The Growth of New Ideas – The Legacy of D’Arcy Thompson in Modern and Contemporary Art

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The permanent collection at the Pier Arts Centre features works of artists including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and has been described as “one of the most distinguished and perfect smaller collections of 20th century art on permanent display anywhere in the world”.

Many of the artists were influenced by a remarkable book published in 1917. It was titled On Growth and Form and written by D’Arcy Thompson, professor of biology at University College Dundee, who moved in that year to the chair of natural history at St Andrews. His knowledge of mathematics and classics was so great that it was said that he might have also been a professor of either subject.

“The waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy bay between the headlands, the outline of the hills, the shape of the clouds, all these are so many riddles of form, so many problems of morphology, and all of them the physicist can more of less easily read and adequately solve,” he wrote. “Nor is it otherwise with the material forms of living things. Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower, are so many portions of matter, and it is in obedience to the laws of physics that their particles have been moved, moulded, and confirmed.”

Those various forms are the source from which so many artists seek the essence, and a new visiting exhibition to the Pier – a collaboration with the University of Dundee Museums – will show a number of the works that have resulted.

Titled ‘The Growth of Ideas – The Legacy of D’Arcy Thompson in Modern and Contemporary Art’, it explores his work and its impact on Modernist artists and contemporary artistic thinking. Among the artists to be influenced by On Growth and Form were Naum Gabo, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Will Maclean.

The exhibition will be accompanied on Saturday 9 September by a morning – titled Made Manifest in Form and Number – in which a mathematician joins artists to look at the life and ideas of D’Arcy Thompson. Dr Isobel Falconer, a historian of mathematics at St Andrews, will describe the man and his influence, while Pier curator Andrew Parkinson will introduce the artists. There’s then an opportunity to tour both the permanent collection and the new exhibition in the company of Dundee curator Matthew Jarron and Kari Adams from the Pier.

In his 1998 book Life’s Other Secret, the mathematician Ian Stewart noted that D’Arcy Thompson’s work has never really been accepted by the mainstream of biology. “Yet that disconcertingly unorthodox idea – that life is a partnership between biology and mathematics – refused to go away.” And, he said, it will yet come into its own.

“I predict – and I am by no means alone – that one of the most exciting growth areas of twenty-first-century science will be biomathematics. The next century will witness an explosion of new mathematics concepts, of new kinds of mathematics, brought into being by the need to understand the patterns of the living world. Those new ideas will interact with the biological and physical sciences in totally new ways. They will – if they are successful – provide a deep understanding of that strange phenomenon that we call “life”: one in which its astonishing abilities are seen to flow inevitably from the underlying richness, and the mathematical elegance, of our universe.”

And as the two exhibitions at the Pier show, a range of artists were very quick to realise the significance of D’Arcy Thompson’s work and the deep insights into natural forms that he provides.

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