Growth and Form, 1951 (2014)

Installation, Various dimensions

Growth and Form was an exhibition produced by Richard Hamilton at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in 1951, in the context of the Festival of Britain. It consisted of a large-scale installation – reconstructed in 2014 at Tate Modern, London, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid – that was inspired by the book of Scottish mathematician and biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917). Hamilton brought together a range of scientific and organic materials, using the most innovative and imaginative technologies of the moment. One of the effects of this exhibition was, as Hamilton wrote, the influence it may have upon design trends'.

The book that inspired Hamilton, a scientific study on animal morphology that had been given to him by his friend, artist and photographer Nigel Henderson, created a deep impression on him. ‘I had begun to feel that exhibition was an art form in its own right. The exhibits were subsidiary to the way they were treated.’ Growth and Form was the first and most emblematic of a series of exhibitions produced by Hamilton in the fifties: Parallel of Life and Art (1953), Man, Machine & Motion (1955), House of the Future (1956) and This is Tomorrow (1956). At that time, there was an old-fashioned approach to exhibition practice in England in academic contexts. Hence the interest of Hamilton, linked to the Independent Group (a forward-thinking group whose discussions in the fifties brought together architects, writers and painters), in radically rethinking the format and the very idea of exhibition practice.

This exhibition, inspired by the sensitivity and strategies of Surrealism and Dada, Joyce’s literary techniques and Duchamp, helped Hamilton develop his own exhibition language. His visual references were also determined by the discovery of György Kepes, László Moholy-Nagy and Sigfried Giedion. These readings favoured revitalising the social function of art and bringing together artistic and scientific experimentation, at a time when technology was developing a new visual order. Hamilton saw a clear need for an exhibition practice based on the principles of visualisation and the ability to incorporate contemporary technology. To all these ideas we should add his technical training in design.

Growth and Form is based on studies in biology and morphology. The newsletter of the ICA dated 28 December 1949 explained in respect of Hamilton’s exhibition: ‘Modern science has put at the disposal of artists and industrial designers a rich universe of new forms and discovered for them a new source of inspiration. Due to the schism between science and art, sufficient attention has still not been given to this material and its potentially revolutionary importance for modern design.’ Emphasis was put on the visual experience of the exhibition: art can expand its experiential universe if it is able to appreciate natural forms through scientific studies.

Conceived as an installation combining several techniques, the exhibition consisted of three sculptural objects: a large structure resembling a lens with bones (one of them had mirrors showing the curvature of the refraction); a lattice structure with three-dimensional objects (based on the drawings of morphologies in Thompson’s book) and panels of images; and an independent cell structure. In the vitrines were exhibited objects and maquettes: a horse’s skull, the vertebrae of a goat and some eggs, among other things. On one wall was a large X-ray of the flipper of a seal; in another, a row of illuminated glass negatives, photomicrographs, X-rays, film frames and other items. Two films were also projected: one, on the ceiling, showing images of the formation of a crystal, and the other, on a table, the development of the cell of a sea urchin. There were other mobile maquettes illustrating mathematical form. Another maquette displayed the changes in form experienced when a drop of water falls and electronic flash equipment helped to reproduce the form of a spray.

The changing combinations of different elements and structures suggested multiple visions to the visitors: cellular structures combined with exhibits in the form of grid and projected images of living processes.

The background to this was a desire to close the debate that had emerged in the late forties, in the field of design and architecture, between the functionalism of Le Corbusier – defender of the grid and rational planning – and supporters of a new humanism,who proposed a form of urban planning with human associations. In the midst of this debate, Hamilton chose to superimpose irregular, organic forms with the geometry of the grid.

With lyrical images close to Surrealism, Growth and Form was a conceptual and aesthetic success. A review in The Sunday Times read: ‘An enthroned octopus sits on the sofa of its own tentacles; skeletons climb the apparatus of a tiny gym and, thanks to the ingenuity of science, we leave the exhibition convinced that we have seen infinity in a jellyfish and eternity in the power of a goat.’

Technical details

Original title:
Growth and Form
Registration number:
Hamilton, Richard
Date created:
1951 (2014)
Date acquired:
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation
Object type:
Reconstruction. Various materials
Various dimensions
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation. Gift of Rita Hamilton. Installation reconstructed in 2014 by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and Tate Modern, London, on the occasion of the exhibition “Richard Hamilton”
© Richard Hamilton, VEGAP, Barcelona
It has accessibility resources:

Accessibility resources
High-relief image
Texts in braille

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