Artistry under the lens

Artistry under the lens

Renowned German naturalist, philosopher and illustrator Ernst Haeckel found beauty in the most unlikely of creatures.

Haeckel's elegant world of flora and fauna

As a passionate observer of the natural world, Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (1834 1919), explored the domains of science, art and philosophy, leaving an indelible mark on each of them. “All the wonderful phenomena of nature around us, organic as well as inorganic, are only various products of one and the same original force,” he proclaimed. Haeckel wore several hats. Zoology, morphology, embryology, philosophy, medicine and marine biology were among his many interests. He even brought several terms into the vocabulary of science.

Way back in 1866, he was the one to invent ‘ecology’ (oekologie in German) to describe the ‘economies’ of living forms. In 1868, he coined the term ‘stem cell’ to describe a fertilised egg. He was also reportedly the first person to use the term ‘World War I’ with his statement published on 20 September 1914 in the journal Indianapolis Star.  In his long and illustrious career, the German naturalist published several hundred journal and newspaper articles, besides authoring 18 major books. An influential teacher at his alma mater, the University of Jena, he mentored numerous students who became renowned in their own right. When he retired as an academic from Jena, after almost 50 years in office, he was 75 years old.

Advocate of Darwin’s theories

Haeckel was only 26 when he read the German version of Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’. Deeply impressed, he became an aggressive advocate of Darwin’s theories and mechanisms of biological evolution. He relentlessly undertook to defend and propagate the evolutionary theory in Germany and elsewhere through a series of publications and presentations. Thanks to his vociferous support and zeal, he was called the ‘German Darwin.’ 

Haeckel and Darwin (1809-1882) met on more than one occasion in London. They remained close personal friends and treated each other with great respect and admiration. According to Haeckel’s biographer Robert J Richards, more people at the turn of the century learned of evolutionary theory from his (Haeckel’s) pen than from any other source, including Darwin’s own writings. Haeckel received many awards and honours including the ‘Darwin Wallace Medal’ presented by the Linnean Society of London in 1908. 

Fusing science and art

As a researcher, Haeckel carried out many zoological expeditions. They took him to the highest mountaintops as well as the deepest oceans, resulting in path-breaking monographs such as Radiolaria (1862), Siphonophora (1869), Monera (1870), Calcareous Sponges (1872), Deep Sea Medusae (1881), and Deep Sea Keratosa (1889).

In the midst of such intense research of flora and fauna, he zealously drew and painted thousands of species and discoveries. Being a gifted artist, he was able to deftly combine his scientific thoughts with immaculate illustrations. “Haeckel’s work was as remarkable for its graphic precision and meticulous shading as for its understanding of organic evolution,” write Rainer Willmann and Julia Voss, authors of The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. “He emphasised the essential symmetries and order of nature, and found biological beauty in even the most unlikely of creatures.” 

Beginning in 1889, Haeckel published 100 prints in a series of 10 books called Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature). The lithographic plates in Kunstformen showed a plethora of unusual life forms of microscopic life including 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 antelopes. 

Considered a landmark of applied art, the amazing forms depicted in the book had a significant influence on decorative design at the time. The richly coloured and impeccably rendered images were seen to be at the intersection of art, biology and mathematics. His transcription of geometric shapes and natural forms held an immediate emotional appeal to the viewers.

Haeckel’s ground-breaking biological art went on to change scientific illustration forever. It also influenced generations of artists. Among them are such eminent names as Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka (glass sculptors of undersea creatures-marine invertebrates); Henry Moore (British artist and sculptor); René Binet (French painter and architect of the Art Nouveau), Charles and Ray Eames (American industrial designers), and Karl Blossfeldt (German photographer, sculptor and teacher).

Haeckel’s artistic talent was not only admired during his lifetime, but also is revered to this day. “Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form as if it’s a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope,” says Katherine Schwab, editor at Fast Co. Design. “His drawings are a reminder of the intricacies of the world around us, and how nature is the ultimate designer.”

Florian Maderspacher, Senior Reviews Editor of Current Biology, feels that Haeckel’s images revealed a beauty that transcended purely technical reproductions. “More than in his taxonomic studies or in his ardent, evolution-infused monistic quasi-religion, Haeckel’s legacy lives on in the visual domain.”

Respect for nature

Through his work, Haeckel sought to lay emphasis on valuing the universal laws of nature and respecting the infinite variety of natural forms. While indicating the true place of man in nature, he sought to dissipate the illusion of man’s supreme importance and the arrogance with which he sets himself apart from the illimitable universe. “A false sense of honour dominates our social life,” he wrote. “The true honour of man or woman consists in their inner moral dignity, in the determination to do only what they conceive to be good and right.” 

A self-confessed atheist, Haeckel denounced dogmatic religion through his advocacy of evolutionary principles. He fiercely propagated monism which sought to unite materialism with spiritualism in a natural and harmonious system. He asserted that where faith commences, science ends.