How Data inspired Dada

Or the graph’s effect on abstraction. By Neal Von Flue


Prior to the 18th century, there are very few instances of people creating a chart or graph to convey data. I’m not talking about charts such as maps, but instead that subsection of visual data presentation that we see nowadays in a boardroom sitting on an easel, or in an article to reinforce a point; line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts, diagrams. What we also refer to as Information Displays, Data Graphing, or Infographics.

But there are a few early instances where someone stumbled across the value of such methods. In the 10th (or possibly 11th) century, an anonymous line chart of planetary movement was included in an addendum to a 5th century manuscript of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. And later in the 14th century, Nicolas Oreses used something resembling a bar graph to show the velocity of a moving object, in a 300-year head start on graphing Newton’s Laws.

But the real value of graphing data visually seems to be discovered in the 18th century by Joseph Priestley- a scientist and lecturer, writer of 150 books, member of the Lunar Society, and discoverer of Oxygen. Priestley’s most popular charts are made to support his teaching work, creations like his New Chart of History, which he made in 1769 with the purpose of:

Impressing the imagination indelibly with a just image of the rise, progress, extent, duration, and contemporary state of all the considerable empires that have ever existed in the world.

Priestly provides a new synchronized way to assemble the linear facts of history and begins to scratch the surface of a chart’s potential. Editions of this chart are printed for decades, and his lectures are so well received that they earn him an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh.

In the wake of Priestley’s work, the ubiquitous value of visualizing data comes to light around the turn of the 19th century with William Playfair, the creator of Graphical Statistics. Playfair is credited with officially creating the line graph, bar graph and pie chart- codifying the idea of visual data representation with elegant diagrams like this look at the commercial history of world empires from 1500 BC to 1805 AD:

And his book on exports between England and other countries:

Or this chart showing in a single view The Price of a Quarter of Wheat and Wages of Labor through 3 centuries and 12 Kings:

Playfair’s graphs are so beautiful and new- so arresting and effective- that he is sometimes accused of falsifying facts (admittedly his professional history as a starter of numerous failed business schemes and accused criminal might have helped that opinion.) But Playfair wrote honestly enough in his first book of charts about the value of being able to read them accurately:

Those who do not, at the first sight, understand the manner of inspecting the Charts, will read with attention the few lines of directions facing the first Chart, after which they will find all the difficulty entirely vanish, and as much information may be obtained in five minutes as would require whole days to imprint on the memory, in a lasting manner, by a table of figures.

And with the popularity of data graphs, we begin to understand how translating something dry and tabular into a visual statement can be an incredibly powerful tool. It arouses our senses- makes us more receptive- and helps us find causality, relationships and history within data which may go unnoticed when we’re relegated to pouring over tables of numbers in neat, even, equally-important rows.

In some ways, these charts will prepare the average person for the more abstract art that will come a century later. They are beautiful and full of movement. They utilize the formal properties of art for effectiveness, and their compositions- the lines, shapes and colors- are not dictated by artistic intent or the need to recreate a “viewpoint” but actually shaped according to information. By being faithful to the data, in the way that a still-life artist attempts to be faithful to his view of a bowl of fruit on a table, chart creators are forced to make visual decisions that they would never make on a blank sheet of paper. And, the way that a graph’s purpose and it’s visual interest rub against each other can create an interesting friction.

Take this chart made by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869, regarding Napoleon’s attack on Russia:

At a glance- and measured as art- it’s bold and angular. It’s reminiscent of nature and it’s sharply jointed features support a dynamic composition which climbs slightly; making it feel a little optimistic (or perhaps we’ve been conditioned by line graphs to view an upward-trending line as an indicator of success.) But to read it as data- to access it’s knowledge- you only need to be told that the width of the “branch” at any given point represents the number of soldiers in Napoleon’s army, and it becomes fairly terrifying. The dust-colored line is their advance into Russia, the black is their retreat. The chart was made to a specific scale, meaning that each millimeter of width in the two branches represents 10,000 men. To complete the scale reference, the left end of that thin black line crossing back over the Neman River in defeat is 1 millimeter. Napoleon walked into Russia with 442,000 men and by the time he got to his intended target, he had less than 1/4 of that. We can see some parts of their retreat where he is down to less than half a millimeter.

Visually, this graph is beautiful, but it’s message is indeed grim. And that kind of dynamic, or layered meaning, is what a lot of artists are looking for. A friction that moves people.

Florence Nightingale was a particular champion of graphing data, creating the curiously beautiful blend of Playfair’s pie chart and bar graph that we now call the Nightingale Rose chart. They are engaging asymmetrical designs that make smart use of a narrative effect that some graphs provide, when you create connections between each slice. You compare each slice or petal while reading around, and they blossom or shrink as the data changes.

On the surface it’s beautiful, but Nightingale made this chart to show the devastating effect that non-violent factors had on soldiers in the Crimean war. The red areas of the chart below show deaths in battle, the blue areas show deaths from infection, disease and poor sanitation in camps.

She used this chart to plead for better sanitation in war camps and with the wounded. And the staggering effects of this knowledge representation will move her to found a nursing school.

These charts involve the picture plane in a narrative. They inspire shape, color and composition with meaning outside of traditional representation. They are reconditioning our eyes for artists like Mondrian, Kandinsky and Matisse. Possibly even inspiring them to step away from rendering and realism all together.

Aesthetic philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz makes the case in his work A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics that there are six conditions for the presentation of art: beauty, form, representation, reproduction of reality, artistic expression and innovation.

Some of these are well-worth arguing over (or at least reading all 350 pages of his defense for it) but let’s leave aside the more vague or subjective notions in favor of solid ground: “beauty, form, reproduction of reality and innovation.” According to this criteria, I find the history of charts and diagrams to be riddled with fine art. And I think their influence on our aesthetic tastes may have paved the way for the generations of artists who followed.

Alfred H. Barr Jr. was an art historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern art in New York. He had a special interest in the abstractionists and created the first retrospectives of Van Gogh, Matisse and Cezanne- His work reframe how culture thought about Modern Art and its influences. He launched a groundbreaking show of Cubist and Abstract Art in 1936, and he wanted to find a way to legitimize the work by relating the deep lineage of the art schools that he loved to the uninitiated viewer.

And what more effective way to show information than with a diagram- which he featured on the catalog cover:

The size of the lettering in this chart dictate the power of influence. The black ink presents what was called Inside Influences (read “European”) and the text in red shows Outside Influences (read “Stolen” at least in some cases.) But its clear that Alfred H. Barr Jr. understood the power of line, shape and color to get ideas across dynamically.

And if he had gone back just a little further with his timeline- maybe made the book slightly taller– I like to think he would have included Florence Nightingale and William Playfair. Or Joseph Priestley, up there at the top.

If only his chart had room for a few more facts, he could have given the art world it’s first look at the strong, vibrant branch in the evolution towards modern art; a beam forged and hammered into shape by the post-enlightenment world, striving as we still do to persuade each other by finding an attractive way to explain the truth.


Images are © their respective owners and used for review purposes only