Synthetic Worlds considers the remarkable alliance between chemistry and art, taking us from the late eighteenth century to the period immediately following the Second World War. Esther Leslie offers fascinating new insights into the place of the material object and the significance of the natural, the organic, the inorganic and the synthesized in this poetics of science.
Through its dazzling innovations, which began in the nineteenth century, chemistry has granted new colours and surfaces, new substances, coatings and textures to the world. Often they are the result of accidents or the by-products of pollution. Chemistry has also invented simulants and surrogates for naturally occurring materials. Sometimes these developments confounded earlier alchemical and Romantic philosophies of science and nature, but, at other times, dynamic theories of chemical action combined with the emergent chemistry textbook orthodoxy. For example, the colour wheels of Goethe and Philipp Otto Runge, Hegelian theories of a spirit that inhabits dyes and 'drives' materials, and Romantic ideas of the weddings of substances influenced the experiments that boosted the successful German chemical industry after the 1840s. In turn, chemistry's discoveries seeped back into philosophy and art.
Esther Leslie’s Synthetic Worlds considers this and other startling affinities between chemistry, industry, aesthetics and art. Themes include the impact of artificial imitations and synthetics, the location of value, the mutability of substance, chemical fragility and artistic technique, the poetics of the inorganic and pollution, Bauhaus-influenced modulation and patina in art practice, and nationalist narratives of chemical breakthrough.
‘Her book is filled with sparkling things.’ – The Guardian
‘. . . 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.’ – Modern Painters
‘. . . a remarkable work of scholarship that is rewarding to read at many levels. Although “page-turner” is not an adjective normally associated with reviews of academic books, it is one that sums up the enjoyment I had when reading Synthetic Worlds . . . it offers a source of well-researched information, thought-provoking debate and an enjoyable read.’ – The Times Higher Education Supplement
‘An original account of the material history of colour as synthesised by chemistry.’ – Art Monthly
‘Synthetic Worlds revisits several aspects of our knowledge of the fascinating story of the emergence of artificial substances from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century; in doing so it serves as an excellent example of how we might further explore a major technological change in history . . . a daring and original book.’ – Isis
‘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 . . . Leslie's hypnotic and stylish prose ranges widely.’ – Ambix: The Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Esther Leslie is Lecturer in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000) and Hollywood Flatlands: Critical Theory, Animation and the Avant-garde (2002).