Art Nouveau’s organic shapes surfaced thanks to some underwater inspiration. With serpentine flourishes, a contrasting play of symmetry and asymmetry, and precise, vibrant colors, the zoological illustrations of 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel were appreciated by viewers as much for their style as their science. Artists in particular were fascinated with the previously-unseen microscopic animals he portrayed, as they considered in the early 1900s how to visually respond to modern knowledge.
René Binet modeled his gateway to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 after Haeckel’s interpretation of coral structures, and glass artist Émile Gallé was inspired to replace the flowers on his vases with translucent jellyfish. Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage based the interior lamps of the 1903 Amsterdam Stock Exchange on Haeckel’s illustrations of single cell organisms. Later, Surrealists sought out Haeckel’s most fantastic publication — Kunstformen der Natur (or “Art Forms in Nature”) — for inspiration.
Despite his renown, hundreds of Haeckel’s illustrations remain obscure and inaccessible. Last fall, Prestel released Art Forms from the Abyss: Ernst Haeckel’s Images From The HMS Challenger Expedition, featuring rare selections from his 222 lithographs of marine microorganisms that accompanied the over 50 folio volumes of scientific reports from the Challenger expedition. The HMS Challenger, a Royal Navy vessel, circumnavigated the globe from 1872 to 1876 as a floating laboratory focused on exploring the ocean floor. Haeckel was enlisted to visualize the expedition’s sea creature findings, such as siphonophores, medusae (jellyfish), and microscopic radiolarians.
In an essay for the book, scientists Dylan Evans, David Roberts, and David Thomas explain why it was important to make these illustrations available to the public:
His contributions to the Challenger Reports were published between 1882 and 1889. As such, the major part of Haeckel’s work on plankton remains locked away in the rare book collections of a small number of libraries, and their use is limited to the few scholars aware of their existence and who have the privilege of access. They are in danger of becoming a lost treasure.
In conjunction with the book, which has Haeckel’s drawings in full-page color accompanied with details on each category of organism, all of the HMS Challenger plankton images are freely available to download online through Bangor University. While some later taxonomists criticized Haeckel’s elaborate art as favoring aesthetics over substance, Art Forms from the Abyss affirms his significance as both an artist and a scientific observer of the natural world. And no artist since has so beautifully bestowed the visual delicacy of a flower upon a helmet jellyfish.