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A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from “The Diatomist” on Vimeo)

Few did obsessive nature handicrafts like the Victorians, whether it was seaweed scrapbooking or shell arranging, something of the salon repression boiling over into insanely labored DIY arts. One of the fascinations was with the newly accessible microscopes, which showed previously invisible specimens such as the single cell algae diatoms, of which there are hundreds of different types in the world. With a single hair, practitioners would scoot the diatoms, encircled by iridescent glass-like silica cell walls, into kaleidoscope patterns only viewable beneath a lens.

A slide of arranged diatoms by Klaus Kemp (screenshot by the author from “The Diatomist” on Vimeo)

Due to this being incredibly tedious, the art of diatom designs didn’t really make it into the 21st century. However, filmmaker Matthew Killip found one Englishman named Klaus Kemp who is carrying on the craft. In the short documentary The Diatomist, shared earlier this year on Vimeo, Killip visits Kemp at the work he’s perfected over years of research, showing some of the gorgeous miniature art, as well as expeditions to the water the diatoms call home. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a horse trough, or a ditch, gutters, you name it, where there is water it’s worth having a look,” Kemp says in the film.

“Klaus Kemp has devoted his entire life to understanding and perfecting diatom arrangement and he is now acknowledged as the last great practitioner of this beautiful combination of art and science,” Killip writes alongside the film. Kemp uses a needle instead of the Victorian hair to move the diatoms around, but the results are just as labored and lovely as the antique examples. You can see more of them at Kemp’s Microlife Services site.

h/t Boing Boing

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

5 replies on “The Last Victorian Microscope Artist”

  1. Nature sure is beautiful, even at the microscopic level. It’s something we don’t usually appreciate much because we’re not aware of it. Kemp’s work certainly challenges those opinions.

  2. it’s unbelievable! i’m working on a polyptych since two years now. The center of it is, in my mind, the representation of a cell. I named it generator cell (link below). I didn’t know at all about Klaus Kemp research even I found some of my pictures in some Ernst Haeckel drawing board. I’m not scientific, and do not practice it, but in some of my works I use science as a imagery which lead to questions we can find inside the art practice, notion of perfection, relationship to chaos and cosmos, question about emergence and organization. I do collages, so I understand the way Klaus Kremp can be when he assembles diatoms together, i don’t use any needle but a mouse and photoshop. Crossing lines, and field of attractions are amazing. the corespondency is striking. I only work with my intuition and my own knowledge which consist in the observation of the nature. but what I see is that artistic intuition can meet pure scientific research and even more, that shapes of the nature are about secret, and art practice, ways to reveal it.

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