Thursday, September 28, 2006

Art in/of Nature

Isn't this astonishing? It is just one plate from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, (Art Forms in Nature), which is one of Armand Leroi's three nominations for best science book ever for our discussion on Oct 19.
I love this partly because I had not come across it before. So I can only lift the description of one of the English versions (which are mainly about the pictures) which are available:

"Art Forms in Nature" is a glorification of function and form, a demonstration of organic symmetry that has nothing--and everything--to do with nature as it actually exists. Each plate exhibits organisms carefully arranged and exquisitely detailed, "a symbiosis between decorative sketches and descriptive observations of nature," as Olaf Breidbach states in his fascinating introductory text. The radiolarians, medusae, rotifers, bryozoans, and even frogs and turtles lovingly recreated here are gorgeous and self-explanatory, rendered in delicate, filigreed lines, and colored gently with muted green, delicate pink, and sepia. 139 pages, Pb, color images and prints.

If every picture is worth a thousand words, then a book with unadorned text will need to be quite long to outdo this one. You can view lots more pretty pictures here, but you will have to navigate around this rather splendid site in German.

So that's a gap in my education I am glad to fill. Is this book as widely loved as I suspect it is?


Blogger PD Smith said...

A wonderful illustration indeed! And an original choice from Leroi, whose book Mutants would be among my top 10.

Haeckel was hugely influential in Germany but I don't know how popular he was/is here. I believe it's still in print - perhaps more due to the quality of the illustrations than the written content...?

I'm glad to hear biographies are included. Devil's Doctor by Philip Ball & Knife Man by Wendy Moore would be among my favourites..

2:35 AM  
Blogger Philip Ball said...

Gosh, I feel a bit embarrassed to post here after that kind comment from Peter. But anyway... Haeckel's book is indeed still available in a reasonably cheap but nice enough format, published by Prestel. I got my copy from the Dover bookshop on London for £16.99 - how can anyone resist?

Yes, it is gorgeous and inspiring - but is it really science? Haeckel was very much influenced by Goethian Naturphilosophie, and was in some ways close to being a mystic. He found within the traceries of a radiolarian evidence of a creative, organizing force that pervaded nature, and wanted to build on these tiny mineralized skeletons a thesis about aesthetics, sociology and religion.

We need to look at Art Forms in Nature with this in mind. This isn't a casually assembled cabinet of curiosities but a tract with a message. Haeckel has selected carefully what he shows us, and how. These are not images to massage the senses, but raw data marshalled to convince us of his overarching theory about form, symmetry and beauty in the world. To that end, Haeckel exaggerated the symmetries in his subjects.

He wants to show us nature’s organizing force at work, and in the process he is doing a little organizing of his own. Do the fronds and globular chambers of medusae really have such perfect forms and symmetries? His cofferfish are Platonic creatures with geometric scales, and Haeckel has plucked those individual scales and served them up as abstract geometrical designs. The cystids are like elaborate caskets made by silversmiths, uncanny and indeed unreal in their precision. Haeckel was a wonderful draughtsman, but was he really drawing what he was seeing, or what he felt he should be seeing: the idealized, Platonic form beneath the debased, mundane reality?

After all, we know he was happy to manipulate the visual world on another occasion, to support his theory of embryogenesis...

10:29 AM  

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