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Graphic art by Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel, or the World’s most Beautiful Beings


A scientist by profession, Ernst Haeckel’s exuberant graphic work bridged the gap between science and art, and forever changed the way we see plants and animals.

In 1895, a group of climbers renamed several mountains of the Sierra Nevada mountain range for several of the apostles of evolution. The highest peaks were, of course, Mount Darwin, Mount Mendel, and Mount Agassiz. The fourth in height was named for Ernst Haeckel. In those years, the German zoologist and doctor was at the peak of his career and one of the most famous scientists in the world. Haeckel was not only a brilliant man of science and an important defender of Darwinian evolutionism. He was also a remarkable artist, whose graphic work captured the splendor of many of the beings inhabiting the Earth, their fascinating geometries and extravagant silhouettes.

Haeckel (1834-1919) studied medicine but never dedicated himself to the profession. The knowledge he acquired in studying cellular theory would serve him later when two events led him to the path he’d follow for the rest of his life. The first was a meeting with a patron, Carl Gegenbaur, a morphology and anatomy expert. It was Gegenbaur who recruited him to the University of Jena, where Haeckel would remain for the rest of his life as a researcher and professor. The second event was a trip to southern Italy on which Haeckel studied and described hundreds of marine invertebrates (specifically radiolarians) – the first living creatures to suggest a possible relationship between biology and art.

A third crucial event in Haeckel’s life came with his 1860 reading of the German translation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The book would influence his thinking for the rest of his life, and it would lay the foundations for Haeckel’s own evolutionary theory. This combined elements of the doctrines of Darwin and French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with some of the philosophical principles of Alexander von Humboldt, and even of Goethe. He called his own philosophical system a “monism.” Years later, this would be derived into, among other things, a proto-fascism which the German Nazis would come to rely upon.

For years, Haeckel devoted himself to the study of living beings, their morphology and anatomy. He named thousands of new species (mostly marine animals) and coined a good number of terms still used in biology today – among them stem cells and ecology. Despite his brilliant career as a scientist, several of his theories and observations have been disproven by more modern science. This perhaps explains why Haeckel is better remembered, (when he is remembered), for his impressive graphic prowess and for his aesthetic. As a scientist and an artist, he captured the geometry of natural bodies for the first time in the history of art. To some experts, these images were the result of embellished observations, idealized by Haeckel for artistic purposes to result in something poetic and spectacular.

Art forms of Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) was among Haeckel’s most important books. Published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904, the work is a collection of 100 prints which show not only Haeckel’s prodigious skill as a visual artist but which reflect his entire conception of the universe. His notions of perfection, symmetry and natural order, in turn, permeated his philosophical thinking. The book also holds an important place in the development of European art in the early 20th century, and represent a bridge between art and science. This was essential to the emergence of the aesthetic vocabularies of both Art Nouveau and its German variant, Jugensdstil. Surrealism drew from Haeckel, especially in the case of an artist like Max Ernst, but also in Bauhaus painters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

Few artists have spoken of the creatures inhabiting our planet with as much care and respect as did Ernst Haeckel. In doing so, he reminded us that nature is art, nature is design, and it’s science. Beauty is a test of natural wisdom. If the representations bear elements of idealization, perhaps these exaggerations ended up being more true than the truth. Baroque jellyfish, constellations of plankton and collections of marine snails carefully arranged all question, even today, the categorical distinction between art and science. Haeckel’s was the perfect example of a mind in which science and art coexisted. And, perhaps, even confused, with spectacular results.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

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