Haeckel's Actiniae

We like to keep things topical here at Creatology and, with that in mind, I’d like to talk about a book published in Germany at the turn of the 20th-century. Okay, so topical it ain’t, but no blog focused on the interaction between the worlds of art and science would be complete without reference to biologist, philosopher, artist and all round overachiever, Ernst Haeckel.

Not content with coining such enduring terms as “Darwinism”, “ecology” and “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (admittedly, the latter turned out to be inaccurate but it’s impressively snappy nonetheless), Haeckel was the first to postulate the existence of a missing link between apes and humans, even going as far as to describe and name his theoretical proto-man. And last, but by no means least, he was also something of a genius when it came to art and design.

Haeckel's Ascidiae

Despite some dubious views on race, Haeckel was very well travelled and wherever he took his microscope it was accompanied by a sketchbook and a set of watercolours. His sketches were later turned into more than 1,000 engravings, 100 of which were brought together in Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms in Nature, published in full in 1904.

It’s this wonderful work that I’d like to introduce to the uninitiated in this blog post. It’s a book that has provided inspiration to generations of artists and scientists, and looking at the images here, I am sure you’ll understand why.

Looking at his work, it seems Haeckel either saw the natural world as very ordered, perhaps unsurprising as Darwin’s theories had only recently suggested the existence of concrete patterns of relatedness running through nature, or chose to impose the strict order of the graphic designer on what he saw in the field and through the microscope.

Haeckel's Lacertilia

He seems to have applied the symmetry and perfection of form often seen in the microscopic world to the macroscopic, with the result that his drawings of larger animals are somewhat idealised, and lack the imperfection and asymmetry we see around us in the real world.

In terms of identifying patterns in seeming chaos, there is something of the psychedelic about Haeckel’s artwork, an almost fractal quality, long before 1960s drug culture or Mandelbrot sets existed, and his style is considered to be a forerunner of the Art Nouveau movement that included such luminaries as Klimt, Gaudí and Rennie Mackintosh, among others.

I’m sure you’ll agree that his works are extraordinary. Ernst Haeckel straddled the worlds of art and science like few others.


Thanks to Prestel Publishing for a review copy of Art Forms in Nature.