Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Art Forms of Nature - the Ernst Haeckel Collection

by R J Evans
Ernst Haeckel - philosopher, professor, physician, naturalist, biologist and artist. The pinnacle of his work - Art Forms of Nature - began publication in 1899 and is still an astonishing record of life on earth. When art and science combine, something sublime can come to pass.

Haeckel produced illustrations that people could take in and understand, images that glowed with color and brought the exotic and remote in to the libraries of the world.  Really, there had not been anything like these extraordinary prints before.  They were the culmination of decades of works for Haeckel, a contemporary of Darwin and he did much to popularize the work of the English naturalist although their ideas did diverge at several important points, as we shall later discover.  The above is the 89th plate from Art Forms of Nature and shows a variety of turtle species.  From the Leatherback at the top left to the Common Snapping Turtle (bottom right), Haeckel captures them marvelously.  This was no attempt at photorealism, however.  Note how sea and land (seamlessly) merge in the picture.  His images, did, however, encapsulate his sense of order.


They still look like something out of a science fiction novel, so imagine how they must have seemed to their late Victorian audience.  The central medusa is Desmonema annasethe which was first categorized by the man himself.  It was named after his wife, Anna Sethe, who had died the previous year.  A mistake commonly held is that Darwin's tome, The Origin of the Species was massively illustrated. In fact it was not a work of popular science, it was a technical book.  Although the sales belied the fact, many if not most people would have been immediately confused by much of Darwin's language.  In fact he was the Steven Hawking of his day.  Many people bought The Origin of the Species, much as a century later they would buy A Brief History of Time.  Few would get to the end of either. 


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