Biomimicry and the Arrival of Neo-Art Nouveau

seasons

Alphonse Mucha’s Four Seasons

Hi Everyone!

Thanks for checking out our blog! My name is Derek Miller, and I’m going to be working with the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland on integrating biomimicry into education. This is my first post here, and I’m excited to be a part of this amazing group! My interests revolve around biology, as well as the arts, so it’s my goal to add a designer and artist’s perspective on biomimicry. If you wish to know more about me, feel free to check out my Contributor Bios page.

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Figure 1

Art, in a very broad perspective, is a type of reaction to the human experience, both of the artist and ultimately of all mankind. The artist interprets the things he/she has discovered and experienced, and puts them in a different form. Through this process, the natural world provides a great source of inspiration and the most abundant collection of reference material. Some of the oldest art in cave paintings is drawn as a response the world around us, so it’s no surprise that discoveries in science have played a major role in the subject matter of many art styles. One of the most prominent of these styles is that of Art Nouveau, dating from around 1890-1910. First landing major recognition at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, this versatile style called out to many forms of media from architecture and sculpture to painting and decorative arts. Ornamental pattern played a significant role in Art Nouveau design, drawing from biological forms in microscopy and botany. Other sciences that influenced Art Nouveau included neurology, zoology, psychology, and the theory of evolution, along with many other scientific breakthroughs within the 19th century. One of such is the revolutionary breakthrough made by Louis Pasteur in 1860 when he observed that microorganisms were the cause of infectious diseases. This new technology led to the establishment of cell theory. This theory, introduced by German scientists, Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann between 1838-1839, stated that all organic life was made up of the same basic unit, giving all living things a degree of connectedness that became a major theme within the Art Nouveau philosophy. Use of the microscope, a new way to look at the world, allowed artists to create abstract interpretations of microscopic forms such as cells, bacteria, and so on. An example of this can be found in the work of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel was a zoologist that reported the findings of the Challenger Expedition (1873-1876), and is well known for his stylistic illustrations of the single-cell species of protozoa called Radiolaria. An example of this can be seen in Figure 1. Unfortunately, though well received by the public and the Art Nouveau movement, Haeckel was oftentimes ridiculed by the scientific community for his artistic freedom with his illustrations.

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Figure 2

This type of inspiration drawn from nature is resurfacing in the field of biomimicry, both in the effort towards sustainability led by the fields of technology, biology, engineering, etc., and the admiration of nature’s aesthetic in art and design, creating a kind of ‘Neo-Art Nouveau’. An example of the latter can be seen in the Root Series, in which artist Steven Tobin creates steel sculptures inspired by the roots of trees. An example is shown in Figure 2. Tobin is also known for creating sculptures based on other natural forms, such as cocoons, termite hills, and bones. His portfolio can be found at http://stevetobin.com/.

Though widely debated within the realm of biomimicry, I believe that not everything created with inspiration of nature has to support sustainability (though it is a major goal that deserves the most consideration) to be called biomimicry. The definition as such, I feel, is too limiting. Art has its own part to play in the biomimicry movement by giving aesthetic appeal and by inspiring the public to look closer at nature and the brilliant designs it uncovers. Perhaps we are trying too hard to define what biomimicry is in the sense that, like art, it is a collection of ideas and a way of thinking that isn’t easily defined. Just as we teach art, we can teach biomimicry without putting it into exact words. The point is that it is a way of thinking that will benefit mankind, and bring rise to innovation that will allow us to have a better understanding of the relationship between us and our planet.

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