or ideas in their art. I show that, inspired by the recent revelations of optical devices, the three artists I discuss in my case studies considered themselves to be finely tuned instruments of observation that could access realms that lay beyond ordinary human sight. While artists had claimed the role of visionaries for centuries, I argue that the attention to and investment in instruments in nineteenth-century Paris granted additional cultural relevance to artists who claimed to possess enhanced powers of vision. Redon, Munch, and Fuller embraced the new scientific knowledge presented by the microscope and telescope, but they also recognized and explored the limits of what these optical devices could reveal. These three artists offered their carefully honed artistic vision as a type of supplementary optical apparatus that could surpass the current state of technological and scientific development. They rendered subjective experience visible and available to scrutiny, much as science had done for microorganisms and distant galaxies. The ways in which artists adapted micro- and macroscopic imagery into their work also provide us with a lens through which to view the social issues of nineteenth-century France, including the role of religion, the concept of degeneration, and colonialism—major topics across my three case study chapters. Ultimately, my dissertation contributes to the field of art history by demonstrating how the microscope and the telescope altered artistic vision and addressing the significance of gaining access to worlds that were once invisible.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. March 2020. Major: Art History. Advisors: Gabriel Weisberg, Jennifer Marshall. 1 computer file (PDF); xii, 226 pages.

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Otten, Nicole. (2020). Alien Microbes: The Microscope, The Telescope, And Symbolist Artistic Vision. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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