Biomorphism and Art of Rounded Forms

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.

Drawing of 'Sea Form (Porthmeor)' (1958) by Barbara Hepworth. Pencil and watercolour on paper, 1998.
Drawing of Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Sea Form (Porthmeor)’ (1958). Pencil and watercolour on paper, 1998.

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.


  • I was listening to Brian Cox on the radio this morning. He talked about how the universe is accelerating it’s expansion and no one has any idea exactly how or why.
    It strikes me that art is a really important tool in teaching how life works because science only exists when there are questions to be answered. Imagining answers to those questions using other techniques than scientific method (but not necessarily contradicting it by any means) seems to be a valuable contribution that art can make in the process of scientific discovery. No harm in thinking around the subject a bit using different methods eh!

    I thought I’d chuck in another thought too. Hepworth has discussed how she was strongly influenced by the Cornish landscape in a lot of her sculptures, so I suppose they are ‘geomorphic’ too! One for the Geologists out there.

    Cheers Kathryn, enjoying reading the blog!

  • And Landscape Archaeologists… Indeed, I often think about what Hepworth wrote about the landscape when driving around Cornwall. She described it to be a very sensual experience.

    Hi Alistair – thank you for your comment and I’m pleased that you’re enjoying my blog! Your first point is a subject that concerns my thinking a great deal. I completely agree that imagining new questions requires creative thinking. A couple of hundred years ago, before we understood inheritance or had developed powerful microscopes, I think artists had a valuable contribution to make to the process of scientific questioning, with questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” Today, I think about my own scientific research and know that it might take years to explain enough to an artist that they might be able to volunteer a useful new question. From what I’ve seen, the most successful art-science collaborations are those in which the artist does not try to understand the nuts and bolts of what the scientist knows, yet approaches the collaboration with equally important skills to give. This article makes some really interesting points – [ ]. I think the following piece is particularly important –

    “For nine months, I tracked a very confident young Swiss artist and astrophysicist working together on a residency. For four months, they were equally enthralled by each other. But then there was a turning point. The artist said to me: “The science is so amazing that I have to prove that I understand it and that I too have a brain.”

    From that moment, I knew he was lost. The work he did at the end of the residency was at best a communications piece trying to explain what quantum fields were.”

    I completely agree with your observation that non-scientific methods could be used to imagine new scientific questions. I’d love to run some sculpture classes for scientists of the kind I took part in at art school. “Here’s a pile of random stuff I found in a skip. Now use it and anything else you find in the room to describe your scientific question or recent paper, etc, etc.” With that kind of teaching alongside critical thinking, I think we could change the face of scientific research!

  • I like the idea of scientists playing with piles of scrap to make artworks! I suppose that with the pressure of so much funding to be results-driven, it would be a bit of light relief for a lot of researchers out there. I bet it would produce some interesting ideas too…
    What you say about artists not being sucked into the trap of trying to impress scientists was interesting. Sometimes they both seem to feel the need for esoteric jargon to come across. There’s a fair few times that ‘dichotomous branching’ has been used to just mean ‘forked’ by both scientists and artists I’ll bet! Having written up undergraduate research in both a science discipline and an artistic one, the two styles of writing felt surprisingly similar sometimes. Did you find that too?
    Thanks for the thoughts about my blog too Kathryn and I’ll certainly check out the links. Sounds interesting!

  • I’d never thought about the writing styles before, just dismissed them as different. My BA dissertation was a discussion about film aesthetics, whereas by BSc dissertation was a lab-based investigation into the effect of mutation on a protein’s function. Very different subjects, but now I think about it they did both require a careful analysis of data (or film), critical thinking, some historical perspective and a conclusion about my findings. So it seems there are a basic set of skills common to many disciplines. It is nonsensical that they are considered to be such separate subjects.

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