“If I give someone a horsetail, he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it—anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice and discover its forms, is something only a few are capable of.”—Karl Blossfeldt, 1929
Careful observation is critical to both science and art. This comes to the fore in a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery highlighting the art of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt was a self-taught photographer who photographed almost nothing but flowers, buds and seed capsules for 35 years. His keenly observed photographs from the seminal Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) not only link Art Nouveau with Modernism, but also art with science.
In Blossfeldt’s photographs, nature is indistinguishable from sculpture: horsetail stems become architectural towers; sandwort and silky milkweed could be waxworks; and the stem and leaves of a cutleaf teasel look as though they are wrought iron. Trained as a sculptor, Blossfeldt argued that all forms created by man had their roots in the natural world and the photographs in this exhibition make for a convincing case. Unlike photographers who seek to abstract the natural world and to make it something other, Blossfeldt’s photos heighten our awareness of the natural world in everything (as I write this, I look across to a fireplace with wrought iron tendrils not dissimilar to the image below).
The magic of Blossfeldt’s photos is no mystery, but I believe that it comes from a mind that integrated what might be recognised as a scientific methodology into his art. Collages, which amount to a sketchbook of small photographs, provide insight into the decisions that Blossfeldt made when editing and organising material for his publications, drawing comparisons between a variety of natural forms. But while the exhibition curators compare these collages to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, I was also reminded of a scientist’s notebook: botanical samples are photographed in black and white against a blank background, arranged in a grid-like pattern, sometimes with notes or references inscribed on the photographs themselves.
And yet, however scientific and analytical the forms, I was struck by the emotion conveyed by particular pieces. Some photos, such as the stem and leaf of Eryngium bourgatii stare us impassively in the face. Others, such as the bud of an elderblossom, with leaves stretching upwards to cover the bud, look almost shy. Am I imposing my own viewpoint on Blossfeldt’s? Is this what he saw? Whether on the micro-, macro- or molecular levels, we cannot separate the observer and the observed. Bringing to our attention the art that is already present in nature—or, taken a different way, the ways in which art happens to naturally form in nature—Blossfeldt provides us with new eyes through which to see the world.
Karl Blossfeldt is on display at The Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 14 June 2013. Admission is free.
All artworks in this post are silver gelatin prints and long-term loans from Berlin University of the Arts – Karl Blossfeldt Collection at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne