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How Ernst Haeckel made plankton beautiful

How Ernst Haeckel made plankton beautiful

The intricate drawings of a German devotee of Darwin influenced a generation of artists and architects

The intricate drawings of a German devotee of Darwin influenced a generation of artists and architects

Tom Whipple | December 19th 2017

The best way to enter the Exposition Universelle, held in Paris in 1900, was via the gate on the Place de la Concorde. As was appropriate for a world fair exhibiting the best technology that the planet had to offer, the gate was studded with electric lights, which illuminated the archway’s intricate geometric design. Today, a viewer might guess that it was inspired by an Islamic palace or perhaps the onion-dome towers of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Back then, Parisian visitors would have known otherwise. The architect modelled the gate’s design on a drawing he had seen in one of the more unlikely bestsellers of the 19th century. That drawing? A microscopic creature called a radiolaria which, down a microscope, resembled a delicate latticework of interlocking arches and circles.

The sketch was by Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist born in 1834 who – though he had no formal art training – made his fame drawing microscopic sea creatures. With his left eye he would look through the microscope, with his right he would attend to the sketch in progress. He did not do so in the name of art but in the name of science. No camera could capture the world he saw down his lens. 

But two things elevated his work beyond mere draftsmanship. The first was that it was beautiful, as “The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel”, a new book reproducing 450 of his prints, makes clear. Somehow these exact and faithful re-creations, albeit with occasional liberties taken in the choice of colour, alluringly captured these creatures’ fragility. His books sold in the hundreds of thousands and the alien ecosystems they illuminated inspired art and architecture, from the works of Gustav Klimt to the design of the Dutch stock exchange. The second was that these drawings were not just aesthetically pleasing; they also made an argument. The creatures were ordered, categorised and carefully placed in “trees” of life (he was one of the first to produce such diagrams), with each animal evolving from a lower life form, right down to the point where animals, plants and bacteria diverged. 

In Britain Thomas Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog; in central Europe it was Haeckel. The difference was that Haeckel, unlike Huxley, was advancing Darwin’s ideas not through rhetoric but illustration. But do not confuse that with timidity. Darwin himself was taken aback by the force of the argument these drawings made, as they traced – visually – the origin of species. “My dear Haeckel,” he wrote admiringly, “your boldness makes me tremble”. He was right to tremble. Haeckel’s attempts to make a hierarchy of the races as he did with the radiolaria was a precursor to something far darker in Germany.

 

“Monograph on the Radiolaria” (1862), plate 15

Take a scoop of seawater, and chances are it will contain a teeming, seething zoo of life. You just won’t see that life. These creatures, a kind of zooplankton generally a fraction of a millimetre long, had only just been discovered when Haeckel began his research into marine organisms. In 1860 he wrote to Anna Sethe, then his fiancée, that he had found 12 “radiolaria” in a single day, “among them the most charming little creatures.” This work took on new purpose when he discovered evolution (Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published just a few years earlier), and began to form his ideas about why this one organism had so many different forms. 

Cnidarians, “Art Forms in Nature” (1899-1904), plate 8 

On his 30th birthday, Anna died, probably of a burst appendix. Haeckel’s grief was desperate. He went to Nice to recover. There, walking along the beach, he discovered a new type of jellyfish (a species that belongs to the group of marine animals known as Cnidaria). Its spindly yellow tentacles reminded him of Anna’s blonde hair. He drew it and named it Mitrocoma anna. When the death of Anna led him irrevocably away from religion, Haeckel, by now a champion of evolution, was well on course to become, as a contemporary put it, one of “the best-loved and one of the most-hated men of the age.” 

Much later, on discovering an even more beautiful jellyfish, he called it Desmonema annasethe in honour, he wrote, of “the highly gifted and sensitive wife, to whom the author...owes the happiest years of his life.” A romantic dedication, made slightly less so by the fact that he had at the time been married to his second wife, whose name wasn’t Anna, for 30 years.

Alacorys bismarckii, “Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger” (1873-76)

For a patriotic German, naming a radiolaria that looked very much like a Prussian helmet was easy. “This imposing species, resembling a monument atop five columns, was named in honour of Prince Otto von Bismarck, the genial founder of the new German Empire and of its future as a colonial power,” wrote Haeckel.

 

Radiolarians, plate 71, and Cnidarians and Siphonophores, plate 17, both from “Art Forms in Nature” (1899-1904)

The purpose of “Art Forms in Nature”, Haeckel’s masterpiece, was “to combine exquisite beauty with the greatest possible truth to nature.” Over the course of five years, starting in 1899, he produced 100 plates of illustrations. When he had finished, he wrote, “I wished to make accessible to far more of the educated general public those marvellous treasures of beauty that lie hidden in the depths of the ocean or which, on account of their diminutive size, can be viewed only through a microscope.” 

The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel by Rainer Willmann and Julia Voss (Taschen), £150