Really taking the time to see nature around us is ever rarer nowadays, so when I came across Karl Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in Nature exhibition at the Glucksman museum on the welcoming grounds of the University College Cork, I was stunned.
Karl Blossfeldt’s black and white photos of the forms of plants, their skin, their structure, their geometry, taken almost a century ago, beseech us to see, appreciate and be in awe of the majestic creativity of nature. Nature’s form has function – to attract and facilitate access of pollinators, to help disseminate seeds, and nourish them in germination.
Nature also hides the rules of mathematics in plain sight – the patterns of sunflower seeds, pinecones and the curl of unfurling ferns each embrace the “golden ratio” (8/5) and follow the magical Fibonacci sequence (each number is the summary of the two preceding it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…), creating the spirals we admire (in plants, seashells, galaxies). Galileo stated that “Nature’s great book is written in mathematical language”.
Karl Blossfeldt focused not on the beauty of mathematics but on the beauty of form. He was a sculptor and professor at the Academy of Applied Arts in Berlin who taught modelling bronze from plants, taking photos to inspire his students. It was an exercise of nature challenging mimicry by man and woman, with the three-dimensional flesh of plants becoming two-dimensional imprints on paper, then again 3D in bronze. The first photos, taken in 1898, were a means to an end, though their own beauty inspired, leading to more and more until the collection was thankfully captured in his Art Forms in Nature, 1928 and the 1932 second series.
His photography was part of the “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in Germany (from 1918 to the fall of the Weimar republic in 1933). He also inspired surrealism and Art Nouveau, which will undoubtedly have catalysed his appreciation of nature and work. His photography continues to inspire. The great narrative figurative artist Neo Rauch is a modern master who owes a debt to Karl Blossfeldt’s work, as recognised by an earlier exhibition, “Encounter: Karl Blossfeldt & Neo Rauch”.
His work also inspires those passing through the museum, as tables are set out with copies of the photo collections and space to draw. I, too, was moved to have a go at capturing elements of what Karl Blossfeldt found a century ago. I loved the geometric shapes, the forms of spring leaves emerging after the long wait of winter, the hypnotic spirals, and I left in awe at how nature does what she does.
There is also an intriguing exhibition of the contemporary artist Meadhbh O’Connor’s biospheres in the Glucksman museum. These are hanging spheres of living vegetation, creating tiny planetary ecosystems where planes are continents, dark moss makes us think of scorched earth of climatic catastrophe, and vibrant, resilient nature fighting back. These could be worlds visited by The Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece. They show how fragile, fleeting, yet rich and dynamic life is. These could be choices for us too of the future we want or the future we let ourselves slide into. I love the way the plants reach far beyond their planetary boundaries in O’Connor’s biospheres – for me, a statement of the majestic power of nature and the artist’s hope.
Karl Blossfeldt stared deep into nature, often zooming in by a factor of up to thirty to get a better look. Meadhbh O’Connor, on the other hand, creates entire worlds at around 60cm across, so we can see the whole interconnected inter-dependant system of a biosphere and appreciate its beauty. I was not the only one who stopped, gazing up and her worlds and wonder.
We live in complicated times, and appreciating the fantastic creativity of nature helps. Karl Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in Nature exhibition at the Glucksman is open until 10 July 2022. If intrigued by the forms of nature, see Art Forms of Nature by Ernst Haeckel. See also Meadhbh O’Connor and her biosystem for a complementary contemporary take on nature. And Cork itself merits a visit, as, of course, does the Emerald Isle.