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Symmetry and the Organization of Form: A Review Article

Author(s): Rudolf Arnheim
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 21, No. 3 (1988), pp. 273-276
Published by: The MIT Press
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Rudolf Arnheim
Abstract-An extensive collection of writings on scientific, mathematicaland aesthetic aspects
of symmetry is used to discuss the most appropriaterange of the concept of symmetry. When
symmetry is equated with isometrics, it refers to transformations that keep shape identical.
Examples are given to show that for perceptualand artistic purposesthis definitionis too broad
and also too narrow.

Only a few decades ago our Western

culture seemed to be in danger of being
split in half. The growth of the exact
sciences threatened to create a gulf
between physics, chemistry and perhaps
biology on the one side and the arts and
humanities on the other. For the most
part, this separation of the 'two cultures'
was viewed fairly superficially as a lack of
cultural breadth in the members of the
two camps. The complaints seemed to
suggest that if only the scientists could be
persuaded to go more often to art
galleries and concerts and the artists to
read up on atomic physics, the cultural
damage would be repaired. Actually,
what needed to be counteracted was a
one-sidedness of approach in both areas.
An intuitive grasp of structure and a
concern with overall organization, natural
to the practice of the artist, could help to
complement the quantitative measurements of the experimentalists in the
sciences; and a thoughtful exploration of
the shapes and actions of nature was
bound to broaden the outlook of artists.
Remarkableprogresstowardthe needed
rapprochement between the sciences and
the arts has been made since that time.
Natural scientists have developed considerable interest in the arts as a subject
matter for research, and the imagination
of modern artists has been enriched by an
ample body of literature on the shapes of
nature, astronomical as well as microscopic. To some extent, a profitable
acquaintance with each other's concepts
and procedures may also be noticed.
The editorial program of Leonardohas
been directed toward such progress from
the very beginning of its publication, and

Rudolf Arnheim (psychologist), 133 South Seventh

Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103, U.S.A.
Received 17 August 1987.

? 1988 ISAST
Pergamon Press pic.
Printed in Great Britain.

similar endeavors have become more and

more frequent in recent years. In the
spring of 1986, it was my pleasure to take
part in an international symposium on
symmetry, organized by the city of
Darmstadt. An extensive publication on
the proceedings, together with a catalogue
of the exhibition set up in conjunction
with the conference, is being prepared in
West Germany. In the meantime, an
impressive collection of articles on the
same subject has been published as a
special two-volume issue of the international journal Computers and Mathematics with Applications: Symmetry:
Unifying Human Understanding, Istvan
Hargittai, ed. [1]. The present essay offers
a partial review of this publication.
The awe-inspiring bulk of more than a
thousand pages is greatly relieved in
Hargittai's publication by the brevity of
most of the papers, allowing for about 70
articles to cover a truly encyclopedic
variety of scientific, mathematical and
humanisticsubjects.Happily these articles
are presented in a random sequence,
leading the reader from a purely
professional presentation of chemical or
crystallographic formulae to an essay on
music or painting. To survey the
publication as a whole is far beyond the
capacities of the present reviewer. All I
can do is to offer the general reader a
selection of observations and thoughts,
which, however, are not limited to articles
on aesthetic subjects.
Inevitably, not all contributions dealing
with humanistic matters have the intellectual rigor that, I trust, distinguishes the
more technical articles. There are a few
rather speculative essays in which the
authors play loosely with concepts
deserving greater respect. Spatial proportions in particular have often fallen
victim to fairly carefree measurements.
The golden section and the Fibonacci
series are thrown together as though they

were the same thing, although they differ

mathematically and the one is a stable
proportional ratio while the other is
essentially a measure of growth. Or the
golden section's ratio 0.618 is equated
with the musical fifth, which is 0.666 [2].
Such practices remind me of what the art
historian Erwin Panofsky once told me:
"If you just do not sharpen your pencil
too much, you can prove almost
anything." The present collection also
contains examples of the kind of
numerology that involves searchingworks
of literature for symbolic quantities to
prove, for example, that John Milton
referred to the relation of good and bad
through the golden section by assigning
16 lines to the one and 10 to the other [3].
Debatable exploits of this kind, however,
are kept to a minimum.
The subtitle of Hargittai's volumes,
UnifyingHuman Understanding,indicates
that the subject of symmetry has not been
chosen arbitrarily.He statesthat symmetry
is not only "one of the fundamental
concepts in science, but it is also possibly
the best bridging idea crossing various
branches of sciences, the arts, and many
other human activities" [4]. This assertion
is based on the now common practice of
extending the concept of symmetry to
what in mathematics is called isometrics,
namely the transformations that keep
shape identical: translations, rotations,
reflections and glide reflections [5]. It is a
practice, deriving presumably from
crystallography, that calls for some
discussion in our context because it uses a
purely geometric criterion to make the
single concept, symmetry, cover a group
of structurally quite different form
In antiquity and through the Renaissance, as witnessed by writers such as
Plato, Vitruvius and Alberti, the concept
of symmetry stood in a very general way
for what is of like measure within a whole,

LEONARDO, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 273-276,1988

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an orderly composition of what goes well

together. Eventually, this earlier concept
led to the strict, geometric definition of
symmetry as the exact correspondence of
shape on opposite sides of a dividing line
or plane or about a center or axis. In
comparison, the meaning on which the
present publication is based goes back to
the broader traditional concept. Thus a
chemist, Ralph G. Pearson, begins his
paper as follows: "Physical science is
deeply dependent on symmetry. In the
sense of order, pattern and regularity, it is
clear that it would be hopeless to try to
understand nature, unless such order
existed" [6]. The definition of symmetry
based on isometrics may be said to
deprive us of a much-needed name for
the specific correspondence of mirrored
shapes and to limit formal organization
to patterns that keep shape and size
constant. This amounts to saying that for
the analysis of formal organization, as
practiced in psychology and the arts, such
a definition is too large on the one hand
and too narrow on the other.
Let me refresh our memory on the
unique character and importance of
symmetry in its strictest sense. Its
fundamental version is cyclic or centric
symmetry,going back to circle and sphere
as the simplest, most balanced shapes,
from which, psychologically as well as
biologically, the more complex shapes
derive. The biologist Klaus Sander, in a
paper on the bilateral symmetry of
insects, shows how bilateral shapes derive
genetically from centrical ones [7], and a
similar derivation from the 'primordial
circle' is known to us from early art,
notably from the drawings of children.
When radii are introduced into the circle
or sphere, centric symmetry results,
which may employ any number of axes.
This type of symmetry determines the
structure of crystals and of early
organisms, such as radiolarians; it is
found in human artifacts, in wheels or the
medieval rose windows and, of course, in
an endless variety of centric ornaments.
The art historian L.A. Cummings has
suggested that systems of radial axes
crossing in culminating points are a
characteristic style ornament of the early
Renaissance [8].
Rotational patterns introduce lateral
movement and therefore should not be
equated with centric ones. This is one of
the distinctions that are neglected when all
isometrics are called symmetrical. Figures
like the swastika present a swirling
action, fundamentally different from the
total stability of centric patterns.
Bilateralityderivesfrom centralitywhen
inorganic or organic shape is subjected to
a guiding vector such as the force of


gravity, which imposes a vertical axis on

buildings or bipeds, or directed motion,
which prescribes a horizontal axis or
sagittal plane for cars, airplanes, boats
and most animals [9]. Bilaterality, viewed
as a structure, has much more important
properties than the purely mechanical
operation of mirrorreflection suggests. It
combines axial directedness with a single
equilibriumof the two sides.The symmetry
of the sides reads dynamically in two
directions: vectors issuing sideways from
the central axis or plane, and vectors
pointing toward that center from both
sides. Significantly, it is hard to describe
the particular nature of bilaterality if one
cannot use the term 'symmetry' in its
restricted sense.
When we move to the next group of
isometric operations, those of translation,
we find ourselves structurally in an
entirely different world. Translational
symmetry refers to the repetition of
identical elements. Instead of the compact
unity of centric or bilateral patterns,
repetition makes for endlessness in space
and time. The 17 wallpaper patterns
shown by the authors of an article on
symmetryin Moorishand other ornaments
[10] are of course mere samples of design
covering a wall of any size, and their
monotonous coordination is in striking
contrast to the centric or bilateral units
used by some of them as modules. When
we are asked to accept the beat of musical
rhythm [11] or the number of times the
word 'more' is repeated in Edgar Allan
Poe's poem TheRaven [12] as examples of
translationalsymmetry,we find it difficult
to see any structural kinship between
these examplesand those called centrically
or bilaterally symmetrical.
The need for distinction is particularly
evident in the temporal media such as
music or the dance because they work
formal patterns into time sequences.
Dana Wilson, starting her paper with the
sentence "To say that symmetry plays a
major role in Western music may be to
state the obvious", refersto two structural
traits. One of them is translational:
"Symmetrical events such as breathing,
the heartbeat, walking and love-making
are all two-part operations involving a
certain increase in activity followed by a
decrease or temporary stasis, said to be
captured musically in rhythmic and
melodic gestures" [13]. The rhythmic
beat is sequential, and so is the repetition
of phrases and themes by which the flow
of musical time events is tied into a
unified whole. The overlappingrepetitions
of the 'subject' in a figure are equally
Another musician, Roberto Donnini,
is not primarily concerned with such

translational factors. He writes: "Music

before being played is always something
else.... This something else can be the
score, that is to say, its visualization"
[14]. The visual image of music reveals
certainworks as being cyclic and therefore
symmetrical in the strict sense of mirror
reflection. Thus, Bach's Musical Offering,
as discussed by Wilson, is built on
"Ricercar-5 Canons-Trio Sonata-5
Canons-Ricercar" [15]. However, since
music unfolds in time, the homologous
elements of such symmetricalpatterns are
not perceivedsimplyas the correspondence
of identical parts but as a 'coming back to
where we came from'. In this sense,
Wilson calls "The Man I Love" by
George and Ira Gershwin "one of the
saddest love songs ever written" for the
reason that throughout its score an
upward surge is consistently followed by
a downward pull [16].
'Translational' sequence also makes
for a basic difference between the strictly
symmetrical oblique edges of a gable
facade in architecture and an up-anddown progression of musical pitch. In a
composition of the thirteenthcentury, for
example, the word discendit in the Latin
text is accompanied by a group of
descending notes, while its conceptual
opposite, the word levavi, goes with
ascending notes [17]. The imposition of a
linearsequence upon compositional shape
may require a deformation of the
symmetrical pattern. Wilson observes:
Perceivedsymmetryin music, then,
may be radicallydifferentfrom the
amount of time actually devoted to
two-thirdsof the
waythrougha piece(oftencloseto the
'golden ratio') may have more to do
with memory's sense of proportion
thanwitha desirefor asymmetry[18].
It would seem to follow that when the
scores of some modern composers look
like stationary ornaments [19], the music
they suggest is meant to underplay
sequential action.
Thus far I have tried to show that when
symmetry is defined as a purely geometric
manipulation of identical elements,
fundamental structural differences are
neglected.It seemsto me equallyimportant
to point out that when one aims at
surveying structuralorganization in all its
aspects, as most of the collaborators of
Hargittai's publication clearly do, one
arrives at indispensable parameters not
covered by isometric classification-factors not respecting the condition of
identical elements. An obvious example is
size gradients, which introduce the
importantstructuralrelationof hierarchy.

Arnheim, Symmetry

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The logarithmic spiral is a combination

of rotational circularity and expanding
size, and geometric fractals apply growth
to repetition [20]. Central perspective in
painting imposes a size gradient on a
centric sunburst of radii.
Another type of structuralorganization
not covered by isometric relations is Jay
Kappraff's 'transformations', by which
he means the variety of visual aspects that
results when an object is projected upon
the retinas of the eyes at different angles
[21]. 'Affine transformations',still another
category, come about when "only the
parallelity of lines, and not the angles or
area of a polygon, remain preserved"
[22], for example, when a rectangle
becomes a leaning parallelogram.
Contrast also needs to be mentioned
here. It introduces variety into the
correspondence of otherwise identical
sides, for instance, when by a change of
color one side becomes the negative of the
other [23] or when male and female
partners combine in the pairings of
formal dances [24]. Mirror reflection is
used in art also to emphasize the difference
between contrasting themes, for example,
when in a symmetrical presentation of the
Last Judgment the right wing shows the
punishment of the sinners while on the
left side the virtuous souls are led to
heaven. Emil Makovicky's article is
devoted entirely to such extensions of
visual form beyond the categories of
isometric symmetry [25]. Thus the two
volumes actually offer a widely conceived
morphology of organized shape.
A widespread softening of the concept
of symmetry is encountered when one
proceeds from crystals and chemical
molecules to the macroscopic realm of
nature and art. More often than not the
rules of symmetry do not apply with
geometric precision but only in approximation. They appear in natural or manmade shapes mostly as underlying
regularities, indispensable for our understanding of the object's structure but
fairly remote from the actual embodiment
we see. The wealth of examples available
in the present publication allows me to
cite in the same breath the shrinkage
cracks of mud puddles and Edouard
Manet's painting Olympia: Norman H.
Gray concludes that "the fracturenetwork
steadilyevolves toward,but neverachieves,
the ideal hexagonal pattern which would
result in the most efficient relief of
thermal stresses built up during cooling"
[26], and V. Molnar and F. Molnar state
in their paper on symmetry-making and
-breaking in visual art that the two
figures of Olympia and her servant
suggest a certain symmetry but are far
from being isomorphous [27]. Through-

out the visual arts, references to basic

geometric patterns provide compositional
skeletons but hardly ever present those
patterns literally. Pertinent in this
connection is also Dorothy K. Washburn's
analysis of pre-Columbian textiles from
Peru, in which irregularities of coloring
and motifs add variety to the ornaments
Finally, a discussion of symmetry must
refer to the ambivalent attitude toward
formal perfection frequently met in
scientists, artists and philosophers. Symmetry derives ultimately from a state of
equilibrium, and the total balancing of
forces prevents any action from occurring.
Characteristically, Istvan Hargittai, the
editor of the publication here under
review, entitles his introductory essay
"Limits of Perfection". He states that an
increase of symmetry beyond some limits
may lead to sterility and certainly
diminishes the information content [29],
and he quotes crystallographers as liking
to point out that "crystallization is
death" [30]. Physically as well as
psychologically, there is the threat of
paralysis facing Buridan's "strictly philosophical ass who found himself symmetrically placed between two identical
bundles of hay but who, since he could see
no reason for going to one ratherthan the
other, starved to death" [31]. Artists,
unless concerned with pure ornament,
tend to relievefrontal or circularsymmetry
by some deviation to make perfection
look alive, and the biologist Heinz
Herrmann concludes an essay on asymmetry and symmetry in cellular organization with the rationale that
theasymmetricformof cellularorganizationis relatedto transformations
energy.Therefore,asymmetrymay be
associatedwith dynamicstates of cell
systems.Symmetryis perhapsprimarily
of the energy utilizing process. Presumably, a cell with a perfectly
asymmetryis a requirementfor the
maintenanceof the livingstate[32].
This ambiguous state of affairs leads to
a general prescription for strategy, clearly
envisaged by the plant physiologist Yu.A.
The relativityof symmetryand asymthewaysof thescientific
progress;havingdetecteda symmetry
in somephenomenaobservedin nature
or society one should look for facts
violating the symmetry. Conversely,
when the asymmetry is found, one
should search for such a new symmetry
which would be able to interpret both
the old symmetry violation and the
original symmetry itself as some

particular cases of the new symmetry,

and so on [33].

As one reads what so many good minds

have thought and found out about the
organization of form, one is led to
conclude that the inexhaustible complexity of inorganic and organic shapes
surrounding us derives ultimately from a
few simple elements, so that, in principle,
our vision is still akin to that of Plato,
who derived air, earth, fire, water and the
universe from the five symmetrical
geometric solids [34]. In many areas of
science and art, basic structural constituents can be discernedeven in complex
manifestations. Recent explorations of
'chaos' have shown that "simple
mechanisms can lead to startling complexity" [35] and that natural phenomena
considered totally irrational can be
reduced to simple mechanisms. This is
true for the patternscombining repetition,
growth and randomness in the theory of
natural fractals [36].
At the same time, however, simplicity
of shape is also related to equilibrium,
and equilibrium, as we have seen, goes
with immobility. Hence an equally topical
branchof studies,exemplifiedby Prigogine
and Stengers's OrderOut of Chaos [37], is
addressed to the question of how a
primordial state of balanced forces can be
induced to generate change and thereby
turn on the action. Form, then, is the
original matrix and the final aim and
accomplishment. It is the beginning and
the end, related to birth and death,
needed, desired and feared. To cope with
form remains one of our ultimate tasks.


1. IstvanHargittai,GuestEditor,Symmetry:
Unifying Human Understanding(Part 1

and Part2), publishedas a two-volume

specialissueof thejournalComputers
Mathematics with Applications 12B, Nos
1/2 and 3/4, 1-510 and 511-1045
(January-April, May-August 1986). All
references here to the Symmetryvolumes

arekeyedbyauthor,titleof article,Part1
or Part 2, and page number. Istvan
Hargittaiis a memberof the Hungarian
Academyof Sciences,Budapest,Hungary.

Ervin Y. Rodin is the General Editor of

Computers and Mathematics with Applications, which is a publication of
Pergamon Press. The two-volume special
issue has been reissued in hard cover as a
single volume (Oxford: Pergamon Press,
2. Gyorgy Doczi, "Seen and Unseen
Symmetries: A Picture Essay", Part 1, p.
3. Lee M. Johnson, "Milton's Mathematical
Symbol of Theodicy", Part 2, p. 618.
4. Istvan Hargittai, "Preface", Part 1, p.
5. See Doris Schattschneider,"In Black and

Arnheim, Symmetry
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White: How to Create Perfectly Colored

Symmetric Patterns", Part 2, p. 673.
Ralph G. Pearson, "Symmetry Rules for
Chemical Reactions", Part 1, p. 229.
Klaus Sander, "Bilateral Symmetry in
Insects: Could It Derive from Circular
Asymmetries during Early Embryogenesis?" Part 1, p. 413.
L.A. Cummings, "A Recurring Geometrical Pattern in the Early Renaissance
Imagination", Part 2, p. 981.
B.K. Vainshtein,"Symmetryof Biological
Macromoleculesand TheirAssociations",
Part 1, p. 268.
Branko Griinbaum, Zdenka Griinbaum
and G.C. Shephard, "Symmetry in
Moorish and Other Ornaments", Part 2,
p. 642.
Arthur L. Loeb, "Symmetry in Court
and Country Dance", Part 2, p. 630.
B. Pavlovic and N. Trinajstic, "On
Symmetryand Asymmetryin Literature",
Part 1, p. 199.

13. Dana Wilson, "Symmetry and Its 'LoveHate' Role in Music", Part 1, p. 101.
14. Roberto Donnini, "The Visualization of
Music", Part 1, p. 435.
15. Wilson [13] p. 103.
16. Wilson [13] p. 108.
17. Donnini [14] p. 439.
18. Wilson [13] p. 105.
19. Donnini [14] p. 461.
20. Jay Kappraff, "The Geometry of Coastlines: A Study in Fractals", Part 2, p. 655.
21. Jay Kappraff, "A Course in the Mathematics of Design", Part 2, pp. 937-941.
22. Emil Makovicky, "Symmetrology of Art:
Coloured and Generalized Symmetries",
Part 2, p. 969.
23. Istvan Hargittai, "Limits of Perfection",
Part 1, p. 13.
24. Loeb [11] p. 631.
25. Makovicky [22] pp. 949-980.
26. Norman H. Gray, "Symmetry in a
Natural Fracture Pattern: The Origin of
Columnar Joint Networks", Part 2, p.

27. V. Molnar and F. Molnar, "SymmetryMaking and -Breaking in Visual Art",

Part 1, p. 291.
28. Dorothy K. Washburn, "Pattern Symmetry and Colored Repetition in Cultural
Contexts", Part 2, p. 767.
29. Hargittai [23] p. 6.
30. Hargittai [23] p. 4.
31. Alan L. Mackay, "Generalised Crystallography", Part 1, p. 24.
32. Heinz Herrmann, "Asymmetry and
Symmetry in Cellular Organization",
Part 1, p. 166.
33. Yu.A. Urmantsev, "Symmetry of System
and System of Symmetry", Part 1, p. 380.
34. Kappraff [21] p. 918.
35. Denis Blackmore, "The Mathematical
Theory of Chaos", Part 2, p. 1039.
36. Kappraff [20] p. 655.
37. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers,
OrderOut of Chaos(Toronto, New York:
Bantam, 1984).

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