Everything at once, or, one thing at a time?

Untitled (Everything at once, or one thing at a time?), 2004
oil, paper, and printed matter on board
Robert Van Vranken
Commissioned by the National Academy of Science

This is my favorite artwork at the National Academy of Science - a trompe l'oeil window of reclaimed architectural elements, peering into a scientist's study. Artist Robert Van Vranken includes books, globe, tools, diagrams, a light bulb, a comfy chair, and a panoramic view - this is a cluttered mind as much as a laboratory/studio, and to think about "everything at once or one thing at a time" is the eternal dilemma of the incurably curious.

Although I covet this room full of books and toys, the painting is not unambiguously escapist. Across the far wall, under the arch and behind the suspended light bulb, is inscribed (in part) perhaps the definitive science policy quote:

Hear the sum of the whole matter in the compass of one brief word--every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus.

--Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Prometheus - who, in the pre-graduate education era, suffered for knowledge by having his liver continually torn out by an eagle - is an ominous presence to intrude on a polymath's intellectual idyll. But he's an important reminder that Science exists in the world - with all the fortunate and unfortunate consequences thereof (see here for more on that).

In the actual painting (slightly larger version here) it's possible to read the titles of the books, and I'm sure there's something to be gleaned from that as well, but this is the best I can do online:

Untitled (everything at once, or one thing at a time?), 2004
Robert Van Vranken

More of Van Vranken's work:


Untitled (where do thoughts come from, where do they go?)

Robert Van Vranken
Commissioned by the National Academy of Science

Robert Van Vranken's imagined laboratory is filled with a history of instruments of learning, as well as references to the trials of the intellectual life. The most notable of these is the quotation of Albrecht Durer's figure of Melancholy (Melancholia I, 1514), surrounded by instruments of learning; in the upper right, we find the meditative figure of Darwin - inspired by the figure on the bronze doors of the National Academy of Sciences at 2101 Constitution Avenue. The imaginary studio looks out on nature - the inspiration behind the inquiry. In the sky, the star chart from the Atlas Coelestis (Celestial Atlas) of John Flamsteed and Sir James Thornhill (1729) refers not only to human investigation, but also to the engraved image in the lobby of this building. (source)


Untitled (burden of dreams)
; frame with doors
Robert Van Vranken

More like this

I really really like this painting - thank you for posting about it. It reminds me of Dutch 17th century paintings.