A candlelight painting recently rescued from obscurity shows two children absorbed in play. Kelly Grovier explores a history of wonder in art.
We should wonder more about wonder. It’s the fire that burns behind every scientific discovery and every searching work of art. It’s wonder that illuminates the minds of Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30) and ignites with lucent magic the mist of our imagination when it bends to the rainbow in John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831).
Wonder likewise likely played at least a small role in your pausing here on a platform devoted entirely to the wondrous wanderings of writers, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and artists. Anyone, according to Albert Einstein, “who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed”. And yet, Einstein also believed that “the process of scientific discovery” – the very pursuit to which he dedicated his life – “is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder”. Wonder, in a sense, was a pendulating force that impelled and repelled him.
Since antiquity, philosophers have been equally divided about the primacy of wonder as a prerequisite for profound thinking. While Plato famously insisted “philosophy begins in wonder” and saw the emotion as fundamental to thought, the French philosopher René Descartes believed astonishment and awe were obstacles to clear cogitation. “Although it is good to be born with some kind of inclination to this passion”, he wrote in his final philosophical treatise The Passions of the Soul in 1649, “because it disposes us to the acquisition of sciences, yet we ought afterwards to endeavour as much as we can to be rid of it”. For him, wonder is like a set of training wheels for deep understanding; it may get you moving in the right direction, but you don’t want your friends to see you relying on it.
For the Canadian-American poet-scientist Rebecca Elson, who died, aged