”Kunstformen der Natur” (Art forms of Nature) was Ernst Haeckel‘s master work. Initially published in ten fascicles of ten plates each – from 1899 to 1904 -, coincided with his most intensive effort to popularise his monistic philosophy in Die Welträthsel and Die Lebenswunder. For Haeckel ‘Beauty’, constituted one of the three pillars of Monism, alongside the ‘Good’ and the ‘True’. Haeckel’s monism, argued that there is no fundamental difference between organic and inorganic nature, that is, life differed from inorganic nature only in virtue of the degree of its organization. In the introduction to Kunstformen der Natur, Haeckel wrote: ‘Nature generates in her lap an inexhaustible abundance of wonderful forms, whose beauty and diversity surpass by far all art forms produced by man’. He firmly believed that a reformed, naturalistic art, would help to emancipate people from repressive political and religious authorities who maintain their domination over the people by fostering ignorance and superstition among them (Heie). He proposed that instead of Christianity, it should be monism that becomes the basis of education and civic life.
Goethe was a strong influence in Haeckel, and leads him to think of Nature in anthropomorphic terms. At the beginning of Generelle Morphologie, Haeckel cited the words of the poet from his essay ‘Ode to Nature’:
Nature eternally creates new forms; what exists now has never before been; what was will not come again: everything is new and yet ever the old. In her there is an eternal life, becoming and movement. She is eternally changing, and never stands still for an instant. She has no concept for ‘remaining’, and she has placed her curse on standing still. She is firm: her step is measured, her laws unalterable. She thought and ponders constantly; not as a man, but as Nature. To everyone she appears in a particular form. She conceals herself in a thousand names and terms, and is always the same.
Haeckel’s experiences in Italy also had an enduring influence on the later formulation of his aesthetic theories. Other great influence was Alexander Humboldt’s Ansichten der Natur (Aspects of Nature, 1808), in which Haeckel found vivid depictions of the flora, fauna and geological features of the various topographical regions that Humboldt encountered during his research expeditions, most notably his famous excursion into the interior of South America between 1799 and 1804.
But Haeckel was a man of contradictions. His belief in Recapitulation Theory (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) was one of his biggest mistakes. His affinity for the German Romantic movement influenced his political beliefs and Stephen Jay Gould wrote that Haeckel’s biological theories, supported by an “irrational mysticism” and racial prejudices contributed to the rise of Nazism. Despite those faults, he made great contributions in the field of biology and his legacy as scientific illustrator is extraordinary. “Kunstformen der Natur” (Art forms of Nature) influenced not only in science, but in the art, design and architecture of the early 20th century.
In 1908, Haeckel was awarded with the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal for his contributions in the field of science. After the death of his wife in 1915, Haeckel became mentally frail. Three years later sold his house to the Carl Zeiss foundation and it presently contains a historic library.
Breidbach, Olaf. Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. Prestel Verlag: Munich, 2006.
Heie, N. Ernst Haeckel and the Redemption of Nature, 2008.
Richards, Robert J. The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, (2008), University of Chicago Press.