Monday, February 16, 2015

Ernst Haeckel & Artforms in Nature

Ernst Haeckel portrait
Ernst Haeckel, linocut on kozo, 30.5 cm by 30.5 cm, 2011, by Ele Willoughby

Ernst Haeckel's Artforms in Naure, 1904 can be viewed here
Biologist, naturalist, and scientific illustrator par excellence Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (February 16, 1834 – August 9, 1919), and his beautiful and well-known Artforms in Nature can be credited for the fact that people who are not say, marine microbiologists or geostratigraphers or their colleagues, know and are inspired by the extraordinary forms of radiolarians (as I've written about before), or are familiar with any number of exotic marine invertebrates.  Here we have the man himself, surrounded by several of the creatures he depicted. Clockwise from the top we have: rugosa, a foraminifer (or foram), a tubularid hydroid, homo sapiens (Ernst Haeckel), a dinoflagelate, and a sea slug or nudibranch. His was a form of descriptive science, where his art, his depictions of lifeforms was science, or his science was art. As such, he can be seen as a sort of culmination of centuries of work of his predecessors, gathering their cabinets of curiosity, their wunderkammer of creatures, driven almost as much by aesthetics as by exploration of the biosphere. You can trace this sort of scientific collecting from luminaries of the scientific revolution like Robert Hooke who gathered microscopic wunderkammer, and many others throughout the age of exploration, who travelled the world gathering specimen through to the Victorians whose obsession with cabinets of curiosity has been explained as an indication in fact of a morbid fear of death (in Olalquiaga's The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury Of The Kitsch Experience).

His particular presentation of life*, which highlights the inherent patterns and beauty, has long been an influence on artists (myself included). Consider the rococco jellyfish chandeliers of Timothy Horn, a hommage to Haeckel's drawings. Haeckel's influence can also be seen in the surreal and imaginary zoological and botanical style drawings of Katie Scott, or the entire otherworldly visual encyclopedia in an alien language Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. You can compare his drawings with the glass sculptures of the near contemporary Blaschka father and son, who created fabulous menageries filled with marine invertebrates as well as other creatures and botanicals and whose work likewise straddles art and science and their fertile intersection. His work lead to the incorporation of forms from nature finding their way into everything from furniture to architecture, as well as the more obvious influence on fine art and scientific illustration.

*Sadly, his deep appreciation of life in its many forms did not translate into an enlightened view of his own species. While he did make contributions to evolutionary biology, and was a great popularizer of Darwin's work in Germany, he also used a confused hodgepodge of Darwinian and Lamarkian ideas and far more speculation than a we would consider reasonable in a modern scientific sense. Some of his discredited scientific ideas were in vogue during his lifetime, and his errors should be considered within context. Most disappointing however, were his wrong-headed and repugnant social Darwinist ideas about race and his evolutionary racism which have been linked to the rise of Fascism. I've long enjoyed his extraordinary art/science and was saddened to read that he harboured such ideas, but I think it's important to avoid lionizing people, for instance for their artistic or scientific ideas, and to acknowledge their failings as well as achievements. I can admire his scientific illustration and tireless zoological investigations but still repudiate his ideas about human evolution.

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