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Les Poires, a famous caricature by Charles Philipon.
Les Poires, a famous caricature by Charles Philipon.

"Organic design vocabularies--from the ecstasies of baroque ornament to mid-twentieth-century biomorphism--have always gestured toward the erotic, suggesting the curves and movements of the human body."--Ellen Lupton [1]

"Writing in Artforum, Rubin traced biomorphism back to the organic, nature based decorative motifs of Art Nouveau, the dominant style of the childhood of Surrealist artists and, he said, an “unquestionable” influence upon them."--Biocentrism and Modernism (2017) by Oliver A.I. Botar

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Biomorphism or organic design is an art movement that began in the 20th century. It patterns artistic design elements on naturally occurring patterns or shapes reminiscent of nature. Taken to its extreme it attempts to force naturally occurring shapes onto functional devices, often with mixed results.



The term biomorph was coined in 1895 by anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in his book Evolution in Art, in which he stated that "the biomorph is the representation of anything living in contradistinction to the skeuomorph, which [...] is the representation of anything".

One year later, British writer Geoffrey Grigson uses the term biomorphism in two essays: in the short "Comment on England" (1935) he notes that "abstractions are of two kinds, geometric [...] and biomorphic," and observes that the way forward are the biomorphic abstractions; in the chapter "Painting and sculpture" in The Arts Today (1935), he describes the term biomorphic as "no bad term for the paintings of Miro, Hélion, Erni and others, to distinguish them from the modern geometric abstractions and from rigid Surrealism."

Another year later, in 1936, New York art historian Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the catalogue of his 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, borrowed Grigson's term without acknowledgement and noted that there is a secondary current in abstract art wich stems from Gauguin and Matisse and is "intuitional and emotional rather than intellectual; organic or biomorphic rather than geometrical in its forms; curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural, and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational." He mentions the work of Joan Miró and Jean Arp and concludes: "the shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba." Barr elegantly points to the major faultlines in 20th century art, which run along the axes 'straight lines vs curvilinearity', 'wit vs seriousness', and 'cult of beauty vs cult of ugliness' (or sexuality vs asexuality).

For a historiography of these early beginnings of biomorphism, consult Biocentrism and Modernism (2017).

Biomorphist art (whether so termed or not) focuses on the power of natural life and uses organic shapes, with shapeless and vaguely spherical hints of the forms of biology. Biomorphism has connections with Surrealism and Art Nouveau. The three leading figures of the Art Nouveau movement, Antoni Gaudí, Hector Guimard, and Victor Horta, were influenced by biomorphism. Even in the expressionist designs of Hermann Finsterlin, Rudolf Steiner, Obrist and Erich Mendelsohn, we find the same influence.

Matisse's seminal painting Le bonheur de vivre (The joy of Life), from 1905 can be cited as an important precedent.

The Tate Gallery's online glossary article on biomorphic form specifies that while these forms are abstract, they "refer to, or evoke, living forms...". The article goes on to list Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth as examples of artists whose work epitomizes the use of biomorphic form. The paintings of Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta are also often cited as exemplifying the use of biomorphic form.

During and after World War II, Yves Tanguy's landscapes became more deserted and ridden of war, which has been seen as a psychological portrait of wartime Europe.

Surrealism elevated this magic and the transformational process of metamorphosis and hybridization. The use of metamorphosis through Picasso influenced Surrealism in the 1920s, and it appeared both as subject matter and as procedure in the figurative paintings of Leonora Carrington and in the more abstract, automatic works of André Masson.

In industrial design and architecture

Biomorphism is also seen in modern industrial design, such as the work of Alvar Aalto, and Isamu Noguchi, whose Noguchi table is considered an icon of industrial design. Presently, the effect of the influence of nature is less obvious: instead of designed objects looking exactly like the natural form, they use only slight characteristics to remind us of nature.

The best-known proponents today are legendary rock album artists Roger and Martyn Dean, Italian industrial designer Luigi Colani, and architects Eugene Tsui, Kendrick Kellog, Antti Lovag, and Peter Vetsch. This style of architecture was briefly discussed by Marshall Savage in the original Millenium Project.

Examples of buildings


Robert Sommer in The Personality of Vegetables: Botanical Metaphors for Human Characteristics (1988) explored the use and meaning of plant terms in our language as he focuses on botanomorphism, or the tendency to describe human characteristics through fruit and vegetable metaphors. --Diane Relf, HUMAN ISSUES IN HORTICULTURE, HortTechnology April/June 1992]

Major practitioners


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Biomorphism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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