Illustration by Beatrice Sala

If you’re a designer and a lover of nature, then you might have on your shelf one of the many reprintings of the 1899 collection of illustrations, Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms in Nature) by Ernst Haeckel. I myself have the 2008 printing from Prestel, that has since been replaced by a 2019 edition. Last year, Taschen published a lavish 700-page volume of Haeckel’s works, featuring 450 of his illustrations, available now for $200. Perhaps most useful to designers however, would be last year’s printing of Haeckel’s illustrations by Vault Editions and Avenue House Press, which features 100 of his beautifully rendered jellyfish, insects, medusae, anemone, and radiolarians inside, as well as a download code that gives access to high-res images of Haeckel’s original plates in case you feel inclined to use them in your own design project.

After Haeckel’s work entered the public domain in the last few years, his ornately rendered lithographs and halftone prints have been everywhere. A quick search on Amazon will surface his illustrations used as decorative elements on posters, stickers, coloring books, t-shirts, and mugs. Pretty much anywhere an image can be printed, Haeckel’s visions have been printed. Yet what is difficult to see in a pillow ornamented with horseshoe crabs or a Liverwort wallpaper pattern, is the ideology reflected within the pure symmetry of Haeckel’s renderings.

Haeckel’s capacity to see beauty in an ecosystem is inextricable from his racist and ableist theory of nature and culture. “I have to think that some of these people who have these images hanging above their bed would feel profoundly uncomfortable continuing to have them there if they knew the context behind them,” says historian Elaine Ayers, a faculty member of the Museum Studies program at New York University. In recent years, contemporary artists, designers, and scientists have called into question the legacy of naturalists like Haeckel with their own visual history of the natural world. Yet the widespread, commercial reproduction of Haeckel’s work continues to reinforce antiquated and potentially harmful ideas of what makes life and the ecosystem beautiful. 

Intricate biological illustrations featuring various creatures
An example of Haeckel’s intricate illustration style.

Haeckel’s views as an artist and scientist were born of his fanatical fixation on nature, as it was described by his predecessors of Naturphilosophie (nature-philosophy) like Alexander von Humboldt and Goethe who saw nature as a connected hierarchy with man at the top. It follows then that Haeckel’s most critical influence was Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. In the Western scientific community of the late 19th and early 20th century, Haeckel was one of the most popular and vocal advocates of Darwin’s ideas on evolution. He was deeply committed to an ecological view of the world, so much so that he is often cited for popularizing the use of the word “Ökologie” (ecology) as it is used to relate life on the planet. Haeckel was by today’s standards a polymath—as an artist, biologist, botanist, philosopher, physician, explorer, and naturalist. As was the trend for so-called naturalists of the time, he was essentially a one-stop-shop for scientific research and communication.

“I have to think that some of these people who have these images hanging above their bed would feel profoundly uncomfortable continuing to have them there if they knew the context behind them.

For as much as Haeckel sought to look outward, into a world not well understood, this egocentric approach to describing the vast complexity of life across the planet was inevitably narrowing. Darwin’s ideas inspired Haeckel to see the complex beauty of nature, but it also convinced him that evolution favored race and gender. Specifically white, Western men. Haeckel was a prototypical ecofascist—an eager eugenicist and social darwinist. He used his unique fusion of evolutionary theory and nature-philosophy to advocate for the widespread euthanasia of disabled infants, and justify the “kindness” of systematically killing hundreds of thousands of disabled people in Europe. Similar ideas were realized after his death, under the Third Reich—and today, it is widely recognized that his scientific legitimation of eugenics helped to empower the rise of these ideas among the Nazis. At the same time he named and illustrated thousands of species native to colonized, equatorial nations, he used his same research philosophy and visual logic to classify humans based on aesthetic variations. 

Despite all this, throughout his life Haeckel was a best selling author whose many books on science and philosophy were printed in multiple languages and sold internationally. Today, many of his contributions to science endure, and of course, many versions of his Art Forms in Nature are still widely accessible. Yet, it’s vital to look at Haeckel’s enduring illustration work through a new lens. “For him, illustration was part of his ideology—was part of his intellectual formation,” says Ayers. Haeckel’s illustrations highlighted beauty and gave unblemished symmetry to the forms he found in nature. Contrasted with modern photography, Haeckel’s visions of nature were less objective depictions of life and more projected notions about the proper “order” of nature. His visual work became a specious communication method for him to provide a biological justification for a very specific philosophical school of thought.

Illustration of biological creatures
Haeckel’s illustrations prioritized unnatural symmetry.

Haeckel’s visions of nature were less objective depictions of life and more projected notions about the proper “order” of nature.

Yet the visual aspect of his scientific work is a key factor as to why his books were so popular. Prior to the first world war, his visual communication style along with his ability to make Darwinism into a philosophy of life, made his books among the most influential in spreading Darwin’s ideas. Kunstforms der Natur was as much an exploration of aesthetics as it was a documentation of biology. It served as a foundational visual reference for the Art Nouveau movement, and Haeckel even added an epilogue to the series which graded the different organisms according to their aesthetic importance, offering labels like “extremely rich”, “of ornamental design”, and “very diverse and meaningful”. Haeckel’s popularity coincided with a time of dramatic industrialization in the West, when artists were striving to find nature in an increasingly urban landscape. Artists like Émile Gallé, the famous Catalan modernist architect Antoni Gaudí, the “father of skyscrapers” Louis Sullivan, designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (of Tiffany’s), and architect René Binet who designed the monumental gates of the 1900 world’s fair in Paris, drew inspiration from  Haeckel’s illustrations. 

Haeckel’s forms invited Western people into worlds that they had not known before. Haeckel was adept at illustrating the microscopic world; he had a talent in looking through a microscope with one eye, while looking at his drawing with the other. But his depictions of colonized lands in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Java, and India enabled problematic misrepresentations of non-white, non-Western cultures as savage or lesser than their colonizers. Based solely on aesthetics, Haeckel categorized people in these regions into orders of humanity. For some of Haeckel’s readers, these depictions were windows into an ancient world that could provide clues to earlier stages of evolution. Haeckel’s visual order of humanity stemmed directly from  his views on biological order in general, which created an environment ripe for exploitation by Europe and the U.S. 

Haeckel’s and his contemporaries’ illustrations of plants, animals, places, and people isolated them from their interconnected ecosystems.

Photograph of exhibition space featuring plants and wall illustrations
An installation shot of Ground Control.

The intention behind botanical and biological illustrations from the colonial era was often economic. “It was about mapping your territory—knowing what was there,” says curator Clelia Coussonnet, whose recent exhibition Ground Control  explores the politics and history of botany. “And it was this kind of cartography which really defined boundaries of some territories for then exploiting them, or dominating them, or negotiating power on them.” At the turn of the century, equatorial regions were seen as an edenic garden of resources for economic development but also, paradoxically, as regions of uncontrollable poverty and disease.

The cataloguing of “useful” botanical elements was a part of how Western industrial nations exploited these regions and their people—exploitation that has expanded and expedited across tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. Haeckel’s and his contemporaries’ illustrations of plants, animals, places, and people isolated them from their interconnected ecosystems. Cataloging them made them extractable. “Images of things like jellyfish, or whales, or plants have always been political, right? It’s easy to see these objects as though they’re sort of flattened or removed or taken out of their natural world,” says Ayers. “But that in and of itself is a type of violence. And it’s a particular type of colonial violence, that promotes a worldview.”

Haeckel’s illustrations are still in wide circulation, but a growing number of contemporary artists are deconstructing and decolonizing the exploitative Western theory about the natural order of life and civilization. Artists like Maria Thereza Alves  have worked for years with indigenous artists to deconstruct the linguistic, visual, and auditory classification of plants that were established by the Western scientific tradition to decolonize botanical science. Exhibitions like Black Botany, which is now an online exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, shows how illustrations and descriptions of plant life were used to deliberately erase Black knowledge of these organisms. Designer Nicholas Rougeux has used archival scientific illustrations of minerals and plants to remove them from the problematic ordering of nature that so defined Haeckel’s work. Similarly, the State Library of New South Wales’ project “Paint By Number,” deconstructs the rigid color coding system used by biological and botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer. Yet those scrutinizing scientific imagery, and image theory of nature, are still in the minority, even today. 

“When people see them [botanical and biological illustrations], they just see this kind of beauty, and it ends. They’re presentations that are full of color and full of beautiful shapes and people really don’t interrogate them,” Coussonnet says. Designers know better than most how inundated our culture is with visual content, and in this constant reproduction of images, how easy it can be to overlook an image’s inherent power, politics, and potentially problematic ideas. Yet the constant reprinting of Haeckel’s work, without any indication of the historical context, indicates that they have transcended their vicious history because of their beauty alone. Continuing to use his works as a metric for what makes life and nature beautiful may serve to reinforce his highly selective vision. It’s a fact made all the more frightening by the reality that the same colonized view of nature that Haeckel was so instrumental in advertising, is alive and well today, and continues to devastate people and the ecosystem he claimed to cherish.