Desmond Morris

The Arena


Not on display

Desmond Morris born 1928
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 916 × 18 mm
frame: 762 × 1066 × 65 mm
Presented by John Nadler 2000


The Arena is one of a series of paintings of about the same size, painted by Morris while living in Oxford in the 1970s. In these an assembly of what seem to be small abstract figures or microbes, which he called 'biomorphs', perform some unexplained ritual, often with some apparent sexual content. Here, a number of these figures appear to stand around in a circle, while others stand in the middle. Two figures may be in confrontation, like boxers in a ring, one (or maybe two) of them looking like two penises, painted bright red, while the other, which also might be two figures on top of each other, points a tall head, again looking like a penis. Morris painted this series without preliminary drawings, working on the canvas looking through a magnifying glass, and constructing the figures directly. The references are clearly to the sexual behaviour of imaginary micro-organisms that are comparable in an undefined way to some human routines.

Morris has had an unusual double career as an artist and a zoologist specialising in animal and human behaviour, in which field he has published some fifty books. In each sphere he has also acted as an institutional director, in the case of the arts being director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1967-8. In the 1970s he was also a research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. He was trained as a scientist, and began painting in the mid 1940s. While working at Birmingham University he met the painter Conroy Maddox (born 1912), who organised in Birmingham the last group of Surrealist artists in Britain, which Morris joined. He had earlier admired Surrealist writing, and in Paris in 1948 saw an exhibition of Roberto Matta (born 1911). After the success of his book 'The Naked Ape' in 1967 he was able to give more time to painting, and exhibited frequently in the 1970s. Morris wrote in 1974 of his spheres of activity:

an objective scientist who paints pictures in a highly subjective manner can find himself, mentally, in an attractive position. By giving his subjective fantasies full expression in paint, he can then be unrestrainedly and remorselessly objective in his scientific work… It is true that my paintings are very biomorphic, very preoccupied with biological shapes, and that my biological writings are largely concerned with visual patterns of behaviour (quoted in Levy, p.204-5).

Further reading:
Silvano Levy, Desmond Morris, 50 Years of Surrealism, London 1997 (reproduced p. 147)
Michel Remy, Surrealism in Britain, London 1999, p.321

David Jenkins
February 2002

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Display caption

Desmond Morris trained as a scientist extensively on zoological subjects. He became interested in art during the 1940s at Birmingham University where he met Conroy Maddox and other Surrealist artists. 

This picture is composed of small abstract figures or microbes, which Morris called ‘biomorphs’. The ritual that  they are performing is related to the sexual behavior of humans. Morris wrote that, as an artist, giving his ‘subjective fantasies full expression in paint’ enabled him to be ‘unrestrainedly and remorselessly objective in his scientific work’.

Gallery label, August 2004

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