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Strolling the beach in Port Aransas, Texas in the spring and summer you can’t help but to encounter the most amazing and dangerous jellyfish creatures washed ashore- the Portuguese Man-of-War. These carnivorous wonders are actually a colony of organisms that emit a strong acid that will burn human flesh or catch small fish and other small creatures as their meals. On a recent trip, I marveled at the shapes they made washed up on shore and couldn’t help but think about one of my favorite illustrators the German naturalist, Ernst Haeckel.

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Portuguese Man-of-War

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Portuguese Man-of-War

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Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, and artist. He discovered, described and named thousands of new species and coined many terms in biology a well as developing the now widely defunct recapitulation theory. He promoted and popularised Charles Darwin’s work in Germany, and told his story of science and his beliefs through images–and what stories these images tell! The influence of his work may be the reason that Darwin’s work is a household name to this day. It is hard to believe that some of his illustrations are real and are not some figment of his artists imagination. He drilled down to such a level of detail that it makes you realize that design exists on every level from micro to macro scale.

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Ernst Haeckel

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His work influenced artists and designers in many fields– you can see the influence in such pieces as the entrance gate to the Paris World Exposition in 1900 by Rene Binet and the glass chandelier from the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, modelled after an Ernst Haeckel drawing found in his book Art Forms in Nature published in 1904.

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Rene Binet’s entrance gate to the Paris World Exposition, 1900

Glass chandelier from the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, modelled after an Ernst Haeckel drawing found in Art Forms in Nature

Glass chandelier from the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco

One architect that was said to be influenced by his forms is Hendrik Petrus Berlage. Bridging traditionalists and the modernists, Berlage is considered the “Father of Modern architecture” in the Netherlands and his theories inspired Dutch architectural groups of the 1920s. Looking at his pencil sketch of the interior vaulted ceiling I imagine being very small and standing in the mysterious inside of a man of war.

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Commodity Exchange in Amsterdam

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I love losing myself in Haeckel’s work because it is like looking at the stars–it makes you feel how vast our universe is on every scale and reminds us that patterns are so intriguing because they make up the fabric of our world at every level. I love strolling on the beach and looking at the washed up man of war and being reminded that in their dangerous and magical forms the universe is contained.

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