Images of the Cell in Twentieth-Century Art and Science

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<ul><li><p>Leonardo</p><p>Images of the Cell in Twentieth-Century Art and ScienceAuthor(s): Maura C. FlannerySource: Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1998), pp. 195-204Published by: The MIT PressStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 21:36</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>The MIT Press and Leonardo are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toLeonardo.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 21:36:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>ABSTRACT </p><p>GENERAL NOTE </p><p>Images of the Cell in Twentieth- </p><p>Century Art and Science </p><p>Maura C. Flannery </p><p>S ince the cell is the basic unit of life, it is not surprising that it has been depicted countless times by biolo- gists. Focusing on the images that were particularly important in the advancement of cell biology, Joseph Gall's recent book on the history of cell imagery indicates the variety of such de- pictions [1]. What may be surprising is that the cell has also been portrayed frequently in twentieth-century art as well, from the realistic cells found in Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals to the surrealistic cellular forms of Max Ernst, from the biomorphic forms in the work of such abstract expres- sionists as William Baziotes to, as more recent examples, the work of Terry Winters and Daniel Manns. </p><p>In this article, I will examine the use of cell images in biol- ogy and art, focusing on a number of images from each enter- prise to show that the dividing line between science and art is often a tenuous one. David Topper describes works of art and works of science as constituting a spectrum ranging from the aesthetic to the empirical. He argues that, while some works of science are more empirical than others, most have some aes- thetic aspect [2]. I think a good case can be made that some of the most enduring images of the cell in twentieth-century science as well as art are aesthetically satisfying-that is, they exhibit such aesthetic qualities as elegance, harmony, form and balance. One of the best examples of this is the illustra- tion I will begin with, one found in Edmund Beecher Wilson's 1925 cell-biology text The Cell in Development and Heredity [3]. </p><p>WILSON'S CELL Wilson's image of the cell (Fig. 1) is important in the history of cell imagery, since it was reproduced in numerous text- books for years afterward as the best representation available of what is in a cell. Indeed, Wilson's cell was used in biology texts of the 1950s and 1960s, including Claude Villee's 1962 text Biology [4]. The recurrence of significant images is not uncommon in the history of science. In his study of persistent images in early zoological illustration, William Ashworth notes that, while texts changed as more information accumu- lated, old illustrations were consistently reused [5]. And this is just what we see in the case of the Wilson cell. In the almost 40 years between the publication of Wilson's book and Villee's use of the Wilson cell, a tremendous amount of cellu- lar research was done, including work with the electron mi- croscope revealing a new level of complexity in cellular struc- ture. Ashworth's argument that the illustrations most often copied were those representing first-hand observations- </p><p>Maura C. Flannery (teacher), St. John's University, Bent Hall, Jamaica, NY 11439, U.S.A. E-mail: . </p><p>those that were assumed to be </p><p>empirically correct-may also hold for Wilson's cell. When his book was published, Wilson was one of the leading cell research- ers and had held that position for decades, so it is not surprising that later biologists would seek to gain legitimacy for their work by republishing that of a master. This process is similar to the way Albrecht Diirer's drawing of a rhi- noceros became an iconographi- cal classic that was copied many </p><p>This essay examines the use of images of the cell in both sci- ence and art. In the twentieth cen- tury, many new imaging tech- niques have made intracellular structures more and more visible. The author examines several im- ages of the cell drawn from scien- tific sources, to illustrate how the biologist's view of the cell has changed over time and how these images, like works of art, have aesthetic qualities. Many twenti- eth-century artists, beginning with the surrealists, have also used cellular forms in their work. Wassily Kandinsky is one artist for whom there is particularly good documentation relating to the in- fluence of scientific cell images on his work. Diego Rivera painted realistic cells in several of his mu- rals. The abstract expressionists were also interested in cellular forms, and this interest continues in the work of several contempo- rary artists. In this survey, images of the cell from art and science are found to complement each other and to enrich our under- standing of the basic unit of life. </p><p>times in the 200 years after it was produced [6]. But is there more to the persistence of Wilson's cell than </p><p>just its empirical value? Does it have aesthetic qualities as well? I think it can be argued that it does, and that among these qualities is an elegance in clarity, the clarity of black lines on white paper. Moreover, Wilson's image is particularly straightforward; the cell is not cluttered with too much detail. Added to this clarity is a subtle interplay between symmetry and asymmetry. The cell is not round, but has a perfectly smooth surface and ovoid form. It has an overall left-right symmetry with the nucleus, central bodies and Golgi bodies placed in the upper center of the cell. A cluster of small struc- tures takes up the bottom portion of the cell, but again there is left-right symmetry. The three large vacuoles are not sym- metrically placed, but there is balance and a pleasing tension between symmetry and asymmetry. </p><p>Though this drawing has great clarity, there is also a stud- ied ambiguity about it. A problem that has plagued micros- copy since its beginnings is that of artifacts: is what appears under the microscope really a cell structure or is it a result of the manipulations of the sample by the microscopist? When a cell is fixed or a slice of tissue is stained in order to make cell structures more clearly visible, what are we really looking at: the cell, or something created by the processing tech- niques used? In dealing with the problem of artifact, Wilson thought that the most pressing question about cytoplasmic structure was whether the apparent framework seen within the cell was a normal condition existing during life. Wilson's solution was to draw the cytoplasm as a mesh-like network, similar in appearance to a colloid such as gelatin when it be- gins to dry. This network is a visual compromise between no structure and too much structure. It appears more orderly than homogeneous shading would, yet it does not reveal any crystalline or fibrillar structure that others had speculated about but for which there was little evidence. This visual solu- </p><p>LEONARDO, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 195-204, 1998 195 </p><p>I I </p><p>? 1998 ISAST </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 21:36:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Central bodies tion to the problem of what is in a cell </p><p>__^S^^^S^a ^seems to have been a very satisfying one, - ^-,,:seffi^ ;,-,;&gt;,C* ; ^since a mesh-like cytoplasm continued </p><p>1^^ True wall or membrane to appear in renditions of the cell until </p><p>a^ . 9L~- Plasma-membane the 1960s, though by then a number of s </p><p>lGolgi bodiesli'* .. </p><p>. Cortical layer cytoplasmic structures and structural el- Plasmosome or the - , p ements had been identified through the true nucleolus </p><p>true nucleolus f use of the electron microscope. - Basichromatin , ,4 '1'~, ' . . . *'- ]Oxychromatin or -'' ,Plastids While the tensions between clarity z linin-w Karyosome or chro- IPu- i and ambiguity, symmetry and asymme- </p><p>rmatmi-nucleohuis - ( :.,b try, simplicity and complexity can at </p><p>. ?r,, ':.m:-.' ';' ~ :~.least in part explain why Wilson's cell is </p><p>zi?i^^ '^^f^^^ - Chondriowmes aesthetically pleasing, there is some- </p><p>'.^. g)Ir Al '~?'thing more to consider before we leave ?; t= - - .... ,- ,'.' , '- </p><p>' ,^V^ ^ this very significant image of the cell. </p><p>Z ffi . VauoleStephen Jay Gould argues that "scien- L^-^I,J1^:. &gt;p . . . . tific illustrations are not frills or summa- </p><p>..^.. t3" - " ' </p><p>" 'ries; they are foci for modes of thought" ;:l[r8X2 S X^Paive meta lasmic [7]. Images are often more revealing Pa.ivemetaplasmlc </p><p>3r 5 paraplastitc odies than verbal descriptions because "we tai- lor our words so carefully but reveal our </p><p>^^^'%[t~i;~.:~.~'.~~ ^secrets unconsciously in those 'mere' il- lustrations" [8]. Wilson's cell-with its </p><p>Fig. 1. Diagram of a cell from Edmund Beecher Wilson's The Cell in Development and Heredity symmetry, its simple outline and its [3], showing the emphasis on symmetry and central placement of key cellular elements. clearly delineated structures-is a rather </p><p>mechanistic portrayal of the cell. Though Wilson was not one of those </p><p>Fig. 2. Bunji Tagawa's drawing of a eukaryotic animal cell from Jean Brachet's article, "The turn ntry boosts who s </p><p>LivingT-~~~ Cell"* [IOr~ w rturn-of-the-century biologists who es- Living Cell" [10]. poused mechanism, this drawing does </p><p>: -.::'.---- :.-: ."..'.:: -.present the cell as having the smooth ;(( -^ :: - - -lines and symmetrical components remi- </p><p>...:: -;. '^ </p><p>.** </p><p>*.-^ - </p><p>- 9 during place in twentieth-century bio- </p><p>*I. loCEal MEMBRANEillus is a depiction appear- logical illustration is a depiction appear- </p><p>196 Flanneyr, Images of the Cell in Twentieth-Century Art and Science </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 21:36:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>ing in the September 1961 issue of Scien- </p><p>tific American devoted to the cell (Fig. 2) [10]. While Wilson's cell was drawn from an image seen through a light mi- </p><p>croscope, this cell was drawn from elec- </p><p>tron-microscope images. For this rea- son, there is much more detail, though there is a stippled background to indi- cate material that still is not readily visualizable. There is also a balanced dis- tribution of the elements, though the cell is not nearly as symmetrical as Wilson's. All the elements are clearly de- lineated, with enough space between so the composition is not crowded. It is </p><p>easy to differentiate between the various structures, all of which are clearly marked with their names. So, like Wilson's cell, this one is aesthetically pleasing because of its clarity and bal- ance; the graceful rendering of the cell </p><p>organelles is also attractive. It can be ar- </p><p>gued that these features contributed to </p><p>making this cell, like Wilson's, an endur- </p><p>ing and much-copied image in text- books. Robert Blystone notes that as late as 1989 the Scientific American portrayal of the cell was still being copied. Though this late version appeared in color and in a form illustrating that the cell is a three-dimensional object, there was no essential change in the substance of the image [11]. </p><p>Fig. 3. Simulated cross-section of the bacterium Escheri- chia coli drawn at a </p><p>magnification of one million times. From David Goodsell's article, "A Look Inside the Living Cell" [12]. </p><p>GOODSELL'S CELL Somewhat the same fate may await David Goodsell's cell images. His visual- ization of a cross-section through a bac- terial cell (Fig. 3) has appeared not only in his book, The Machinery of Life, but also in articles in Trends in the Biological Sciences and in the American Scientist </p><p>[12]. His cross-section through a eukary- otic cell, originally produced for a bio- </p><p>chemistry text, has now been reprinted in two recent cell-biology texts [13]. </p><p>What makes Goodsell's images so riv- </p><p>eting? As with the other images I have discussed, there are several factors, both </p><p>empirical and aesthetic, that contribute to their appeal. In the case of the cross- section image of the bacterium Escheri- chia coli, a black-and-white illustration, all the components are outlined in black, so they are clearly differentiated. A three-dimensionality is achieved by the shading of the molecules in the rear. The sinuous shapes of the mol- ecules make them attractive and add to the dynamism of the image. The aes- thetic appeal of this drawing is also tied to its empirical function. The richness </p><p>of the image-there is no empty space here-mimics the richness of the cellu- lar environment; molecules and or- </p><p>ganelles are packed together. Goodsell's </p><p>rendering of a cross-section through a </p><p>eukaryotic cell is similarly constructed, though more complex. He deals with this added complexity by coloring the molecules, with proteins in shades of blues, nucleic acids in shades of purple, etc. The addition of color makes the im- </p><p>age more informative and even more vi- </p><p>sually attractive. One reason Goodsell's illustrations </p><p>have received so much attention from </p><p>biologists is that they are attempts to in- </p><p>tegrate visually what is known about macromolecular forms with what is known of cell organelle form. In the </p><p>past, most illustrations focused on one or the other of these types of structure, not on both simultaneously. Goodsell notes that between X-ray crystallogra- phy, which provides information on macromolecular form, and electron mi- </p><p>croscopy, which reveals cellular or- </p><p>ganelle form, "there is a gray area of in- </p><p>accessibility-a level of organization too </p><p>large to explore in atomic detail but too small to resolve microscopically" [14]. What Goodsell has done is to take the visual information from both of these sources and integrate it in his cellular cross-sections. He argues that his illus- trations of the cell are "works of the </p><p>imagination, but imagination grounded in quantitative analysis of specific mol- ecules and cell types" [15]. </p><p>Flannery, Images of the Cell in Twentieth-Century Art and Science 197 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 21:36:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Fig. 4. Jean Arp, Configuration with Two Dangerous Points, carved and painted wood, 69.9 x 85.1 cm, 1930. (? 1998 Artists' Rights Society (...</p></li></ul>


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