Images of the Cell in Twentieth-Century Art and Science

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    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

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    Images of the Cell in Twentieth-

    Century Art and Science

    Maura C. Flannery

    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.

    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].

    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-

    Maura C. Flannery (teacher), St. John's University, Bent Hall, Jamaica, NY 11439, U.S.A. E-mail: .

    those that were assumed to be

    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

    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.

    times in the 200 years after it was produced [6]. But is there more to the persistence of Wilson's cell than

    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.

    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-

    LEONARDO, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 195-204, 1998 195

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    Z ffi . VauoleStephen Jay Gould argues that "scien- L^-^I,J1^:. >p . . . . tific illustrations are not frills or summa-

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    " 'ries; they are foci for modes of thought" ;:l[r8X2 S X^Paive meta lasmic [7]. Images are often more revealing Pa.ivemetaplasmlc

    3r 5 paraplastitc odies than verbal descriptions because "we tai- lor our words so carefully but reveal our

    ^^^'%[t~i;~.:~.~'.~~ ^secrets unconsciously in those 'mere' il- lustrations" [8]. Wilson's cell-with its

    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 delineate