Lorna McIntosh: Elective Affinities

June 2012

Publication: The Times

It’s not uncommon, when discussing human relationships, to use the idea of ‘chemistry’ as a convenient metaphor for the way people interact.


Such ideas are at the centre of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften,  (’Elective Affinities’), published in 1809. The novel explores a theory, common in Enlightenment thinking, that drew parallels between chemical and human behaviour. The now redundant term was used to describe the tendency of certain chemical  ‘species’ to combine with some substances in preference to others.


The artist, Lorna McIntosh, who completed a residency last year at Balmungo House under the aegis of the Barns-Graham Trust, has explored Goethe’s thinking in this novel as well as undertaking a wide study of other thinkers such as Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), Luke Howard (1772 – 1864) and James Hutton (1726 – 1797). All were early pioneers in their respective fields of chemistry, meteorlogy and geology. As if to underline the connectedness of MacIntosh’s approach she cites correspondence between Howard and Geothe, the latter writing the lines about Howard’s pioneering study of clouds:


But Howard gives us with his clear mind

The gain of lessons new to all mankind;

That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp

He first has gained, first held with mental grasp.



Passionately interested in physics, geology and the way seemingly discrete scientific disciplines are fundamentally connected at a deeper level, McIntosh is genuinely and fixedly an artist in the true sense. She is able to combine her thinking, reading, research and observation with a convincing talent for drawing and visual representation. Her work (mainly oil on paper) can be read at many levels as it combines elements of the personal with those of the physical world. This is strongly implied in titles such as They seek each other out, attract, seize, destroy .


Seeking to explain her fascination with Goethe, McIntosh quotes from his third Lecture on Anatomy of 1796 :


The main characteristic of minerals… [is that]… they resemble attractions between human beings. This is why chemists speak of elective affinities, even though the forces that move mineral components one way or another and create mineral structures are often purely external in origin…



Elective Affinitiesis therefore an accurate and elegant title for her show as it draws real parallels between her own work and that of Goethe two centuries ago. Just as the characters, Edward and Charlotte, in Goethe’s novel discuss current scientific thinking, so McIntosh’s work can be read as metaphors which work on a physical, spiritual and emotional level.



Looking at the titles of work it is clear that Macintosh provides small footholds or clues for the viewer, small fissures of access which open up into greater understanding and enjoyment. One title –  It cuts its facets from within –  is taken from the poem The Imaginary Iceberg  by the American poet Elizabth Bishop:


The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.



These words are used because, like Goethe and McIntosh, Bishop also saw in the geological and physical world apt metaphor for the human condition.



McIntosh’s images are quiet, understated works of great beauty, control and thought. They deserve special mention and great praise.