Next on my “Documentaries via Netflix” series is Proetus, an utterly fascinating look at the life of 19th century German biologist/artist Ernst Haeckel. While at the Hirschorn recently I saw this DVD on sale in the gift shop and it immediately piqued my interest.
As Netflix summarizes, the film “examines the work of Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist-artist who dedicated his life to finding and documenting the connection between the disparate worlds of art and science. Drawing on Haeckel's fascinating lithographs of the tiny undersea organisms called radiolarian, Lebrun's poetic film brings the biologist's visions to life and further explores the artistry of the natural world.”
Well just what the heck are radiolarian?!?!, you might be asking yourself. I Marian Seldes, the film’s narrator, sums it up pretty nicely:
The microscopic radiolarian is part of the floating oceanic plankton, a frothy, ameba like drop of protoplasm with a network of branching pseudopods to engulf and absorb tiny pray. But, the radiolarian also absorbs silica from seawater then excretes it to construct a glasslike skeleton. In each species this translucent cage assumes a unique form. The radiolaria are over 500 million years old—among the earliest skeletonized life forms. They are like an alphabet of possibilities, as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths all the future permutation of organic and invented form, from back bones to bridges and from the earth to the stars.
According to Proteus, there are over 5,000 species of radiolarian in existence, and Haeckel documented and drew just under 4,000 of them in his life time, culminating in his work Art Forms from the Ocean: The Radiolarian Atlas of 1862.
Director David Lebrun photographed thousands of individual drawings and compiled them into several animation sequences interspersed throughout the film, a process that took just over two decades (he began in the early 80’s, waaaaay before the advent of the necessary computer generated effects).
BUT WAIT!!! Purchase now and we’ll throw in a copy of Haeckel’s other magnum opus, Art Forms in Nature, which translates his boring ol’ radiolarian doodles into birds *gasp* fish *ooooooooh* and plantlife *aaaaaahh* (Click to enlarge)
Take THAT James Audubon!!
As an astonishing amalgam of art, science and religion, Proteus also successfully interweaves the history of the 19th century Challenger naval expedition, Greek mythology, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the philosophy and poetry of Goethe as well as the effects of Haeckel’s ideas on mind’s like Sigmund Freud and Thomas Edison. It’s quite a conceit to pull off but, even clocking in at 60 minutes, it’s one that pays off.
You must, when contemplating nature,
Attend to this, in each and every feature:
There’s nought outside and nought within,
For she is inside out and outside in.
Thus will you grasp, with no delay,
The holy secret, clear as day.
~Goethe (translated by Christopher Middleton)
from Epirrhema (c. 1819)
Artist: Iron Maiden/ Album: Powerslave