Surprising as it may seem, the connection between art and the progression of biology are closely intertwined. If we look back at art history it’s clear that art has always been a form of biology research and taxonomy, documenting the anatomy of plants and animals (especially the human kind) through the eyes of artists.

Needless to say, the learning materials in natural sciences rely heavily on diagrams and sketches in order to illustrate new concepts to learners.

However the image link between the arts and sciences goes beyond scientific illustration. As you continue reading you will soon see the beautiful symphony created by the joint progression of biological sciences and liberal arts through the ages.

Illustrating the Human Form

Humanity has been the central theme of artistic works since the origin of life. Even the San Rock Art dotted in caves throughout South Africa depicts the human form.

statues of men showing human anatomy near brown building during daytime
Nudity in photographs can be controversial yet nudity in paintings is totally acceptable - Unsplash

The art of illustrating the human is known as figure drawing. When sketching the different masculine and feminine poses and contours an artist is playing the role of an observer and putting to paper what they see before them. This kind of sketching limits artistic expression and is based on the reality of creating a composition using the body of a fellow human being.

Today, photos depicting nudity are cause for controversy, yet if you were to ask a faculty member in any department of history they would agree that painting and sculpting the nude human form was not regarded as shameful.

Since the primordial era there is evidence of the link between the arts and humanities. Even then, people were fascinated by human anatomy, with art works showing a surprisingly refined understanding of the human body.

Towards the end of the 18th century, figure drawing was viewed as an essential skill for arts education. Undergraduate and graduate students of any college of arts spent countless hours honing their sketching abilities.

Even today, life drawing remains essential in the core curriculum in almost every school of art. Students gather in a circle around a model and this means that the perspective is different for everybody in the room. These drawing sessions are almost like research projects on the human form.

Of course contemporary art allows for artists to emphasise specific aspects of the subject they are copying in order to bring across a personal stylised message to their artwork.

In most undergraduate lecture series, art students are urged to observe a variety of figures in an effort to emphasise the simple fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

The Art of Human Anatomy

Life drawing may be an exacting art and a science in its own right but there is many an artist who is even more fascinated with what goes on under the skin.

For the majority of us, the life processes going on inside our bodies every day in order for us to function healthily will remain a mystery. Let alone understanding the biochemistry link between our emotions and our physical health or our state of mind.

This is not the case for the dedicated life artists who draw the human figure as if they were undertaking a biological research project.

These exacting artists are interested in knowing the biological systems going on inside our bodies that makes us look the way we do. They study the body like a biologist doing graduate research, understanding how the muscle attaches to the bone and where the vital organs are situated inside the abdomen.

If you were to begin studying the living matter of your body in this kind of detail, you would gain a new appreciation for the miraculous life sciences keeping us alive every day. 

There is a collection of famous paintings by Rembrandt depicting doctors performing surgery, and while the detail didn’t compare to Michelangelo’s Vitruviun Man, it did however spark a more fervent interest in the teaching and research of human anatomy and physiology at the time.

Because general biology knowledge was really limited when it came to the internal functioning of living organisms, biologists of the day were eager to perform autopsies and dissections. However, these research opportunities were limited.

Any university professor of religious studies will agree that the church was very opposed to doctors performing autopsies. Artists therefore reflected on these anatomical pursuits in their paintings.

sculpture of female human form showing skeleton, nerves and blood vessels and
The art of life drawing requires an acute understanding of skeletal and muscular structure - Unsplash

Physiology Depicted in Liberal Arts and Sciences

Abstract artist, Pablo Picasso, had a unique and groundbreaking way of depicting the body. Picasso was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and thus played a pivotal role in influencing liberal arts education.

This highly independent artist completely transformed the conventional view of the masculine and feminine form with his contemporary abstract art. He disregarded traditional composition and used his work to force his audience to question their perception of reality, his art portrayed an emotional intensity that was revolutionary.

Although Picasso’s style sometimes came across as macabre, it resonated with his audience and it’s interesting to imagine what kind of narrative his work would have if he were still alive today. How would he perceive the trend of plastic surgery and cosmetic transformations that are taking the world by storm? Maybe he would regard it as some strange form of evolutionary biology.

Where Biology Meets Photography

Photography is a fairly new art form and is still emerging in its popularity; however, it plays a very big role in the sciences, particularly when studying animal behaviour in zoology or ecology and conservation.

But another surprising niche that makes extensive use of photography is crime scene investigation.

At the scene of a crime photographers are called in to document the evidence by supplying a visual description of the layout of the scene through photographic footage. This can mean anything from photographing tyre tracks to slain bodies at a massacre, much like the protocol you would see on the popular television shows like CSI. These photographs may be used at a later stage when advising an investigative team or as evidence in court.

The photographs taken at crime scenes are not public property and are archived securely out of reach of the prying eyes of the media who are always on the prowl for breaking news and events. However, there are rare instances where photos of this nature surface and are made accessible to the public. One example is the book entitled Murder in the City compiled by Wilfried Kaute.

A collection of photographs depicting crime scenes in New York City in the 1910s were discovered when the NYPD was undergoing extensive renovations. Kaute used these pictures to illustrate the humanity and vulnerability of victims after death and it was a historical glance at a decade that had the highest rates of homicide the city had ever seen.

The Science of Bio Art

Bio art is a contemporary art form that has many links to modern biology and often focusing on cell biology. The artist works with living tissue, investigating the organismal biology of all living things by using microscopic photography of microbes, bacteria and to produce awe inspiring art.

Most of the work takes place in a laboratory using bioniformatics gained through extensive microbiology and molecular biology research. Images are made visible to the human eye thanks to biotechnology that is constantly advancing.

microscopic image of red and blue cells
Bio art often uses biotechnology to allow us to see the microscopic side of life - Unsplash

If you are studying visual and performing arts at any school of arts and sciences then you could approach the biology department to find out about the possibility of being a pioneer in this emerging art form. It could be a wonderful integrative experience for the two very different academic departments to work together.

The French artist, Orlan, is a forerunner in a branch of bio art called carnal art where the artist produces self portraits by utilising body modification to distort their appearance. In her case, Orlan has undergone numerous plastic surgery procedures (which wouldn’t be possible without biomedical sciences) in an effort to replicate famous art works of women such as the Mona Lisa.

The Pursuit of Bodily Perfection

Considering all the aspects of art and design that we have looked at thus far, it’s safe to say that the one thing that binds biology to art is the fascination with the human form and the changing ideals of beauty.

The general idea of true beauty seems pretty consistent from person to person (otherwise we would be seeing a bigger variety movie stars and super models splashed across the front covers of glossy magazines). But what influences our perception of beauty? And how does this ideal change over time?

For instance, if you were to show a group of youngsters a 1700s painting of what would have been considered extremely beautiful men and women; chances are your audience wouldn’t agree. Imagine what people from the 18th century would have to say about Kim Kardashian’s exaggerated hips or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body building physique?

So where is the connection between art, biology and beauty trends?

Maybe the role of biology is to keep reminding us about how miraculous our bodies are, to steer us away from the surface appearances and to appreciate the intricate biological processes going on under our skin too.

The Artistic Side of Botany

Jungle foliage and floral blooms have graced the canvases of most of the great painters. Aside from the sexual reproduction of flowers that connects them to humanity, plants are beautiful, varied living things that will always be appreciated.

Make a gift of a floral arrangement and you can’t go wrong.

botanical illustrations
Botanical illustration is making an artistic comeback - Unsplash

Botanical illustrations depicting the anatomy of flowers have also become a trendy art in the interior design sector. The study of plants has influenced the art world and science and art work in unison once again.

Learners studying Life Science in the FET phase will spend time studying the reproductive systems of plants and they will become familiar with processes such as pollination that are essential for the continuation of plant species. Conservation biology is teaching us how fragile these processes are and yet how much we rely on them.

Prospective students should be warned that to complete their biology major will require a particular kind of artistry because of all the scientific diagrams biology students are required to draw. Botanical art is no joke and involves observing and drawing the most detailed diagrams of the anatomy of plants.

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Born from a family of creatives, Kyla has a passion for the arts and interior design.