About us
Biomorphism Collage

Biomorphism

Started: 1924

Ended: 1955

Biomorphism Timeline

KEY ARTISTS

Joan MiróJoan Miró
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Yves TanguyYves Tanguy
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Hans ArpHans Arp
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Barbara HepworthBarbara Hepworth
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Arshile GorkyArshile Gorky
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Isamu NoguchiIsamu Noguchi
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
More Top Artists

"I allow myself to be guided by the work which is in the process of being born, I have confidence in it. I do not think about it. The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy. They are born from themselves. It seems to me as if all I do is move my hands."

Hans Arp Signature
Quotes
1 of 10

Beginnings

The capitalized term Biomorphism first entered art history in 1936 when art historian Alfred H. Barr first used "biomorphic sculpture" for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art (1936). Barr, the founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, created a famous and influential flow chart that divided the development of abstraction into two currents. The trend that became known as Biomorphism was described as "intuitional...emotional...organic or biomorphic.... curvilinear.... in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational." It stood in contrast to the "Paul Cézanne - Cubist geometrical tradition" described as "intellectual, structural, geometrical, rectilinear and classical in its austerity and dependence upon logic and calculation." Contrasting the "Cezanne-Cubist" works of Piet Mondrian and Naum Gabo with the Biomorphism of Hans (Jean) Arp and Joan Miró, Barr quipped, "The shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba."

Wassily Kandinsky and Constantin Brâncuși

Wassily Kandinsky's <i>Painting with White Border</i> (May 1913)
Wassily Kandinsky's Painting with White Border (May 1913)

Barr also said that Biomorphism descended from "the art and theories of Gauguin and his circle" and that it "flows through the Fauvism of Matisse to the...pre-war paintings of Kandinsky." In Munich in 1911, Wassily Kandinsky cofounded the Der Blaue Reiter group alongside artists Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabrielle Münter, and others. The group emphasized an Expressionist approach and Kandinsky's influential On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular (1911) emphasized abstraction as most the effective means to reveal elemental truths, spiritual aspirations, and a vision of the future. His abstract works that led to his being dubbed "the father of abstract painting" were equally pioneering in Biomorphism, as elements in his Painting with White Border (1913) suggest trees, a figure on horseback, a dragon, while, as the artist wrote, the overall shape resembles both, "an upspringing flower," and an "egg-like shape." The piece used organic form and movement to convey what Kandinsky described as "extremely powerful impressions" of his short trip home to Moscow in 1912.

Constantin Brâncuși's <i>Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany</i> (1912) was shown at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where some critics ridiculed its egg-like shape.
Constantin Brâncuși's Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany (1912) was shown at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where some critics ridiculed its egg-like shape.

Biomorphism's sculptural treatments also adopted Constantin Brâncuși's practice of direct carving, a process that emphasized the interaction with the raw material itself, as the grain, texture, and color shaped the final work. Additionally, his biomorphic shapes as seen in his Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany (1912), where the head takes on an egg-like shape, also evoked a shell folding in on itself in curvilinear planes resonated with the later Surrealist movement.

Hans Arp

<i>Hans Arp</i> (c. 1925), by an unknown photographer, shows the artist in a 1926 issue of <i>De Stijl</i> that featured his work.
Hans Arp (c. 1925), by an unknown photographer, shows the artist in a 1926 issue of De Stijl that featured his work.

The sculptor, painter, and poet Hans Arp was a leading pioneer in a number of art movements, including Der Moderne Bund, the first artistic organization to promote modern art in Switzerland. As a result, he met Kandinsky in 1912, and a collaborative relationship and correspondence quickly developed between the two men and their companions, the artists Gabriele Münter and Sophie Taeuber. Arp was heavily influenced by Kandinsky's biomorphic works, such as Improvisation with Horses (1911), which he selected for a Der Moderne Bund exhibition.

In Hans Arp's <i>Shirt Front and Fork</i> (1922), a wood relief, painted in black, white, and grey, curvilinear lines and organic forms are emphasized.
In Hans Arp's Shirt Front and Fork (1922), a wood relief, painted in black, white, and grey, curvilinear lines and organic forms are emphasized.

In Paris in 1920 Arp met Brancusi, and, while it did not lead to a long association, Arp would later write a poem in homage to the sculptor's work, describing Brancusi's sculptures as "fables plastiques" (meaning plastic fables), as one form metamorphosed into another. Subsequently, Arp began using biomorphic shapes in collages and wood reliefs, as seen in his Shirt Front and Fork (1922). In it, the curvilinear shape of the fork evokes a human hand, while the shirt front on the left ambiguously suggests the shape of a tooth, the face of a macaque, or a cross section of a green pepper, while simultaneously resisting any identification. The work's Biomorphism, in its provoking of associations. heralded Arp's transition from Dada to Surrealism.

Surrealism

Biomorphism became a major theme in Surrealist art, led by Arp, who was one of the group's founders, in 1924. Along with Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy, he felt that biomorphic images reflected the connection between the human subconscious and reality more accurately. He often created his works in a state of automatism, the performance of creative actions without pre-calculated thought or composition. In the "The Surrealist Manifesto" (1924), André Breton defined the movement as "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought." The concepts of the psychiatrists Sigmund Freud, as expressed in his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), and Carl Jung's collective unconsciousness, in which humanity shared an unconscious state where myths and archetypes originated, were the scientific and theoretical underpinnings of the movement. The biomorphic approach was distinguished from the hyperrealism that dominated other Surrealist imagery, as exemplified in the works of Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali.

Scientific Developments and Biomorphism

Biomorphism drew not only upon the new science of psychology but the biological and physical sciences. As historian Charlotte Douglas noted, at the beginning of the 20th century, "the image of cells - their internal structure, and their division and multiplication in the process of organic growth - now appeared in the popular press, and for the first time became easily accessible to artists." Kandinsky, as well as other artists, studied Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature (1904), illustrating biological and botanical forms. The discovery of subatomic particles influenced Wolfgang Paalen, while Yves Tanguy often employed geological images in his paintings. In 1941 the electron microscope became commercially available, and the resultant images, revealing the structures and processes of cellular forms, reached a wide audience and reinvigorated artistic interest.

The World War II Era

World War II splintered the avant-garde art world in Paris, as many artists fled from the German occupation. Miró returned to Spain and Arp to Zurich, while Tanguy, Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dalí went to New York, where they had a revitalizing influence. Miró's 1941 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art received a great deal of artistic and critical attention, and Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, opening in 1942, became an artistic hub, exhibiting both the leading Surrealists and the emerging Abstract Expressionists. Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Matta, and Louise Bourgeois became a kind of second wave of Surrealists working in biomorphic forms. At the same time, the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and William Baziotes, along with Gorky, began meeting at Matta's studio to explore automatism, though emphasizing a kind of automatic gestural painting, while developing biomorphic imagery.

Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Painting

Biomorphic painting often employed automatism to access the artist's unconscious connection to a deep internal reality. Though he never officially joined the Surrealists, Joan Miró was among the first to pioneer automatic drawing, a practice he developed as a student in Barcelona. In art classes he, like other students, would wear a blindfold to draw by touch. Automatism was viewed as having a genuine, more primitive relationship to both the materials used and to nature itself. Biomorphic forms were diverse, sometimes evoking microscopic life, cellular forms, or marine organisms as seen in Yves Tanguy's The Ribbon of Extremes (1932) where biomorphic forms reminiscent of marine life are strewn across a beach. Gorky strived to create "living organisms floating in vivid color." In the 1930s Roberto Matta began creating his "Psychological Morphologies," which he also called "Inscapes," suggesting their depiction of internal landscapes.

To create biomorphic images and textures, artists employed innovative painting techniques like decalcomania, where a piece of glass or paper was placed over a painted surface then removed. Originally used as a decorative technique, Ernst used decalcomania in his Europe after the Rain (1940-42) to evoke a proliferation of ruinous growth. He also developed frottage, laying paper over an object and then rubbing with charcoal to create an imprint. With Miró, he developed grattage, placing an object under a piece of paper and painting over it, then, subsequently, scraping the paint away.

Sculpture

Hans Arp's <i>Pastor de Nubes o Formes de Lutin</i> (<i>Cloud Shepherd</i>) (1953) was his first monumental sculpture.
Hans Arp's Pastor de Nubes o Formes de Lutin (Cloud Shepherd) (1953) was his first monumental sculpture.

Biomorphic sculpture emphasized the practice of direct carving and using the material's grain, texture, and density to energetically shape the artwork. As a result, wood, marble, and local stones were often preferred materials. Since direct carving involved intense engagement; many of the final pieces expressed an intimate involvement that connected the work to the artist and viewer's subconscious. Sometimes created on a small scale, the organic forms, resembling shells, stones, or small living creatures, could be held and rearranged by the viewer with the result that they evoked ever more associations, as seen in Arp's pioneering works like Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest (1932).

Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore's biomorphic forms emphasized a correspondence between the human body and the natural landscape. Hepworth pioneered "piercing" the form with an empty space so that the holes would lend themselves to both abstracting the human form while also suggesting eroded landforms. Many of the Biomorphic artists developed a uniquely signature visual vocabulary, as seen in Miró's preoccupation with birds, the sun, the moon, and personnages (unidentifiable but humanoid figures), or Isamu Noguchi's interlocking sculptures like Kuoros (1945). By the 1950's Arp, Miró, Karl Hartung, and Moore were creating a great many public sculptures, cast in bronze, as seen in Arp's Cloud Shepherd (1953), or in concrete, as seen in Miró's Dona i ocell (Woman and Bird) (1982).

Furniture design

Eero Saarinen's <i>Womb Chair</i> (1947-8) was designed to cradle its occupant.
Eero Saarinen's Womb Chair (1947-8) was designed to cradle its occupant.

A number of furniture designers, including the American couple Charles and Ray Eames, the Finnish-American industrial designer and architect Eero Saarinen, and the artist Isamu Noguchi employed biomorphic designs. Charles and Ray Eames and Saarinen collaborated in 1940 on furniture designs that were awarded first prize in the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. In 1946 the museum held Charles Eames' exhibition, making him the first designer to have a solo MoMA show. New technologies, including laminates and the ability to shape and bend materials, made it possible for designers to explore ever more organic designs, and the rounded shapes appealed to the public both in terms of comfort and modern aesthetic appeal. Saarinen's noted designs included his Womb Chair, Model No. 70 (1947-48) and Tulip Chair (1956), which was made of aluminum, molded fiberglass, and a plastic bonded finish.

Isamu Noguchi's iconic table remains popular to this day, found in many contemporary residences
Isamu Noguchi's iconic table remains popular to this day, found in many contemporary residences

Isamu Noguchi felt that all of his works, whether furniture, lamps, gardens, or public works of art, could be considered sculpture. His iconic and classic coffee table, designed in 1946, used a glass top over two interlocking pieces of wood with biomorphic shapes. In Denmark the architect Arne Jacobsen became best known for his chairs the Ant (1951), Egg (1957), and Swan (1957), which have become ubiquitous modern styles. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, as well as Noguchi's table, are still being produced today.

Later Developments

Biomorphism became an early influence on the leading Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, and Robert Motherwell, most of whom acknowledged Miró as an influence. Arshile Gorky was also influenced by Miró, and his own work influenced Willem de Kooning. Yves Tanguy's work influenced Dalí, and later Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Esteban Francés.

Legacy

The 1950s became dominated by Abstract Expressionism. Art historian Deborah Wye wrote: "the profound shift into abstraction that overtook many American artists between 1947 and 1950 constituted a break that put an end to the exploration of the biomorphic and organic: Arshile Gorky died, de Kooning literally tore the biomorphic to shreds in his 1948-49 black paintings, and William Baziotes commenced treading water."

Nonetheless, Miró and Arp continued to work biomorphically, their fame attracting commissions for monumental public works. In England, Moore and Hepworth continued to define modern British sculpture and influenced Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro, and Phillip King. Later, contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin, Charlotte Moth, and Rachel Whiteread were inspired by both Hepworth's work and her position as a role model for female artists.

Biomorphism influenced later artists, like Anish Kapoor whose biomorphic sculptures, as he said, "form themselves out of each other," as if growing out of walls or floors. Lynda Benglis poured brightly colored polyurethane foam over wire armatures to create what art critic Hilarie M. Sheets described as "evocative of lava flows, monstrous crustaceans." Eva Hesse's biomorphic work like Untitled (Rope Piece) (1970) was described by art critic Grace Glueck as "like the work of giant spiders gone berserk...Its strident arrhythmia seems to mock comfortable notions of composition and aesthetic purpose." Biomorphism also influenced the designers Ron Arad, Paul Rand, Lucienne Day, and Julian Hatton. Louise Bourgeois, who remained relatively unknown until the 1970s, continued to create powerful, darkly psychological, biomorphic sculptures into the 21st century.

Most Important Art

Biomorphism Famous Art

Harlequin's Carnival (1924-1925)

Artist: Joan Miró
Every area of this festive pictorial space is inhabited by lively and quixotic biomorphs, some of which are identifiable while simultaneously being non-representational like the small "cat" in the lower right, standing on its hind legs and leaning forward with outstretched "arms." The juxtaposition between true resemblances evoked and those improbably reconfigured creates a sense of an imagined world, itself evoked by the green globe at center right, populated by dream creatures. The title's harlequin stands at central left, identifiable as the stock character in the Italian commedia dell'arte by the black and white checks on his "torso." His body is shaped like a distorted guitar, as, wearing an admiral's hat and sporting a pipe and a long swirling mustache, his whimsical appearance is belied by his sadness. His red and blue face stares out at the viewer, while a hole in his stomach, perhaps reflects the artist's own hunger, as he described coming home after a day of no food and creating the painting in a kind of automatic trance.

Pioneering Miró's biomorphic approach, the work was his first truly Surrealist painting. The biomorphic forms invited symbolic meaning, as Miró explained the green sphere represented his obsession with "conquering the world," or that the black triangle symbolized the Eiffel Tower, while the ladder with its ear and eye represented both evasion and elevation. Yet, the forms, merging and melding like teaming protozoa seen by a microscope, overturn the hierarchies of the conscious world, including those of art. The viewer is drawn into the wonderment of the floating hand, the strange squiggly creatures, and the shooting stars. As the artist said, "I'm only interested in anonymous art, the kind that springs from the collective unconscious."

The harlequin, a character known as foolish and always unhappy in love, became a popular stand-in for artists as early as the Rococo period. It was seen in Antoine Watteau's Harlequin, Emperor on the Moon (1707), and was often employed by Picasso as seen in his Harlequin with Glass (1905).
Read More ...

Biomorphism Artworks in Focus:
If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Available from:
First published on 09 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly.
[Accessed ]