“The Debt of Art to Nature”: A Travelling Exhibition Inspired by D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form
The next report from our 2018 Visiting Scholars is by Lee Chichester of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In this report Lee Chichester shares her research examining the effects of D’Arcy Thompson’s theories on an early exhibition of scientific images and objects which travelled through American art museums in the 1940s.
A year ago in the Library’s Special Collections reading room, I came upon letters in the D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson papers pertaining to an exhibition series that seemed a bit peripheral at first, but has, through further research throughout the past year and during my Visiting Scholarship at the University of St. Andrews Library Special Collections, revealed some greater repercussions in the history of “Art and Science” exhibitions. One could even say that the exhibition, which became the subject and occasion of a long-lasting correspondence between its curator, Gretchen Osgood Warren, and the zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, pioneered this genre in several respects. And yet, this episode in the history of exhibitions and in the reception of D’Arcy’s work is still mostly unknown – even to some of the museums which hosted the show.
There are two famous exhibitions that have been closely associated with D’Arcy’s book On Growth and Form (first published in 1917 and reissued in an extended version in 1942), as their curators made explicit reference to this work. These exhibitions are György Kepes’ “The New Landscape in Art and Science”, held at the MIT’s Hayden Gallery between February and May 1951, and Richard Hamilton’s “Growth and Form”, showcased a few months later, between July and August of the same year, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London during the Festival of Britain. Both exhibitions were organized by artists in close collaboration with scientists from different fields, and both intended to reveal the unity of structural principles in Art (understood as artifacts) and Nature. Both exhibitions also reflected designerly aspects of scientific research, namely the creation of images and models to make natural patterns and structures accessible to human perception and experience, and thus interpretable.
Kepes’ “The New Landscape” and Hamilton’s “Growth and Form” are commonly known as the earliest exhibitions to bring scientific images into an art gallery context by drawing a parallel between abstract geometric patterns in Art and Nature. There are however a few precedents, though they functioned quite differently. One of them was the exhibition “Linie und Form” (Line and Form) held in 1904 at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Museum in Krefeld, Germany, in collaboration with the Krefeld School of Arts and Crafts. The show, organized by the art historian Friedrich Deneken, argued for the ubiquity of expressive lines in nature, technology, and art, featuring objects and images from all three categories, such as torpedo boats and iron bridges, insect wings and seashells, together with works of art since Antiquity. Although the functional forms of technical constructions, which, as Deneken writes in the introduction to the catalogue, should serve as the paradigm for modern design, are referred to as “organic”, the exhibition did not explicitly claim the unity of structural principles in Art and Nature. It instead rather remained on a superficial level of decorative inspirations and universal laws of beauty.
Other examples for exhibitions with images from art and science can be found in the history of photography exhibits, for instance in Lazlo Moholy Nagy’s section of the “Film und Foto” (Film and Photo) exhibition, first featured in Stuttgart in 1929, or Lincoln Kirstein’s “Survey Exhibition of Photography”, shown at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art in 1930, as well as in Beaumont Newhall’s “Exhibition of Photography”, held at the MoMA in 1937. In all of these exhibitions, photographs created for scientific purposes were put on display – however, with a focus on their contributions to the technological development of photography, regardless of individual motifs and their structural characteristics.
On the other extreme, the mathematical models included in Dadaist and Surrealist exhibitions, for instance in Cologne in 1919 and in Paris in 1936, were shown as works of art, as readymades and objets trouvés, selected for their strangeness, their abstract beauty, and their ambiguous presence as material references to an ideal realm beyond perception.
This prelude in the history of art exhibitions with scientific objects and images is meant to create a better appreciation of the novelty of the mentioned exhibition, which was first held at the Chilton Club in Boston in 1940 and soon expanded and conceptually refined under the influence of D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. The curator of the exhibition, Gretchen Warren, first contacted D’Arcy in August of 1942, thereby initiating a correspondence and exchange of objects, images, and ideas (not to mention a supply of paper throughout the war and postwar years) which was to last until D’Arcy’s death in 1948.
The first letter to reach D’Arcy (Figs. 1 & 2) was an official inquiry, accompanied by a personal letter, asking for his permission to show replicas of diagrams from his book in an exhibition titled “The Debt of Art to Nature”, to be shown at the Fogg Museum of Harvard University from 16 February to 20 March 1943. As Warren emphasizes in her letters as well as in the exhibition pamphlet, the concept of the show was in essential ways inspired by D’Arcy’s work. It is therefore most likely the first exhibition staged in response to his book, having opened eight years in advance to “The New Landscape” and “Growth and Form”. What remains unclear is whether Warren only heard of D’Arcy’s book after its reissuing in 1942, or was already familiar with his theory through the six Lowell Lectures, he had delivered at Harvard University in the winter of 1936 on subjects such as “The Nautilus and other Shells”. If this should be the case, then Warren may already have drawn on D’Arcy’s work for her “exhibition of shells” at the Chilton Club in 1940.
The concept of the exhibition at the Fogg Museum was, as Warren writes, captured by the title “The Debt of Art to Nature” – namely the idea that universal principles guide processes of form-production in Nature and human designs, producing similar effects in organic and inorganic objects from Nature as well as in human arts and technologies throughout the ages. The aim of the exhibition was primarily educational, intending to open visitors’ eyes for the purported interconnectedness of all things, in order to overcome the parcelization of knowledge which resulted from modern specialization. A well-rounded education should, according to Warren, reveal to students the common laws underlying various fields of knowledge, and thus connecting nature and culture, mind and matter. This holistic idea was widespread in the 1940s, stemming not only from an engagement with Eastern Asian philosophy, which was especially popular in Boston intellectual circles of the time – Warren’s mother Margaret Cushing Osgood having published a collection of world spiritual literature in 1932 – but also from the hope of overcoming the political and social chasms that had led Western industrial societies into two world wars.
An exhibition text found among the correspondence papers (Fig. 3) addresses this spiritual subtext, making a “divine power” responsible for the world’s as well as the mind’s tendency towards mathematical order and pattern-production, claiming that a “mysterious mathematics of form in the universe binds together the worlds”. It is the contemplation of this law-based beauty in nature, as reflecting beauty in art, which is presented as the origin of intellectual curiosity and thus of a scientific insight rooted in aesthetic appreciation and wonder. Yet the spread of scientific and spiritual understanding was not the only aim of the exhibition. As expressed in various parts of her correspondence, Warren also hoped that it could give a “fresh impetus” to design and architecture, which to her taste “despite modern art, and Lloyd Wright, etc. etc., seems […] sadly sterilized today”. It is not by coincidence that she names Frank Lloyd Wright as an exception – a modernist architect known for his “organicism”. Richard Hamilton was to formulate this very same aim in a concept for his “Growth and Form” exhibition almost ten years later, proposing that designers could learn from Nature’s structural inventions in a manner potentially revolutionary in its significance for modern design.
But what did Gretchen Warren’s exhibition show? The pamphlet states that “chief emphasis is laid on that most universal and dynamic of beautiful forms, the logarithmic spiral” though “other designs also will increasingly be shown”. For the latter category, Warren lists “the perfect triangles of clover and ginko leaves, and trillium flowers; the cruciform pattern of mustard petals and lilac corolla; the pentagon of the rose family and hexagons of snow-flake and narcissus.” In her inquiry to D’Arcy Thompson (Fig. 1) she furthermore writes that the show is to be an exhibition of shells accompanied by “photographic enlargements of fruits, ferns and other natural forms, also details of textile, sculpture and architecture from all over the world.” The image she conjures is one of an exhibition of sea shells, collected by herself over many years, presented side by side with photographic reproductions of works of art and architecture from all centuries next to analogous geometric forms found in nature, both organic and inorganic, macro – and microscopic.
An important indication as to the type of photographs shown is given by Warren’s mention in her letter to D’Arcy (Fig. 2) of having already received the privilege from Anton Zwemmer, a well-known modern art publisher and gallerist from London, to show plates from Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (Ur-forms of Art) (Fig. 4). Zwemmer had published this photographic volume in English in 1929 under the title of Art Forms in Nature, thus invoking the zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s famous turn-of-the-century album of artful structures in (mostly microscopic marine) organisms. When Blossfeldt’s photographs of the structural details of plants, first produced around 1900 as teaching material for the Berlin Arts and Crafts School, were presented as artworks in the context of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement at the Galerie Nierendorf in Berlin in 1928, the art critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that they professed an “image-necessity” – a Bildnotwendigkeit – in nature. He thus gave expression to a similar wonder at the self-organizing qualities of matter as was to become the theme of Warren’s exhibition. Rather than being just the “Ur-forms” (i.e. original forms) of Art, as the German title suggests, he writes, they showed the “Ur-forms” of Nature, which have been active in all things created, from the very beginning. Instead of attributing forms in art to natural models, he hence traces natural forms back to an original artistic principle – a manner of argument that Warren seems to have appropriated, while combining it with insights from a contemporary science of biology that employed mechanical and mathematical methods to explain phenomena of pattern-production in Nature.
Only one installation view from the show at the Fogg Museum survives, which gives a very incomplete impression of the exhibition as described in Warren’s letters and pamphlets. It could be reconstructed from the surviving correspondence, however, that the exhibition travelled to four other venues, including the Springfield and Boston Museums of Fine Arts in Massachusetts, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, and the St. Barbara Museum of Art in California. While few to no views exist of most of these shows, some of the most intriguing pictures could be found in the archive of the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. The mention of this exhibition turned up in the Warren-Thompson correspondence (Fig. 5), where she informs him that the “little show is now in a museum in Springfield”. She furthermore reports that his diagrams “have been drawn to scale, on white board, each diagram by itself” in clear black lines, “done by an enthusiastic young artist and really very fine” with “due acknowledgement”.
One of the installation shots indeed shows how D’Arcy’s diagrams of logarithmic and Archimedean spirals were integrated into the exhibition (Fig. 6). Their placement in the immediate vicinity of sections of seashells prompts a formal comparison arranged to give maximal visual evidence for the existence of mathematically explicable laws of growth in nature. This thesis, so central to Thompson’s book, is further supported by photographs showing how the logarithmic spiral recurs in various, not even closely related species, appearing as a universal principle of growth under the action of identical physical forces. The comparison of the logarithmic spiral in seashells with the horns of the Marco Polo and the Argali sheep is in fact also taken from D’Arcy’s On Growth and Form (Fig. 7), who in turn borrowed this example from the art critic Theodore Cook and his book on Spirals in Nature and Art (1903), which is also mentioned in the bibliography of Warren’s exhibition, along with Cook’s second, greatly expanded book The Curves of Life (1914). D’Arcy had praised Cook’s Spirals in Art and Nature in a letter to Harold Giles Dixey of 1916 (Fig. 8), writing that he read it with the greatest pleasure, having for years had in mind to write a book on a similar subject (which was to become On Growth and Form), but also stating that, for his taste, Cook had taken certain analogies too far, to the extent of becoming “scientifically (and especially mathematically) unsound”.
It is this type of superficial formal analogy, read as pointing to the agency of and exposure to identical forces, that Warren draws throughout her exhibition by presenting pictures of sea and snail-shells on a horizontal mid-line along the walls (Fig. 9), with photographs of organic and inorganic natural specimens revealing similar shapes placed in the row above, and examples from art in the row below. Among the images from art are – as can be identified with the help of a catalogue prepared for the Minnesota exhibition – a “Burmese temple”, a “Siamese dancer’s headdress”, a “Siamese Buddha statue”, medieval columns, a Greek vase, and a violin scroll, all displaying a formal similarity to seashells and snail houses. Among the images from nature we indeed find the Karl Blossfeldt photographs Warren mentioned in her first letter to D’Arcy (Fig. 10). They all feature prominent spirals and look rather like artificial ornaments than actual plants, underlining the thesis of a fundamental unity of Art and Nature.
An installation shot of the opposite side of the room (Fig. 11) confirms that also microscopic images of crystals formed part of the exhibition, as well as a telescopic photograph of a spiral nebula and radiographic images of seashells. The exhibition thus included a larger selection of images of self-generating geometric structures that owed their visibility to modern scientific imaging procedures, which since the end of the 19th century had revealed wholly new vistas of the natural world. The images in the top row seem to show white frost and perhaps even brand-new color-printed photomicrographs of salicin crystals in polarized light.
Another eye-catching comparison is the one made between a centrifugal pump and the cross-section of a nautilus shell, accompanied by the diagram of a spiral pump taken from Robert Dougherty’s book on Centrifugal Pumps of 1915. Thus an example from modern industrial engineering is aligned with the geometric forms found in nature and art, suggesting that technological constructions and organisms take on similar shapes as a result of similar functional demands and constraints. Although there is certainly no such evolutionary or ontological parallel between the centrifugal pump and the nautilus, this general concept is indeed found in Growth and Form in other examples, such as the convergence of the quadruped skeleton with a cantilever bridge – a comparison suggested to D’Arcy’s by his colleague, the engineer Claxton Fidler (Fig. 12).
The example of the spiral pump, however, is taken directly out of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, first published in London in 1934. The sociologist and art critic Mumford was a student of the Dundee/Edinburgh biologist and city-planner Patrick Geddes, whose ideas he had adopted and developed further – among them the one of creating a museum of art and natural history that would solicit an active engagement in education and an advancement of museums from “Paleolithic storehouses” to “Neolithic powerhouses”. Mumford also later adopted Geddes’ term of Biotechnics. Both concepts most probably originated in Patrick Geddes’ and D’Arcy Thompson’s teaching of Zoology and Botany not only to medical and biology students but also to artists and students of the Technical Institute in Dundee in the late 19th century. Gretchen Warren lists two of Mumford’s works, Golden Day and Stocks and Stones, in her bibliography, and may have known his theories on sociology and town planning through her husband, Fiske Warren, who, as a radical reformer and son of a wealthy paper manufacturer, had founded a Single Tax commune at Harvard and carried out a demographic experiment in Andorra in the late 19th century.
Looking at the installation shots and realizing how many references the exhibition held to new theories in the natural sciences, technology, and the arts, it becomes clear why the exhibition was so extremely popular at the time. After the opening of the exhibit in the Fogg Museum on 16 February 1943, Warren sent a telegram to D’Arcy stating: “My exhibition great success, helped inspired by your superb growth book and your generosity.” Edward Forbes, the director of the Fogg Museum, congratulated Warren on the favorable criticism in the newspaper the day after the opening. A report from the educational department of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it was featured in the summer of 1944, furthermore states that up to fifty visitors came to the gallery talks offered during the “shell exhibition” – as opposed to between two and twenty-five visitors during other shows – that six drawing classes were offered for 150 pupils, thus reaching new heights in registration, and that the lectures held on the topics such as “Art and Nature” attracted up to 125 visitors as opposed to the average 65.
It therefore is barely surprising that also visitors from New York came to see the exhibition at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge. Among them was no other than Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A letter from Warren to Barr deals with a possible misunderstanding regarding the form the exhibition should take in case it traveled to other venues. Agnes Mongan, the responsible museum curator at the Fogg and one of the foremost supporters of modern art in the United States, had apparently asked Warren whether she would insist on the show retaining its present form, to which Warren seems to have answered “yes”, although in hindsight she would be ready to adapt it to a new venue. As conveyed in her letter to Barr, she desired for the exhibition to “travel to where it is liked and where it will be handled with vision and veneration, and as each museum desires”.
Barr apparently had not visited the show without hindsight. For in the Spring of 1943, the MoMA was in the course of founding the first Photography Center ever to open at an art museum and negotiations with Willard Morgan, the photo-editor of LIFE-magazine and curator of the First International Photographic Exposition, were underway. The Photography Center opened on 3 November 1943 with an exhibition of portraits and works from the still very young collection. For the inauguration of his new curatorial program, however, Willard Morgan was planning an exhibition on “Scientific Photography”, which was to be showcased between March and May 1944. As part of a change in politics called for by the museum’s trustees, the new curatorial program was to cover not only the highly artistic and technically refined “straight photography” promoted by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, the curators of the Photography Department, but also popular and scientific uses of the medium. As Nancy Newhall later remembered, it had been Willard and Barbara Morgan’s longstanding interest to stage a show of scientific photography, and Willard had “given years of loving thought to a show of the relations between science and Art”. The idea was that the technical advances made in the medium in the context of scientific laboratories could inspire photographers from all fields. Yet the exhibition also seemed to have had an image-theoretical motivation inspired by the medium’s ability to poignantly capture and convey natural laws. For Barbara, as Nancy relates, was soon working together with scientists “trying to help them make photographs which were beautiful as well as significant”.
The MoMA archive still holds a research folder on the Morgan’s “Art and Science”, or “Photographic Forms in Science and Industry” exhibition. Among the collected images are plenty of spiral mathematical models, as well as spiral nebulae, cloud formations, Bentley and Humphrey’s snow crystals, and colorful salicin crystals in polarized light, as well as a pamphlet advertising Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst.
The exhibition, however, was never realized. Much to the Morgan’s as well as (at least in retrospect) also the Newhall’s dismay, the very Museum that had, as Nancy Newhall later recounts, in 1937 “excitedly shown selections from Beaumont and [herself] from X-ray, astronomical, stroboscopic, microscopic, aerial and other aspects of photography, for some reason suddenly turned cold to [Willard’s] proposal, saying they were not a museum of science.” The temporal proximity of this programmatic decision to Warren’s show of photographs from Art and Science at the Fogg prompts the question whether Barr’s and his colleagues’ response to Gretchen Warren’s show may have influenced discussions at the MoMA. In Barr’s papers a memorandum can be found for the Director of Exhibitions, Monroe Wheeler, titled “Shell exhibition” and dated to 20 March 1943. In this note, Barr informs Wheeler that, after having received his letter, he had gone to see the “exhibition at the Fogg Museum of shells belonging to Mrs. Fiske Warren” a second and then a third time, also collecting external opinions about it. These do not seem to have been as favorable as the public acclaim, as he describes the show as having a “confusing” and “amateurish” effect and, despite showing many beautiful objects, as being based on certain “false or strained” analogies. Furthermore, he reports that Mrs. Warren had been described to him as a rather strenuous individual, who quickly wore down Agnes Mongan with her “fervent and enthusiastic” ways and her inability to “leave anything out”.
In conclusion, Barr advises that, though there would be “enough material to make an interesting show on morphology” if the exhibition was to be taken over, “it would have to be entirely restudied, without the risk of appearing half baked.” One of his greatest reservations seems to stem from the prospect of having to work together too closely with Warren, for which reason he ultimately “would not recommend the show unless some staff member took the time to restudy it and unless it were understood that the museum had complete liberty to arrange the show”. Although this never happened, it would, considering her letter to Barr, have been a realistic option. What seems to have given both Warren’s “The Debt of Art to Nature” and the Morgan’s “Art and Science” show its final deathblow is Barr’s last sentence, in which he concludes by stating that “in any case, it is material which is not really in our field.”
Although by Fall of 1943 Barr was no longer Director of the MoMA, his sentence echoes what Nancy Newhall remembers as the reason the museum gave for rejecting the Morgan’s exhibition plans, and thus may document his lasting influence. While Gretchen Warren’s exhibition successfully travelled to at least four other venues across the United States within the following two years, it took the MoMA eight years until it presented images of natural structures from science together with art photography in the context of the show “Abstract Photography” in 1951 and twenty-four years before it staged its first exhibition devoted solely to scientific images, titled “Once Invisible” and shown in the summer of 1967. Nancy Newhall later expressed her pain at seeing so many photographs which she had known and loved for so long, saying that “we were all at least 20 years ahead of our time”.
Gretchen Warren was already 74 years old when she organized the exhibition at the Fogg Museum (Fig. 13). Although the show was rather spiritual than purely scientific in outlook, her view was by no means isolated in the 1940s. However, her example also shows how ideas originating in the late 19th and early 20th century, when she grew up in a family involved in the New Life Movement and experimenting with Oriental philosophy, when she spent her youth studying at the Comédie Française in Paris and later philosophy at Oxford, when she married a man who was a member of the Life Reform Movement, travelling with him to Ceylon, Saigon, and Japan, and was friends with philosophers such as William James and Ananda Coomaraswamy as well as with artists such as John Singer Sargent – how ideas from this time were able to span the century, gaining new relevance during the Second World War, when a new longing for harmony and unity set in to counter the ongoing destruction. As Warren fervently wrote in a letter to D’Arcy of 1 March 1943:
“One feels that everything one does & works at no matter how minute, is a sort of droplet of water with which one prays to put out a fraction of this fearful conflagration of civilization.”
Adding later, on 24 October 1943: “We all are […] sources of water with which to keep extinguishing civilization’s frightful holocaust.” The holistic outlook of the exhibition thus not only had a spiritual, philosophical, and design-reformatory impetus, but also reflects a political mission.
K. Lee Chichester
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
 I thank Gabriel Sewell and her team from the University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections for having made available everything the heart desired from the D’Arcy Wentworth Thomson Papers, and especially Maia Sheridan for her help in navigating the archive.
 Friedrich Deneken, Linie und Form, ex. cat., Krefeld: Kramer-Braun, 1904, p. 13.
 Victoria Walsch, “Seahorses, Grids and Calypso: Richard Hamilton’s Exhibition-making in the 1950s”, in: Mark Godfrey, Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todolí (eds.), Richard Hamilton, ex. cat., London: Tate Publishing, 2014, p. 64.
 Walter Benjamin, “Neues von Blumen”, in: Die Literarische Welt (23 November 1928).
 Today the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. I thank the Springfield Museums registrar Diane W. Barbarisi for her help in finding and making available these images and the accompanying documents.
 Gretchen Warren, Catalogue: The Debt to Nature of Art and Education, 1945. I thank the University of Minnesota Archives for making images and documents from the exhibition available.
 John L. Thomas, “Coping with the Past: Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and the Regional Museum”, in: Environment and History, vol. 3, no. 1 (February 1997): 97–116, 106.
 Martin Green, The Mount Vernon Street Warrens: A Boston Story, 1860–1910, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.
 University of St Andrews Library Special Collections, ms25186.
 Harvard Art Museums Archive, exhibition papers, correspondence between Gretchen Warren and Edward W. Forbes, 16 February 1943. I thank Michelle A. Interrante for her help in finding and making available archival materials on the exhibition.
 William Germain Dooley, Annual Report for the Year 1944 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), vol. 69 (1944): 57–65.
 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers [AAA: 2169;544–551, here 547]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Erin Kathleen O’Toole, No Democracy in Quality: Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and the Founding of the Department of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, Dissertation, University of Arizona, 2010, S. 234ff.
 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers [AAA: 2169;538]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Ibid. and Press Release, “Museum of Modern Art Opens Photography Center”, 27 October 1943, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Jennifer Steensma, “The Willard D. Morgan Archive”, Thesis, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1992, n.p., http://scholarworks.rit.edu/theses, accessed 23 September 2018.
 Instead of the “Science and Art” exhibition, Morgan realized “The American Snapshot” in collaboration with the Eastman Kodak Company between 1 March and 10 May 1944.
 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers [AAA: 2169;542–553]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Steensma, “The Willard D. Morgan Archive”.
 University of St Andrews Library Special Collections, ms25187 and ms25189.