Kunst und Naturform
Kunst und Naturform
Kunst und Naturform
Kunst und Naturform
Kunst und Naturform

Kunst und Naturform

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Kunst und Naturform
In 1958 an exhibition was organized at the Kunsthalle Basel, by Gottfried Honegger, a member of the Geigy staff, in collaboration with Arnold Rudlinger, Curator of the Kunsthalle, and Professor Robert Schenk. The exhibition, which was entitled "Form in Art and Nature", aroused a great deal of attention and controversy. The idea behind it was the remarkable correspondence between the forms to be seen in non-representational art and those observed by the scientist under the microscope. A selection of paintings and sculptures of the past 50 years, in various abstract styles, was accordingly shown alongside a selection of corresponding photomicrographs. It appeared that the forms used by artists, who had apparently turned their backs on nature, were in fact to be found in nature itself.

A selection of this material was published in book form to bring the ideas to a wider audience. What follows are significant excerpts from the text:

Confronting art and nature it is by no means the intention of the book, any more than it was of the exhibition, to play off one against the other; rather it is to let nature intercede for art in the belief that it may help us to see non-representational art with a fresh eye, may take us unawares and show us, as it were, a backstairs approach to the art of the past 50 years.

But behind this lies the question how it is that, just when modern science is revealing to us new and unexpected beauties of form in nature, these same elements of form are being discovered and created by the artist, working from entirely different premises and with entirely different aims. Conscious influence is out of the question: on the contrary, the art historian and scientist, approaching the problem independently, show us here that the real causes are to be found in the intellectual climate of our time. So "Form in Art and Nature" poses a problem that touches the humanist and scientist alike.


Paintings and scientific illustrations seem to spring from two quite different worlds. Painter and scientist rarely meet on common ground, and still more rarely is the neutral observer given the chance of a simultaneous insight into the problems exercising the minds of both of them today. No wonder the confrontation takes us, at first glimpse, by surprise. Forms and colours imagined and created by the artist are juxtaposed with structures of animate and inanimate nature. There are features in common; but there are also essential differences which highlight the question whether in fact the two worlds are related at all, and if so how.

Just how far this process of analysis can go is determined by the technical resources available. Up to the 16th century the limit was set by the naked eye. In the second half of the 17th century a turning point was reached with the invention of the microscope. The constant improvement of the microscope and the development of special preparatory techniques have brought a vital extension of our knowledge of the fine structure of animate and inanimate substances. This analytical incursion into the microcosmos was carried a stage further by ultra-violet microscopy, which in the past thirty years has itself been superseded by the electron microscope. Indeed this latest technique has driven research into an entirely new dimension and has given it, in this particular field, a new lease of life. But parallel with this advance on the visual front we see chemical analysis proceeding on a different level to the discovery of molecular and atomic structure; and nuclear physics, using its own mathematics and experimental methods, has long since arrived at the point where matter and energy are simply two aspects of the same thing.

Generally speaking it is true that the deeper we go into the microscopic and sub-microscopic worlds the simpler the forms we encounter. But it is also true that as form becomes simplified the original character of the "object" is lost and new structural units come to the fore. Thus in cardiac muscle, as in skeletal muscle as a contractile element, there are highly specialized cells which only a specialist can distinguish. This simplification however is not just inherent in the actual structure; it is due in part to the procedures necessary to prepare the object for study.

But to seek direct and mutual influences behind the occasionally striking coincidences between art and science is certainly to overlook their true relationship. The artist is no more inspired in his work by the microcosmos than the scientist allows aesthetic considerations to influence his. The real reason for these apparent formal coincidences is surely to be found in the intellectual climate in which art and science both function today: a climate in which the analytical attitude is often carried to alarming lengths. This is true of all fields of contemporary research, and is partly responsible for the continuing trend towards specialization which is leading to a splintering process where each separate discipline straitjacketed by its own highly specialized technique. Granted, we also see the opposite trend, the endeavour to reduce the enormous mass of new knowledge to some sort of order. But meanwhile the sum of disparate facts has grown so vast that the work of synthesis is now beyond the capabilities of one person. Hence the growing tendency for teams of scientists from various disciplines to work together, although initially their targets are very narrowly restricted.

The motive force behind our analytical attitudes however is still the urge to understand the objective world, to master its inmost secrets and penetrate to the very root of things. If in the process we have to take the object itself completely to pieces, that cannot be helped, even though we cannot foresee whether doing this will really help us in the end to understand the whole.

The dominance of the analytical method in science today has a very interesting parallel in modern art. Abstraction, which has always been one of the most important modes of composition in art, is another attempt to grasp the essence of things. But never before has the artist gone so far in his simplification of forms, in the use of pure primary colours, in formalizing and stylization. All this makes it easy enough to point out the analytical tendencies. Of relevance here are the promising investigations of Kretschmer and even more of his pupil Winkler in the psychiatric field. Winkler draws a parallel between the rapid advance of 20th century physics, passing through X-rays, radioactivity, nuclear fission and quantum mechanics into the sphere of philosophy and metaphysics and the analytical trends in "anti-naturalistic" painting: "We undertake analysis and fission without knowing what the outcome will be. And we go on doing it until we reach a certain point beyond which analysis cannot go." (Winkler, Psychologie der modernen Kunst). There are some impressive examples of the analytical method. Thus neo-impressionism analysed light down to the primary colours of the spectrum. Cubism was an analysis of form, futurism essentially an analysis of movement; and surrealism has its parallels with psychoanalysis.

Individual artists have been aware of this parallel between art and science in varying degrees. Franz Marc and Paul Klee each said something worth quoting on the subject:

Franz Marc (in his Aphorisms, 1914): "The art of the future will be the representation of our scientific conviction. We are today taking virginal and always deceptive nature to pieces and putting it together again according to our own lights. We can see through matter, and the day is not far off when we shall be able to pass a hand through its vibrating mass as through air. Matter is something that at best we now tolerate without acknowledging its claims in full. The old 'Weltanschauung' has become a 'Weltdurchschauung'. No mystic, in his moments of highest ecstasy when he had his glimpse of heaven, achieved the perfect abstraction of modern thought, with its ability to see an object through and through."

Paul Klee (in his Jena speech, 1924): "And is it not true that the comparatively simple act of looking through the microscope presents the eye with pictures which we should all declare fantastic and far-fetched if we happened upon them by chance without seeing the joke? But Mr. X, coming across a picture of this kind in a sensational journal, may be caught off his guard and cry: 'Is that supposed to be nature? It is just bad craftsmanship.' Are then microscopy, history, palaeontology preoccupations of an artist? Only in a relative sense, as a matter of flexibility; not in any sense implying scientific accuracy or a faithful imitation of nature! Only in the sense of freedom, a freedom which simply demands the right to be as flexible as nature herself."

And here Klee, one of the most critical of 20th century painters, defined precisely the scope and limitations of the parallel between modern art and modern science.

But the significance of this parallel is only to be found in the general context of human progress. We are all in the same boat, artist and scientist, technologist, layman, whether or not we approve of each other's doings. That, nothing more or less, is the message of this exhibition and this book.

Max Bill
Max Bill was a Swiss graphic artist, industrial designer, architect, sculptor, and painter, primarily important for his sophisticated, disciplined advertising designs. Bill’s early ambition was to become a silversmith, but the work of the architect Le Corbusier influenced him to study architecture at the Bauhaus. While there from 1927 to 1929, he also studied metalwork, stage design, and painting. In 1930 he set up his own studio in Zürich and concentrated on sculpture, painting, and architecture while earning his living by designing advertisements. In 1937 he formed the Allianz group of Swiss abstract artists. After 1944 he became increasingly active in industrial design, creating products as diverse as chairs and wall sprockets with the same elegance of line and form that characterized his marble sculpture Construction from a Circle. His use of austere geometric forms echoed his Bauhaus training.

After the 1949 Basel exhibition Die gute Form (The Good Form), conceived and designed by Max Bill, “Gute Form” became a quality seal pertaining to postwar modernism in Switzerland and Germany. The exhibition encompassed a broad spectrum of examples, e.g. from nature, science, art, technology, architecture and interior design. Bill defined the criteria as follows: “We understand the term ‘good form’ to mean a natural form, developed from its functional and technical preconditions, for a product that completely answers its purpose and is beautiful at the same time.”

In 1965 Bill was asked to contribute an article to a work called Structure in Art and in Science, edited by Georgy Kepes. He chose to look carefully at the relationship between novelty and order in the arts. Bill argued that newness of idea could originate in two ways, firstly, in the intellectual or psychological makeup of the individual, or secondly, in a more general way, from experiment with the objective possibilities of form. The first could lead to neo-dadaistic combinations of materials individually interpreted, the second led towards structures that were accessible to aesthetic argument and laws of order.

Art is neither a surrogate for nature, nor for individuality, nor for spontaneity. And where it appears as such, it is art only so far as it informs the surrogate with order and form. Because order is so characteristic of art, art begins to rely for order on the tectonic laws.


He then posed the question, where does structure end and art begin? Mathematically, structure rosy be uniformly extended without end. The limits set could become the aesthetic factor operating. Once Mondrian had tried to dispense with all individualistic expressions, the aesthetic quality in art was also reduced. In cases of the most extreme objectivity it culminated in the negation of newness and invention. However, the inventive nature of art pre-supposes the discovery of new problems, and these are individually determined. Order born of an objectifying structure thus meets the inventiveness of the individual. This means that art can originate only when and because individual expression and personal invention subsume themselves under the principle of order of the structure and drive from it a new lawfulness and new formel possibilities. Such lawfulness and such inventions manifest themselves as rhythm in an individual case. Rhythm transforms the structure into form; i.e., the special form of a work of art grows out of the general structure by means of rhythmic order. The creativity of the artist, according to Max Bill, was born of this perpetual interaction of the individual artist and established structure in the pursuance of order. Originality and lawfulness expressed themselves as a rhythmic order, which was by implication a continuous process. 

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours and ranks among the great masters of the novel. In 1816, he began studying law at the Sorbonne, but after receiving his license in 1819 he decided to abandon it for literature. By the time of his death, he had written over one hundred novels, novellas, and plays many of them part of his greatest work, La Comédie Humaine. The sequence of short stories and novels were an unfiltered representation of society, a reproduction of French culture in his time, picturing in precise detail more than 2,000 characters from every class and every profession in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy.

In his writing, Balzac posed the question“What is Art, monsieur, but Nature concentrated?” 

By reusing already introduced characters in his stories, he created a connection, linking everything together to a series. His goal was to “[depict] all society, sketching it in the immensity of its turmoil”.