Modernisms and Organicism: Dialogues between Art, Philosophy and Science

International conference organized by Carlotta Castellani, Hannah Baader and Venanzio Raspa
Università degli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo e Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut


Keynote Speaker:

Michael Zimmermann, Universität Eichstätt
L’evoluzione ripetuta nell'esperienza interiore dell’artista. Gustave Flaubert ed Odilon Redon


Oliver Botar, University of Manitoba
Valeria Maggiore, Università degli Studi di Palermo
Arndt Niebisch, Universität Wien
Tatjana Petzer, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg 
Fiorenza Toccafondi, Università degli Studi di Firenze
Isabelle Wünsche, Jacobs University Bremen
Michael Zimmermann, Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Carlotta Castellani, Università degli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo
Venanzio Raspa, Università degli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo
Hannah Baader, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut

At the beginning of the twentieth century, “life” and “nature” established themselves as all-encompassing categories, overcoming the recent separation between the sciences (Naturwissenschaft) and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften). Organicism, particularly in its German variation, constituted a distinct discourse addressed to resolve the major antitheses of biological thought, such as mechanicism versus vitalism.

The specificity of the biological form was recognized in its organization or in the configuration (Gestalt and Gestaltung) of elements, identifiable in every phenomenon in nature, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, or from the smallest particles to the universe. The human being thus lost its centrality because, like other organisms, it constituted only a part within a complex system of relationships, to which it was intimately connected. “Energy”, “Energism” and “Rhythm” became central categories as expressions of the process of life and dimensions of time. The relationship between the living being and its environment (Umwelt) was therefore configured as an incessant reciprocal action.  This cluster of concepts is reflected in the philosophical speculations and scientific theories of scholars such as Ernst Haeckel, Ludwig Klages, Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, and Jakob Johann van Uexküll, who among others, believed in a connection that binds the life sciences to other areas of knowledge, often proposing a new unity.

What united this heterogeneous set of theories was the refusal of a reduction of the organism to purely mechanical or physico-chemical processes and the enhancement of the living being as a unit of interrelated elements, according to the principle that ‘everything is more than the sum of its parts’. After the end of the First World War, these ideas were carried forward in an interdisciplinary way by international intellectuals and artists, constantly updated on the debate in the sciences.

The conference aims to provide new insights into the understanding of organicism as epistemological model in the Modernism(s) of the 1920s in Germany by examining the theories and practices from an interdisciplinary perspective. Amongst many possible approaches, the focus of the conference is the dialogue between Art, Science and Philosophy. Scientific debates and their popularization had a profound effect upon the contemporary philosophical discussions and vice versa; artists interacted with science in a variety of ways, sometimes even looking ‘proactively’ for scientific insights and responding to science on multiple levels: organicism can be understood as a pivotal element in the foundation of a new theory of color, architecture, photographic and cinematic vision, Gestalt theory and the phenomenology of perception.

The two-day conference is divided into five panels, each devoted to a philosopher or scientist who contributed – in various and different ways – to the foundation or formation of these theories: Jakob Johann von Uexküll, Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, Ernst Haeckel, Ernst Marcus and Gestalt theorists (Wertheimer, Koffka, Köhler). Two different research perspectives (art history/philosophy) will dialogue around these figures with the ambition to present the scientific theories and discuss their interaction through specific case studies from the art-historical field (such as Hannah Höch, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Raoul Hausmann, Max Ernst, Mies van der Rohe and others). The goal of the conference is to investigate the concept of organicism as an epistemological model in art, photography, architecture and experimental cinema, by experimenting with new methodological formats of interdisciplinary inquiry.

The conference emerges from the collaboration with the research and fellowship program 4A_Lab in Berlin, a cooperation between the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.


Selected bibliography:

Linda Dalrymple Henderson. Writing Modern Art and Science – An Overview; Science in Context 17(4), 423–466 (2004).

Beyond Art: A Third Culture: A Comparative Study in Cultures Art and Science in 20th Century Austria and Hungary, ed. by Peter Weibel, Springer, Vienna 2005.

Biocentrism and Modernism, ed. by Oliver A. I. Botar, Isabel Wünsche, Routledge, London-New York 2011.

The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture, ed. by Charissa N. Terranova and Meredith Tromble, Routledge, New York-London 2017.

Vitalism and Its Legacy in Twentieth Century Life Sciences and Philosophy, ed. by Christopher Donohue, Charles T. Wolfe, Springer, 2023.





This event will be documented photographically and/or recorded on video. Please let us know if you do not agree with the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz using images in which you might be recognizable for event documentation and public relation purposes (e.g. social media).


02 – 03 May 2023

Urbino, Palazzo Albani

This will be a hybrid event.


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