The word ‘biomorphism’ has been running around in my head ever since I visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris last September. In one of the rooms dedicated to surrealist artists, a piece of text discussed biomorphism as a movement within Surrealism in which the artists were captivated by the discoveries that biologists were making at the time. In the early 20th century, technology was allowing scientists to examine the inner landscape of cells: the electron microscope came into use in the early 1930s, which allowed cell ultrastructure to be examined using labelling with different-sized gold particles. I was fascinated by the Surrealists when I was in Secondary School, and yet had never come across the term ‘biomorphism’ before.
This topic covers a surprisingly large field of art, and often descriptions of biomorphic work include reference to abstract expressionism. Some works resemble a sea of microscopic creatures, such as Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Bleu de Ciel [Sky blue]’ (1940) and Arnulf Rainer’s ‘Waterworld I (The fallen rise)’ [Wasserwelt I (Die Gestürzten stehen auf)] (1950-1). Although Joan Miró’s Constellations, including ‘Morning Star’ (1940), speak more clearly of the world through the astronomer’s telescope, I think of these pieces in the same way, as tiny organisms framed by the edges of the canvas.
The more one searches for ‘biomorphic art’, the more the definition appears to decompose into anything looking a bit organic, like a plant or limb of an animal. Taken to the extreme, if machines and industry are defined as hard-edged and geometric, biomorphic refers to anything with hand-drawn curves or rounded form. This notion is particularly evident in biomorphic sculpture, which includes work by Jean (Hans) Arp and Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth’s ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ (1969) could even be said to be ‘anthropomorphic’ looking distinctly like a human head. However, this sculpture is ‘geometric’ in that its lines and circles might have been created using a ruler and pair of compasses, and so my definition of biomorphic earlier in this paragraph as being with curved or rounded forms doesn’t always adhere.
In 2011 I visited Edinburgh for the first time, for the Biochemical Society Cell Signalling meeting. After the final talk I walked over to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Most notably, there was a small exhibition of Edvard Munch’s drawings and a Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour (so familiar with his Art Deco illustrations, this was quite refreshing). However, the painting I was most taken with was Yves Tanguy’s ‘Jamais Plus [Never Again]’ (1939). Tanguy was a French surrealist painter, largely self-taught and who developed his own style of painting seemingly non-representational landscapes. It has often been said that the abstract shapes in the foreground of his paintings are like ameobae, turned to stone. It is perhaps not surprising, having just stepped out of a three-day molecular biology conference, that this painting immediately spoke to me of a barren landscape on the surface of a biological cell.
In reality, the external surface of a cell is much more cluttered than could be depicted in ‘Jamais Plus’. Integral membrane proteins project protein domains into the extracellular space, where they interact with expansive matrix components or cognate proteins on adjacent cells. Such proteins are decorated with branching sugar molecules, which might resemble tree-like structures. Cell surface receptors present their ligand-binding domains on the cell surface, ready to react to particular hormones or drugs diffusing through the extracellular milieu. Cells harbouring a foreign organism present chopped-up pieces on their cell surface to alert passing immune cells.
My over-arching interest is in how art might teach how life works. In a couple of previous posts, namely Fluorescent Microscope Images as Art and Fluorescent Images as Art II: The Individual, I discussed whether images produced by scientists can be considered art in their own right, but perhaps a more important question is whether these images can speak about what life is like at the molecular level without accompanying text? Likewise, the biomorphic work made by the Surrealists might rest on such a thin sliver of an idea (for example, that microscopic life exists in the sea), that the work itself becomes so fantastical that it is little more than the visual equivalent of science fiction. Fluorescent and other microscopic images of the intracellular world could be considered the equivalent of anatomical drawings, which show what parts of the body look like, but with little indication of how they work, with no sense of movement.
To show how molecular life works likely requires a conceptual approach. Schematic drawings are able to communicate to other scientists how protein machines work, and so perhaps these might be a starting point for making more informative art.