University Art Gallery

Lithographs from Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) 1899-1904

September 24 - October 30, 2005

Ernst Haeckel was born in 1834 in Potsdam, Germany. Although he studied medicine in his youth, and passed the state medical examination in 1858, he never practiced. Haeckel was early on far more attracted to the study of the natural world, especially zoology and comparative studies of microscopic anatomy.

In 1859, Haeckel participated in a scientific expedition to Italy, where he purchased a powerful microscope in Florence from the workshop of the renowned physicist, Giovanni Battista Amici.

It was also on that trip that Haeckel became acquainted with the artist Hermann Allmers, whose ideas and approach to art making left a lasting influence. In a letter written toward the end of that summer, Haeckel wrote:

"Through him, my own enthusiasm for drawing was rekindled. It is largely him I have to thank for enabling me to draw everything with twice as much freshness and accuracy. I had no peace until all the landscapes that had become so dear to me were captured in my sketchbook. Indeed in Messina, at the end of our wanderings together, such was his influence that I was on the point of changing direction altogether, of abandoning natural science in favor of becoming a landscape painter."

Shortly thereafter, however, Ernst Haeckel -- aided by his new microscope -- undertook a six months study of marine plankton in the Strait of Messina. By the time Haeckel left Sicily, he had identified and drawn 120 new species of radiolaria, and had found a topic that would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Radiolarians are an ancient group of single celled organisms. Although microscopically small, free-swimming protozoa, they often possess an intricate, geometric skeleton, reminiscent of crystals. In Haeckel's time only a few hundred were known. Today more than 5,000 have been named.

Ernst Haeckel presented his preliminary findings on the topic of radiolaria in 1860, at the thirty-fifth congress of the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians in Kšnigsberg. In 1862, at the age of twenty-eight, Haeckel was appointed associate professor at the University of Jena.

Two years later, in 1864, Haeckel was also appointed Director of the Grand Ducal Zoological Museum. 1864 is also the year he published the Monograph of Radiolarians, with thirty-five plates prepared by the Berlin engraver, Wagenschieber, a publication that marks the first time a commercial artist worked from Haeckel's original, intricate drawings. The monograph became widely known, and firmly established Haeckel as an international zoologist. The monograph on the radiolarians is also the first example of how Ernst Haeckel's fame as a researcher was to some degree based on the almost revelatory quality of the accompanying images.

The selection of plates featured in the exhibition at the University Art Gallery are all from Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), which was published between 1899 and 1904, as a series of ten portfolios, each containing ten prints. The folios contained little text, and Haeckel's intention was clearly to present these impressive visual renderings to the general public. The plates were prepared by Adolf Giltsch, a lithographer active in Jena, and the publication made Haeckel a household name. Some of the plates depict radiolaria, others reflect Haeckel's work promoting Darwin's and his own related views on evolution.

The plates in Art Forms in Nature are considered the most beautiful visualization of nature ever made by a scientist. Olaf Breidbach has commented on the plates this way:

"What is it that Haeckel depicts here that is so beautiful? It is the beauty of ornament. The forms illustrated in these pages seem to fit seamlessly into the repertoire of Art Nouveau forms. Haeckel demonstrates the magic of organic symmetries. He teaches us to look at life-forms as elements of an organic crystallography."

To place Heackel's images within the contemporary context of turn of the century Art Nouveau -- a style that was based on the ornamental aspects of nature, and especially relied on the arabesque -- is not the whole story, though. Haeckel's imagery clearly has an indefinable power of its own. At times the plates, or the objects depicted, are almost otherworldly with a kind of Science-Fiction feel to them. At other times they seem almost Surrealist.

This is actually an indirect way of pointing out, that Haeckel has been tremendously influential on many of the 20th Century artistic movements, including popular culture.

Among the Surrealists, Max Ernst was especially influenced by Haeckel, but other early 20th century artists such as Paul Klee and Kandinsky, would also reference his work. More recently, artists such as Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli, Tom Nozkowski and Alexis Rockman have admired the work, especially its unsettling qualities.

For this exhibition, we commissioned eight former and current graduate students in the Artisanry and the Fine Arts programs to recreate seven of Haeckel's images as six feet tall sculptures. They are later to be placed as ornamental sculptures on buildings in New Bedford.

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