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ORGANIC: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONCEPT

ANNIKA WAENERBERG
ANNIKA WAENERBERG is Professor of Art History in the
Department of Arts and Culture Studies at the University of
JvyAskyl5, Finland. Her research and publications include the
subject of the organic and organicism inart and architecture.
In defining "the organic,"' most of us have in mind
something biologically living or forms taken from
Nature. It is, however, not enough to reduce the
concept of "organic" to life or to vivacity, even less so
to Nature or naturalness, even though these ideas
provide important attributes of the organic. Forms
with no geometry, symmetry, or regularity seem, at
least for most beholders nowadays, to be the organic
form per se. In spite of this, characterizations such as
"biomorph," "zoomorph," or "vegetal" are sometimes
understood as differentiations within the concept; at
other times such designations have been judged as
something in opposition to the very idea of the
organic. 2 How is it possible to define the concept
"organic" without losing oneself in self-evident or
superficial cliches?
Especially when examined throughout the period of
Modernism from the end of the nineteenth to the
beginning of the twentieth century, the breadth of
meaning within the organic concept is unexpectedly
wide. In the year 1908 Karl Scheffler commented on
the term organic, maintaining that while everybody
agreed on its principles, a contradiction immediately
arose when those principles were exemplified.3 This
contradiction and complication can be illustrated by
the examples of two German architects: Peter
Behrens's (1868-1940) Art Hall in Oldenburg from
1905 and Bruno Taut's (1880-1938) ground plan for
a house from 1920-1921. Both of these examples
were in their times spoken of as organic, even
though the two visual forms differ from each other
remarkably. The organic in those two examples is
manifested on the one hand in symmetrical
geometric and on the other in asymmetrical nonregular shapes.
FOUR WAYS OF UNDERSTANDING
THE ORGANIC ANALOGY AND
THE ORGANIC METAPHOR
The large variety of different visual features of the
organic makes it hard to form a defining concept.
Focusing on the discrepancies of the organic
variants around 1900, this article will argue that there

are four criteria as to the definition of the visual form


as organic: the motif of Nature, the structural form,
the parallels in structure, and the artist and his or her
work being itself Nature. The first two of these can be
defined as concrete, the latter two as abstract
analogies, when "analogy" is used in the sense of
"similarity" or "correspondence." Mimetic or realistic
motifs of Nature are not always accepted in the
category of the organic. More often these have been
defined as organic in cases where new motifs were
introduced in art, design, and architecture- e.g.,
new plant motifs or bones, crystals, and microscopic
views. Secondly, if structures are formed with
identifiable motifs taken directly from Nature-for
instance, shell-shapes, tubes, and microscopic
structures-they enter the organic category more
easily. These can be called structural forms. Trees
with their branches, vascular plants, and grass were
used by the architects Victor Horta (1861-1947) and
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in this way; mimetic
features revealing or clarifying, but not veiling the
bearing function of the firm and elastic vegetal
structure. As early as 1844, Karl B6tticher
(1806-1889) had referred to this solution of Nature in
his work on the tectonics of the Hellenes.
The third possibility, exemplified by Behrens's
ground plan, can be called parallel structure.
Parallel structures have no mimetic relationship to
natural objects, but the similarity is based on a form
principle such as module, proportion, integration,
or function. A module construction can be realized
with any form as module, because the analogy is
based on the idea of the relation of the parts to
each other or to their environment. How the outer
form of a building or an artwork otherwise looks is
in this case a secondary feature. This may have
consequences for the reading of structural forms,
because their nature appears twofold. They can at
the same time be interpreted as Nature motifs as
well as parallel structures, i.e., as a concrete
similarity as well as an abstract analogy.
The above three criteria of organic analogy always
involve some visual appearance, either in mimetic
forms, non-mimetic structures, or both. The fourth
criterion is to be understood in a conceptual way
only, without visual references: according to Bruno
Taut, the organic nature of the work of art has
never had another purpose but that of the artist
and his work being itself nature.' Many of the

41

organic art views and theories of the


twentieth century, for instance those of
Herbert Read (1893-1968) and Bruno
Zevi (1918-1975), follow the principles of
the abstract organic analogy.5 Ironically,
however, the examples of Taut himself
seem to contradict the abstract nature of
his statement in a very illustrious way.
Until now we have been referring to the
organic analogy only. However, many
writers take up the organic metaphor,and
many times seem to treat analogy and
metaphor as equivalent. In attempting to
define a difference, it is obvious that the
possibilities of the organic analogy refer to
a similarity that is reciprocal, be it visual or
not. The reciprocity, however, does not
imply the idea or tradition of imitating a
model-but rather can be seen as a
statement for analysis and categorization

ANTONI GAUDI, SAGRADA FAMILIA, BARCELONA.

VICTOR HORTA, IRON COLUMNS, MAISON TASSEL.

BRUSSELS, 1893.

42

of the different visual materials. The


organic metaphor, again, comprises the
idea of motivation or a model to be
followed, but the relation of the forms is in
this case not reciprocal. Thus, in short,
using the metaphor of "the organism = a
machine" is not equivalent to the metaphor
of "the machine = an organism."
For a better understanding of the
differences in the visual appearance of
the organic, and in order to understand
the complex nature of the concept, we
have to look into the historical phases of
its development. In addition, keep in mind
that connotations of the organic from
different times do not prevail separately
from each other, but rather intertwine and
produce a multifaceted and often
contradictory cohesion of the concept.

ANTONI GAUDI, SAGRADA FAMILIA, BARCELONA.

ANTONI GAUDI, SAGRADA FAMILIA, BARCELONA.


PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANNIKA WAENERBERG.

43

HISTORICAL PHASES OF THE


ORGANIC CONCEPT

along with the new models; they are immersed into


one another or are activated in new constellations.

The philosophy of antiquity, art theory of the


Renaissance, Romantic aesthetics, architecture of
the nineteenth century, Jugendstil or art nouveau,
modern sculpture, architecture of the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries and (only recently) Russian
Modernism, 6 all represent different versions in
the history of the organic concept. This has
consequences for its reading: the organic thinking
in, for instance, Gottfried Semper's (1803-1879)
theory of architecture when reviewed from the
perspective of antiquity and Renaissance results in
a quite different picture than when considered from
the perspective of the evolution ideas of the
Romantic era or of Charles Darwin's Origin of
Species (1859).7 Furthermore, the organic view in
the disciplines of philosophy, aesthetics, literature,
art, architecture, and design assume different
positions according to social, ideological, and
cultural background.

Three main historical phases can be differentiated.


From antiquity to the first half of the eighteenth
century, the body was defined as the main reference
of the organic. From the second half of the eighteenth
century onwards the main reference was life itself,
which from the second half of the nineteenth century
turned into the idea of evolution. These criteria
become more obvious if we try to define the opposite
of each: the opposite of body is in this case nonorderor chaos, the opposite of life or living would be
dead in the sense of mechanic; and the contrary of
evolution would be the old or the traditional.Let us
look more closely into these main ideas.

It seems almost as if the history of the organic


concept consists of only individual cases. Yet the
interrelations of these cases are manifold and it is very
difficult to overlook one position when considering
another: this is also why, for instance, the National
Socialistic ideology- exploiting the organic idea for
its own use-affects the reception of the organic as a
result of different intentions. One result of that situation
has been meager discussion in the field of art
historical research.
Further, until now another factor that has been more
or less neglected in the analysis of the organic is that
in the history of concepts of the organic, the main
aspect arises from several lines of tradition: from the
tradition of visual forms of art, from the tradition of
commentaries on art theory, from aesthetics and art
philosophy and natural sciences, and from
philosophy of Nature and Nature observation. These
areas of study are, of course, related to one another.
Nature observation and the idea of Nature affect the
aesthetic traditions and, at the same time, impulses
of the natural sciences have a direct influence on art
through popularization. While these constellations
might differ from each other, nonetheless they show
"family resemblance" in the concept of the organic.
The ways of looking into this concept have to be
discerned according to the historical context for the
investigation. However, the older models of the
concept do not disappear: they continue to thrive,

THE PRINCIPLE OF THE BODY


The central idea of the organic whole referring to a
body lies in the idea of a conjunction of parts or
members into one whole. As a rhetoric metaphor in
Plato's dialogues this concept was brought into the
context of the Aristotelian 6rganon, originally
meaning "tool," "member," or "organ as a means to
an end." Thus, the order of the parts and the relation
of the parts to the whole produce a formal as well as
a functional analogy. This was particularly evident in
the Renaissance, enriched as it was by the models
of Nature. Next, Carlo Lodoli's (1690-1761) concept
of "organico"demanded that every architectural
form had to follow its function.8 This dictum was later
to be made famous as a slogan of Louis Sullivan
(1856-1924), and further developed by Frank Lloyd
Wright (1867-1956).
The bodily function view of the organic was carried
on by architects and engineers from Ernst Kapp's
Grundlinieneiner Philosophie der Technik (1877) to
Henry van de Velde's (1863-1957) view regarding
engineers and bridge-builders as the creators of the
new style: "The exact knowledge of the essential
organic components constitutes9 the principal
incontrovertible merit of the creator."
The thinking of Descartes promoted the application of
the metaphors of the machine and the automaton to
the organic body. In France the idea of organization,
derived from organisme, gained more importance at
the end of the eighteenth century; however,
organization was still interpreted as mechanical and
as such was transferred into a social function. For a

44

designer in the middle of the nineteenth century, a


bridge, a house, a piece of furniture, or a tool was
becoming a mechanically organized organism,
giving rise to the idea of omitting ornament
altogether; "organic" meaning solely purposefulness
and economy of design.' 0 By this interpretation,
".,organic ornament" must appear as a paradox. But
as we know, van de Velde was able to integrate
ornament into the analogy of function-oriented art.
Jugendstil or art nouveau, which showed an
abundance of biomorphic ornament, was later
defined as "biological romanticism," although this did
not necessarily imply a biological analogy for all
writers." At the beginning of the twentieth century the
idea of the organism as a machine appears more
strongly again in painting and sculpture, but above all
in Le Corbusier's ideas and practice.
THE PRINCIPLE OF LIFE
Even though Kant defined an organized product of
Nature in contrast to the mechanistic view, his
definition did not yet refer to life itself. A relevant
change in thinking, however, was promoted by the
idea that plants were living beings, and until 1800
the organic being of "vegetal" Nature had been
accepted. When the mechanistic explanation of
the organism was overpowered by the organic
one, life could be defined as a result of a special
vital force, as relationships or as movement. In
1835, three aspects of the organic as concerning
artwork were derived from the old metaphor:' 2 the
artwork should follow only one single principle in
the development of the product; should do that
according to the causal law; and should imply the
relationship between the parts and the whole. The
fourth aspect- living- belonged to the new
version of the organic metaphor.
Two important organic metaphors were established
during the Romantic period: first, that original art
and artistic genius were derived from vegetable
Nature, art being an independently creative,
organized, and organizing "second nature" moved
by intrinsic force instead of by outward mechanism;
and secondly, that visual form was above all
morphological in its character.
For instance, Schelling stated directly that
architecture preferred the plant organism as a
model.' 3 This model was realized above all in
columns and other ornaments. Derived from the

complete vegetable forms of the nineteenth


century-where the morphological form was
visible from root to top-there was an impulse
toward the invisible metaphor, presented in
Eug6ne Grasset's (1841-1917) ornament models
from 1905. That is, the model did not have to be
visible in its entirety; missing parts could be filled
in by imagination. In Punkt und Linie zur F15che
(1926), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) converted
this morphological idea into total abstraction by
allocating the visible morphological form to the law
of Nature and defining painting by following the
rules of subordination ascribed as being "of inner
nature." Thus, the seemingly abstract idea of the
organic in Kandinsky's-and even in Taut'sprograms have two roots: the Romantic idea of the
genius's organic nature (the highest form of Nature
being pure "vegetation") and the morphological
metaphor's being abstract (or rather, "invisible").
Different applications of natural forms are bound to
this practice, from form structures of the architects of
the so-called "power allegory" or "Krafteallegorie," to
Kandinsky's paralleling microscopic tissues as
a starting point for a composition, to Behrens's
parallel structure.
The distinction between organic and inorganic was
complicated, however, by discoveries in the field of
organic chemistry, implying that some Romanticists
were strongly committed to the idea that their era was
a time of chemistry. This assumption is also reflected
in the fact that Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) thought
the growth of crystals and organisms primarily to be a
similar process. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright was still
strongly under Spencer's influence when reflecting on
the ambiguity of the organic.
THE PRINCIPLE OF EVOLUTION
The Romantic idea of organic development implied
not the concept of evolution, i.e., the possibility of
real change or a new species, but rather the idea of
development according to a primal type evolving
through variations and new combinations of the
same elements. After the Romantic period, this idea
is reflected in, above all, the development and
history. of style-an idea that recently has been
followed up in the "genealogy of avant-garde.""
The legitimation of the Neo-Renaissance as a style
and the use of iron as a construction material were
possible despite the analogies of Nature as

45

revealed by Semper's theories. The hollow iron


column was legitimated by the idea that Nature was
developing all its organic structures according to a
tube-shaped model, a cover being necessary or
not according to the structure's nature.
The question as to whether and when during such
an evolution something "new" is produced in an
artwork depends on the enquirer's point of view. In
the light of a genius's creativity, every work of art
can be interpreted as a mutation of the same old
elements or as creation of something totally and
principally new. The Darwinian idea of evolution
focused on ideal form as being not a primary type
but rather the result of evolutionary development:
this changed the focus from the past to the future.
In art this was reflected in a transfer of interest from
the individual to the general development of art. A
mutation or the happening of the unexpected also
allowed new rules or laws to be generated.
The possibility of something totally new and
unexpected's being born, when launched
according to the laws of Nature out of a "normal"
situation, furthermore contributed to the valuation
of the new and the eagerness to give up traditions,
the old. Art was becoming a prophecy instead of a
mirror of the historical situation. Being up-to-date
meant being ahead of one's time, and the "true"
prophets-Paul C6zanne, Vincent van Gogh,
Edvard-would be discerned as such among the
rest. In architecture this kind of evolutionary
"mutation" was realized through iron and concrete,
causing change both in the proportion of masses
and in the relation of push-and-pull.
According to Justus Liebig (1803-1873), the
inorganic powers produced only straight lines and
planes; the organic only curved lines and planes;
morphological observations were attached during
the second half of the nineteenth century to
connotations of natural, feminine, and decorative
as curved and rational and of masculine as
straight. Styles utilizing curved or straight lines
were established around 1900, followed later by a
division into "Organik" and "Architektonik," while
psychological, moral, or ideological interpretations
were reflected in the motivation of the personal or
the national style.' 5
The development of organic chemistry enlarged the
sphere of the organic by spawning the concept of
"inorganic." Around 1900, at the moment when

46

biology, the theory of evolution, and monism were


obliterating both the differences between organic
and inorganic and also those between plant, animal,
and human being, crystalline forms were more often
interpreted as organic. The crystalline forms
appeared at the point of interception of organic and
inorganic, whereas the lower forms of life (amoebas,
etc.) were positioned at the beginning of the chain of
evolution and held new sources of motives in more
than one sense. The associated background ideas,
from mechanistic-functional to psycho-physical,
present a complicated variety of aspects, from Roux
and Haeckel to Henri Bergson's. L'Evolution cr6atrice
(1907) and Hans Driesch's Philosophie des
Organischen(1909).
PERSPECTIVES OF THE ORGANIC TODAY
At the beginning of the twentieth century the
organic metaphor was seen as referring to
something outside the elements of the work of art6
a reason why Modernism wanted to get rid of it.'
And yet it is proven that the connotations of the
organic still prevail. For instance, even today the
Italian term organico carries strong connotations of
the bodily aspect, in the sense of imitation and in
contrast to abstraction. Not only the historical
development but also the interdisciplinary structure
of the concept (oscillating between natural science,
philosophy, aesthetics, and practices of art)
contribute to its character.
Scrutiny of the organic concept can help in
understanding our own time and its growing
fascination for the organic; for instance, in biomimetics concentrating on biological processes.
Kristian K5chy's profound work Perspektiven des
Organischen. Biophilosophie zwischen Natur- und
Wissenschaftsphilosophie (2003) shows this
investigation in the field of bio-philosophy. K6chy
chooses vantage points in philosophy and in
philosophical discussions on natural sciences from
which to consider three aspects of the organic:
mesoscopic (referring to the organism), microscopic
(referring to the members of the organism), and
macroscopic (referring to the organism and the
environment). For each level Kbchy brings a different
definition of its organic aspects: for organismwholeness, individuality, fitness for purpose, and
centrality; for members of the organisminteraction, hierarchy, process, and spontaneity;

and for organism and the environmentreproduction, and freedom.

evolution,

What remains to be seen is whether and how the


updated definitions of the organic, acute in many
ways in the present society, will have an effect on
art'and architecture. As Murray Krieger states,
organicism reveals itself at the end always as an
illusion.17 For art research, though, more important
is what kind of organic connotations are at stake
and how these illusions contribute to or produce
visual forms and visual culture. Consoling should
be the thought that, the organic idea being an
illusion, the artist in principle cannot have a wrong
idea of the organic. What kinds of moral and
ethical implications are connected with the
concept of course form another question. El
NOTES
1. This article is a continuation of my following writings on the
organic aspects in art and art theory: Annika Waenerberg
"'Sentimentalitdt der Krifteallegorie.' Die Anwendung der
Naturmotive im Ornament des M0nchner Jugendstils und ihr
naturwissenschaftlicher und naturphilosophisch bedingter
Hintergrund im 19. Jahrhundert," in Taidehistoriallisia
tutkimuksia-Konsthistoriska studier 6, ed. Pekka
Korvenmaa (Helsinki: The Society for Art History in Finland,
1982), 127-83; Annika Waenerberg, 'Morfologinen
kasviromantiikka-er5tn ornamentti-idean alku ja loppu /
Morphologische Pflanzenromantik-Anfang und Ende einer
Ornamentidee," in Kaipuu maisemaan. Saksalaista
romantiikkaa / Alles drangt zur Landschaft. Deutsche
Romantik 1800-1840 (Tampere: Tampereen taidemuseo,
1991), 204-47; Annika Waenerberg, Urpflanze und
Ornament. PflanzenmorphologischeAnregungen in der
Kunsttheorie und Kunst von Goethe bis zum Jugendstil
(Helsinki: The Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters, 1992);
Annika Waenerberg, "Goethe und Kandinsky oder visuelle
Motive und abstrakte Kunst zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts,"
in Icon to Cartoon: A Tribute to Sixten Ringbom, ed. Maria
Terttu Knapas and Asa Ringbom (Helsinki: The Society for Art
History in Finland, 1995), 339-51; Annika Waenerberg, "Das
Organische in Kunst und Gestaltung-Eine kurze
Geschichte des Begriffs," in Spielarten des Organischen in
Architektur,Design und Kunst, eds. Annette Geiger, Stefanie
Hennecke, and Christin Kempf (Berlin: Reimer, 2004), 21-35.
2.

For instance, see Philip Steadman, The Evolution of Designs:


Biological Analogy in Architecture and Applied Arts
(Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 21.

3. Karl Scheffler, "Walter F0rst und Karl Scheffler, Dialog (lber


deutsches Kunstgewerbe," Kunst und KOnstler Vol. VI
(1908): 518.
4.

Bruno Taut, "Der Roland von Brandenburg,"


Kunstgewerbeblatt Vol. XXVII (6 M5rz 1916): 111.

Das

5.

Wilhelm Hortmann, Wenn die Kunst stirbt. Zum Prinzip des


Organischenin der Kunst- und Gesellschaftstheorie von
Herbert Read (Duisburg: Braun, 1976); Bruno Zevi, Zevi su
Zevi. Architettura come profezia (Venezia: Marsilio, 1993).

6.

Recently, for instance: Anne Eusterschulte, "Organismus


versus Mechanismus. Zur Rolle mechanomorpher Modelle
in Naturkonzeptionen der frOhen Neuzeit," in Leonardo da
Vinci. Natur im Obergang.Beitrige zur Wissenschaft, Kunst
und Technik, ed. Frank Fehrenbach (M0nchen: W. Fink,
2002), 97-133; Charles I. Armstrong, Romantic Organicism:
From Idealistic Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Caroline van Eck, Organicismin
Nineteenth-Century Architecture. An Inquiry into Its
Theoretical and Philosophical Background (Amsterdam:
Architectura and Natura Press, 1994); JOrgen Fitschen, Die
organische Form 1930-1960. Bildhauerkunst-HansArp,
Henry Moore und die Erneuerung der modernen Plastik
nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg (Bremen: Gerhard-MarcksHaus, 2003); Natalia Baschmakova,Olga Kushlina, and
Igor Lostsilov (eds.), Shkola organicheskogo iskusstva v
russkom modernizme. Sbornik statei (Helsinki: Institute for
Russian and East European Studies,1999); Isabel Wonsche,
"Das Kunstkonzept der Organischen Kultur in der Kunst der
russischen Avantgarde" (Ph.D. diss., Universit.t
Heidelberg, 1997).

7. Van Eck, 228-35; Valentin Hammerschmidt, "Organisch


oder biologisch. Anmerkungen zu zwei Entwurfsparadigmen
in der Architekturtheorie des 19. Jahrhunderts," in Bau +
Kunst. Festshrift zum 65. Geburststag von ProfessorJOrgen
Paul, eds. Gilbert Lupfer, Konstanze Rudert, and P. Sigel,
(Dresden: Hellerau-Verlag, 2000), 76-85.
8.

In Lodoli's own case concerning only furniture see: "Organica,


architettura," in Luigi Grassi and Mario Pepe, Dizionariodella
Critica dArte (Torino: UTET, 1978).

9.

Henry van de Velde, Kunstgewerbliche Laienpredigten


(Leipzig: H. Seemann, 1902), 172.

10. Karl Schnaase, Kunstblatt, Vol. 25, (1844): 247; as quoted


by Klaus D6hmer, In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?
Architekturheoriezwischen Klassizismus und Jugendstil,
(MOnchen: Prestel, 1976), 53-4.
11. Robert Schmutzler, Art Nouveau-Jugendstil (Stuttgart:
Hatje, 1977), 183-8; cf. on the contrary: Steadman, 21.
12. Ludewig Steckling, Die Kalologie oder die Lehre vom
Schdnen aus Einem Principe vollstindig entwickelt
(Leipzig: G. J. G6schen, 1835), 94.
13. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Philosophie der Kunst
(1859; reprint, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,
1976),227.
14. See for instance Carl Moellinger, Deutsch-romanische
Architektur in ihrer organischen Entwicklung bis zum
Ausgang des XII. Jahrhunderts(Leipzig: E. A. Seeman,
1891); also the fascinating recent study by Astrit SchmidtBurkhardt, Stammbiume der Kunst. Zur Genealogie der
Avantgarde (Berhin: Akademie Verlag, 2005).
15. Christina Threuter, "'Organisches Bauen' versus 'nationaler
Stil'. Hans Scharoun und das Scheitern seiner T8tigkeit in
der DDR," in Grammatik sozialistischerArchitekturen.
Lesarten historischerStidtebauforschungzur DDR, eds.
Holger Barth, Ingrid Apolinarski and Harald Bodenschatz
(Berlin: Reimer, 2001), 286.
16. Leo Adler, "Ober das Organische und das Malerische in der
Baukunst," Wasmuths Monatshefte fOr Baukunst Vol.
1924/25 (1925): 484-94.
17. Murray Krieger, A Reopening of Closure: Organicism
Against Itself, the Welek Library Lectures at the University
of California, Irvine (New York: Columbia University Press,
1989), 5.

47

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TITLE: Organic: A Brief History of the Concept


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