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Art Forms in Nature: Prints of Ernst Haeckel

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I love reading about the adventurers and thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries - seems so very long ago that we had such intrepid, innovative explorers. University Art Gallery, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth - An Ernst Haeckel exhibition from 2005 pairing prints from Kunstformen der Natur with modern sculptures. With many drawings on each plate, each carefully drawn from nature, the subtle details of nature's art forms are easily compared and appreciated. There are 100 Color Plates to capture our imaginations through their colors, textures and designs, which exist in nature. Did you know there is a jellyfish-like creature that can grow to a length that exceeds that of the great whales?

The Kunstformen contains 100 beautiful lithographic plates which show a multitude of unusual life forms: Radiolaria, Foraminifera, and other forms of microscopic life; jellyfishes, starfishes, calcareous sponges, star corals, barnacles, and other sea life; mosses, lichens, red algae, ferns, fungi, orchids, and other plants; and turtles, moths, spiders, bats, frogs, lizards, hummingbirds, and antelope. Rene Binet, a pioneer of glass and iron constructions, Emile Galle, a renowned Art Nouveau designer, and the photographer Karl Blossfeld all make explicit reference to Haeckel in their work.The geometric shapes and natural forms, captured with exceptional precision in Ernst Haeckel’s prints, continue to influence artists and designers to this day.

Illustrations: Full page, full colour, all 100 original plates reproduced to an exceptional standard. Above all, when we examine them with a powerful glass or, better still, with a good microscope, we find everywhere in nature a new world of inexhaustible charms. It happened that just when he was beginning his scientific career Darwin’s Origin of Species was published (1859), and such was the influence it exercised over him that he became the apostle of Darwinism in Germany. I do recommend it to artists, naturalists, scientists, and anyone interested in the natural world and in art. The 103 third parties who use cookies on this service do so for their purposes of displaying and measuring personalized ads, generating audience insights, and developing and improving products.

He was, indeed, the first German biologist to give a whole-hearted adherence to the doctrine of organic evolution and to treat it as the cardinal conception of modern biology. Not so mind-blowing in these days of high-resolution microscopy, but still pretty amazing from a technical drawing viewpoint. What he termed the integration of his views on these subjects he published under the title of Die Welträtsel (1899), which in 1901 appeared in English as The Riddle of the Universe. The Canvas and the Camera in Weimar Germany: A New Objectivity in Painting and Photography of the 1920s.

Haeckel promoted and popularized Charles Darwin's work in Germany and developed the controversial recapitulation theory ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") claiming that an individual organism's biological development, or ontogeny, parallels and summarizes its species' evolutionary development, or phylogeny. Not content with the study of the doctrine of evolution in its zoological aspects, Haeckel also applied it to some of the oldest problems of philosophy and religion.However, the wonderful ability to make a priori judgements has arisen through the inheritance of cerebral structures, which the vertebrate ancestors of humans acquired slowly and in stages (through adaptation and synthetic association of a posteriori experiences and perceptions). I had just bought this 'on spec', it is a real find and a very reasonable cost given the quality of the paper and printing! There are some works based on corals that remind you immediately of the gene lamps of the oriental tales; the reproduction of the "ostracionte kafferfishe" is so majestic that it resembles some of the decorations in queens and kings crowns. The plates illustrate Haeckel’s fundamental monistic notion of the “unity of all living things,” and the wide variety of forms are executed with utmost delicacy. The published artwork of Haeckel includes over 100 detailed, multi-colour illustrations of animals and sea creatures (see: Kunstformen der Natur, "Art Forms of Nature").

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