Biomorphic (Organic) Abstraction
Type of Organic Imagery in Abstract Art.

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Pagoda Fruit (1949, Tate Modern)
By Jean Arp.

Biomorphic Abstraction (Fl. 1930s/1940s)


What is Biomorphic/Organic Abstraction?
Biomorphs in Sculpture
Biomorphs in Painting
Natural Shapes in Art
Organic Forms in American Designs
Organic Forms in European Designs
Famous Biomorphic Sculptures
Famous Biomorphic Paintings

Further Resources

How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture
How to Appreciate Paintings

Mother and Child (1934)
Tate Gallery, London.
By Barbara Hepworth.

What is Biomorphic/Organic Abstraction?

In fine art, the term "Biomorphic Abstraction" describes the use of rounded abstract forms based on those found in nature. Also referred to as Organic Abstraction, this type of abstract art was not a school or movement, but a striking feature of the work of many different artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and artists of the Art Nouveau movement. But it is most commonly applied to work by Surrealists Jean Arp (1886-1966), Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Yves Tanguy (1900-55), as well as the British sculptors Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). Found in both abstract painting and abstract sculpture, as well as the design of furniture, the idiom was associated with the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), who believed that evolutionary processes (nature) and artistic creativity (art) derive from the same source. The style flourished during the 1930s/40s: the term "biomorphic sculpture" was actually first used in 1936, by Alfred H Barr. For more about this kind of organic abstraction in Britain, see also: Modern British Sculpture 1930-70.

Black Abstraction (1927)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
By Georgia O'Keeffe.

Painting (1933)
Wadsworth Atheneum, Conn.
By Joan Miro.

Biomorphs in Sculpture

Although biomorphic forms had appeared in both painting and sculpture by 1913, it was only after the destruction of the utopian visions of Futurism, Cubism and Constructivism, by Stalinism, the Great Depression and Nazism, that Science was superceded by Nature as the prime inspiration for painters and sculptors alike. Organic Abstraction aimed not to build or construct rationally, but to emulate the germinal forces of nature. Originating in the fluid forms of Rodin, the organic curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau and Jugenstil, and the ovoid forms of Constantin Brancusi, it attracted even Constructivists like Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), who based his Letatlin flying contraption on an organically biodynamic principle (the flight of birds) rather than a mechanical one.

Its principal exponents in plastic art came from across Europe. In Germany, Jean Arp produced flowing shapes (concretions) of pure naturalism, in which plants, animals and torsos and vividly united; and Karl Hartung opened up his abstract sculpture to embrace gouges, tears and bold protrusions. In France, Henri Etienne-Martin (1913-95) evoked the origins of architecture with a series of imaginary habitations; while the Argentinian born sculptress Alicia Penalba (1918-2009) modelled lush erotic symbols out of clay. In Britain, in the early 1930s, Henry Moore combined humanoid forms, African and Oceanic cultures, and organic abstraction in a varied, eclectic style that reconciled modernist methodology with Greek sculpture. His numerous 'Reclining Figures' rose and fell like the contours of his Yorkshire hills and dales, illustrating his belief that landscape could be reflected through the human figure. Later in his career, he expressed his biomorphism in more monumental forms. A member of the artistic group Abstraction-Creation, other members included the Pomeranian-born Otto Freundlich and the British sculptors Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and his wife Barbara Hepworth (1903-75). Freundlich and Hepworth helped to consolidate the biomorphic impulses of the 1930s: Freundlich with his energy-filled abstracts like Ascension; Hepworth with her leitmotif of the hollow core.


Biomorphs in Painting

The principal painters who employed biomorphic forms included: the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, the versatile Spanish surrealist Joan Miro, the French surrealist Yves Tanguy and the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, although other painters - like Paul Klee (1879-1940) were extremely influential.

Wassily Kandinsky gravitated from Expressionism - he was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter and a pioneer in the emotional use of colour - to a style of abstraction in which he sought to remove all traces of the real world. His use of organic forms were a transitional phase in this process. Joan Miro, like Tanguy a proponent of Surrealism, sought to release his own subconscious creativity in true surrealist style: early works like Harlequin's Carnival (1924-5) featured a bizarre collection of insect-like forms dancing and making music, while later works contained minimalist amoeba-like creatures. Yves Tanguy created his own world of marine-like creatures, as exemplified in his extraordinary work The Ribbon of Extremes (1932), with its procession of biomorphs along a beach-like surface. Arshile Gorky emigrated to America, where - a few years before his tragic death - he met the European emigrants Joan Miro and Robert Matta, under whose influence he created his distinctive style of 'living organisms floating in vivid colour'.

Natural Shapes in Art

The shapes of the sculptures of Arp, Miro and Moore show obvious affinities with natural forms, such as bones, shells and pebbles. Their work achieved huge popularity, and, writing in 1937, Moore recorded his belief that "there are universal natural shapes to which everybody is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond if their conscious control does not shut them off". This appeal extended to other artists - such as Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) and the Abstract Expressionists - but also to a whole generation of furniture designers, especially in the USA, Scandinavia and Italy. While nature itself was a critical source of inspiration for Hepworth, Moore and Arp, it was more the rounded free-flowing shapes of their sculptures, admired as 'drawings in space', that were crucial for the designers of the 1940s and 1950s.

Use of Organic Forms in American Designs

Prominent furniture designers in the USA included Charles Eames (1907-78) and his wife Ray Eames (1912-88), Noguchi and the Finn Eero Saarinen (1910-61). Charles Eames and Saarinen came to prominence in 1940 when their collaborative designs for living room furniture won first prize in the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Eames went on to become the first designer ever given a solo show at the museum in 1946. The example of avant-garde artists and industrial designers (especially in the aircraft and automobile industries) and innovative technological developments (such as new bending techniques and new laminates of various materials) allowed furniture designers to create increasingly organic designs. This, combined with the general perception that rounded shapes were more comfortable, made organic furniture appear both cutting edge and welcoming.

The 1955 rosewood and leather lounge chair and footstool by the Eameses, originally designed as a birthday present for film director Billy Wilder, is one of their most celebrated designs. Describing it, Charles said he wanted it to have "the warm receptive look of a well used first baseman's mitt". Saarinen also designed landmark chairs, whose very names point to their organic sources: his 1946 Womb chair and 1956 Tulip chair. Biomorphic forms also featured in his architectural projects of the period, in particular the TWA airline building at JFK Airport in New York (1956-62). Noguchi, for his part, considered all of his work to be sculpture, be it a lamp, playground, stage set, garden or public work of art, and all tended to take biomorphic forms, particularly during the 1940s. His famous coffee table with a glass top resting on a gently curved wooden base of 1947 captures the sculptural elegance and refinement of materials characteristic of his work as a whole.

Use of Organic Shapes in European Designs

In Italy, design with a strongly organic feel played a major role in post-war reconstruction. With the straight geometrical lines of rationalism tainted by association with Fascism, designers turned to the curve. Fusing aspects of American design, Surrealism and the sculptures of Moore and Arp, a distinctive organic aesthetic appeared throughout Italy, from industrial design - cars, typewriters, and Vespas - to interior design and furniture. The bentwood and metal furniture of Carlo Mollino (1905-73), for example, shows a debt to those sources as well as to an earlier pioneer of organic design, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), to whom he paid homage with his Gaudi chair of 1949. Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002) also made furniture that specifically referred to avant-garde art - Dada and Surrealism, and the practice of the use of the 'found object'. His 1957 Sella (saddle) stool - made from a bicycle seat - and Mezzadro chair - made from a tractor seat - neatly restate the recurring debate about the relationship between art and design, and design and technology.

Scandinavia was another home of organic abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s. The Finn Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino Marsio Aalto (1894-1949) and Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen (1902-71) all produced internationally regarded work. Like Saarinen, Jacobsen's organic sources are revealed in the titles of his best known chairs - Ant (1951), Swan (1957) and Egg (1957).

While the tendency towards organic abstraction was particularly visible in the 1940s and 1950s, it has continued to be one of many strains apparent in art and design since, in the work of sculptors as varied as Linda Benglis (b.1941), Richard Deacon (b.1949), Eva Hesse (1936-70), Anish Kapoor (b.1954), Ursula von Rydingsward (b.1942) and Bill Woodrow (b.1948), and designers Ron Arad (b.1951), Verner Panton (1926-98) and Oscar Tusquets (b.1941).


Painting and sculpture featuring organic designs can be seen in some of the world's best art museums, notably: the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida; the National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris; the Tate Gallery London; the Tate St Ives; Bolton Art Gallery, Bolton; and Wakefield Art Gallery and Museum.

Famous Biomorphic Sculptures

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
• The Prodigal Son (1915) Oak, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
• Blonde Negress (1926) Bronze, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Otto Freundlich (1878-1943)
• Ascension (1929) Bronze, Ludwig Museum, Cologne.

Picasso (1881-1973)
• Head of a Woman (1931) Bronze, Musee Picasso, Paris.

Jean Arp (1886-1966)
• Head with Three Annoying Objects (1932) Plaster, Private Collection.
• Human Concentration (1934) Marble, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris.
• Giant Pip (1937) Stone, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris.
• Demeter (1961) Bronze, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
• Clock (1924) Painted wood, Private Collection.

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
• Sun Bird (1968) Carrara marble, Joan Miro Foundation, Barcelona.

Henry Moore (1898-1986)
• Composition (1932) Bronze, Tate Gallery.
• Reclining Figure (1936) Elmwood, Wakefield City Art Gallery and Museum.
• Recumbent Figure (1938) Green Hornton stone, Tate Gallery.
• Draped Reclining Mother and Baby (1948) Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK.
• Two Forms (1966) Soraya marble, Staehein Collection, Zurich.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)
• Mother and Child (1934) Alabaster/marble, Tate Gallery.
• Three Forms (1935) Marble, Tate Gallery, London.
• Hollow Form with White Interior (1963) Guarea Wood, Gimpel Fils, London.

Karl Hartung (1908-67)
• Composition VIII (1948) Limewood, Private Collection.

Famous Biomorphic Paintings

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
• Composition VII (1913) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
• With a White Border (1913) Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York.
• Small Pleasures (1913) Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York.
• Overcast (1917) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
• In Grey (1919) National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris.

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
• Harlequin's Carnival (1924-5) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
• Dutch Interior I (1928) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
• Painting (1933) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.
• Woman (1934) Pastel, Private Collection (Richard S Zeisler, New York).
• Nocturne (1935) Cleveland Museum of Art.
• Figures in Front of a Metamorphosis (1936) New Orleans Museum of Art.

Yves Tanguy (1900-55)
• Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
• The Ribbon of Extremes (1932) Private Collection.

Arshile Gorky (1904-48)
• The Leaf of the Artichoke is an Owl (1944) MOMA, New York.
• The Engagement II (1947) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

• For a chronological guide to the evolution of modern painting, see: History of Art.
• For information about abstract painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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