June 11, 2011

In Lieu of Flowers and Chocolates, Here's Art and Science

I've been on a lot of bad first dates.  I've also been on a few awful ones.  But, I'm happy to say I've had a couple great first dates in my lifetime-- the kind that I expect to always remember and use to gauge just how meh to awful all my other dates are.  What makes a first date great?  Well I'm not going to go too far into that for the fact that this is supposed to be some kind of art blog, and mostly because I'm sure dozens, nay, hundreds of potential courters are reading this for possible insight into the innermost working of my romantic being, and they'd only use such information to gain unfair advantage in the process of sweeping me off my currently poison ivy-ed feet.  Well I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you're just going to have to do your homework like countless others did (or did not) before you!

It's considered a bit old fashioned or cheesy now-a-days, but a few of my most (fondly) memorable first dates involved some kind of flowers-and-chocolates-esque courtship gesture.  I can't say I blame most guys for abandoning this one.  A cutsie/classic/corny display does not a great date make anymore than a lack of one kills your chances. There's a very fine line between sweet and creepy and so many factors that can nudge you on either side.  That said, there's never been a time when I haven't exceedingly appreciated having a single rose or simple bouquet presented to me.

Yeah, so I'm a sucker for flowers, but by far, the best courtship gift I've ever received was this:

Art Forms in Nature by the zoologist Ernst Haeckel, or Art Forms of Nature if translated from the original German title, Kunstformen der Natur.

It's not hard to guess what my favorite flower is, but being surprised with this on a first date this was something else entirely.  If knowing one another's taste in books was enough to sustain a relationship alone, it's safe to say I'd no longer be pretending to play the field.  Both the artist and wanna-be biology geek in me cannot recommend this book enough.  This edition not only contains one hundred of Haeckel's full page scientific illustrations, it gives some insight into the significance of this type of art.  Here are a few of my favorite plates.  You can see a few others in better scan quality here, which includes their titles and subject details.  Of course, the best way to enjoy them is to pick up the book.

Scientific illustration holds a long time appeal and progressively fascinating quality for me.  I love a work that delights my eye as well as my thinky sponge.  It takes a skillful and often overlooked caliber of artist to create it.  The forms they create are essential teaching tools, and they were especially important prior to the days of photomicrography for numerous reasons.  In the introductory pages of the 2010 Prestel publication, contributor Olaf Breidbach discusses how Haeckel's understanding and representation of living organisms-- specifically the simultaneous similarly and diversity of their structures, reinforced Darwin's explanation of the evolution of life.  The digestible detail and beautiful complexity of Haeckel's work served to not only popularize Darwin's discovery, it strengthened its validity and eventual acceptance during a critical time in biological science.  Through this exploration of the structure of living organisms, simple and complex, there emerges a unique means of classification and lineal establishment, which makes me wonder why I've never heard of Haeckel until receiving this book.

When you ask art historians about the most significant types of art throughout history, the works of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, the Lascaux cave paintings, the political and socially ignited Neoclassical era, are the prominent responses.  That's understandable, says the former art history student in me, but looking back, I wish there was just a mention of artists/scientists like Haeckel.  I know, it's art history, not art science, but when a body of artistic work furthers the most powerful biological discovery in history, I'd venture to say that's worth a bit of lecture time.  Even in the strict realm of art, Haeckel's work is significant with regard to his influence on the 1805-1905 Art Nouveau period-- for me, the very essence of Victorian charm and curiosity.

The work of Ernst Haeckel resonates with me for the way in which it dissolves the divide between science and art, a differentiation I only wish I had the aptitude to make.  In the biographical notes of the book, it seems that Haeckel felt he had to choose between one and the other despite him bridging the gap in such a wonderful way.
There's Haeckel sitting on the left, while his assistant Nicholas Miklouh-Maclay attempts to seduce us with his gaze... and net. 
"Despite this uninterrupted uniformity, life is anything but tedious owning to nature's inexhaustible richness which, time and again, produces ever-new, beautiful and fascinating forms that provide new material to speculate and ponder over, to draw and describe. Indeed, this is just the right sort of work for me because, in addition to the scientific element, it involves artistic matters to a large degree.  At the same time, I have once again completely reconciled myself to my dear science in loyalty, which shall, throughout my entire life, take the highest priority and which I had seriously begun to doubt owning to your artistic-aesthetic influences." - Ernst Haeckel on ultimately choosing the life of a zoologist over one of a landscape painter in 1860-- a tough decision.  I greatly admire (and perhaps envy) such a choice.  

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