Darwin’s other bulldog

Tom Whipple in 1843 Magazine:

Haeckle-Demonema-header-webThe 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.

More here.

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