Chasing Haeckel

A documentary centered on Ernst Haeckel's drawings of radiolarians sets the unity of art and science in motion

Hannah Waters
Apr 7, 2011
On the coast of Sicily, a man sits hunched over a microscope peering at what look to be grains of sand. It's the late 1870s, and these specimens are mineral-shelled protozoans called radiolarians collected from the depths of the Marianas Trench by the HMS Challenger in science's first attempt to take a census of marine life. Only recently had Darwin put his theory of natural selection on the table, and most scientists did not believe that single-celled organisms even existed. But renowned German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) lived and breathed through his microscope, meticulously observing and sketching the silica skeletons of radiolarians and seeing in them nothing less than what he described as the "key to the creative power of nature."
One of Ernst Haeckel's drawn plates of radiolarians, as prepared in negative by director and artist David Lebrun for Proteus
Image: Courtesy of Night Fire Films
Now fast-forward a century to the 1970s and imagine a man arranging these drawings of radiolarians under his flatbed camera and photographing them through a dot screen -- as if he were observing these creatures anew with a passion not unlike Haeckel's. "Perhaps we are equally obsessive wackos," joked filmmaker David Lebrun, whose film, Proteus, transforms Haeckel's drawings into a kaleidoscopic vision that animates the unity of science and art. The film was screened earlier this month at linkurl:Observatory,; an art and event space in Brooklyn, NY, and although it is seven years old, it still has the power to captivate audiences and raise questions about science and art, which Lebrun addressed in a Q&A session after the showing.Lebrun's plunge into science history began when he saw Haeckel's drawings for the first time nearly 40 years ago. He was interested in setting completed works of art in motion by stitching photographs of the pieces together and fancied himself "finding the stuff that artists had left for me to animate." Seeing one of the radiolarians in a book led to a footnote that directed him to the UCLA library and Haeckel's collection of thousands of radiolarian drawings: It was a footnote that "got me into 20 years of trouble," Lebrun said. Proteus features many sequences of stunning animation, with Haeckel's intricate radiolarian sketches ordered, aligned, and played back like a flipbook, appearing to be a single crystalline skeleton evolving and shifting shape to music. Far more than just an art film, Proteus takes the viewer through the early history of marine biology and the life of Haeckel, a man who saw boundless beauty in the "vast and orderly world illuminated by science," as he was quoted in the documentary.Haeckel was a medical student in the 1850s just after the cell had been discovered and when the "science of the sea" was slowly developing. Like many idealistic young scientists, he expected discoveries to fall into his lap -- and when they didn't come, he began to feel dissatisfied with the "serious, cold, rational" life of science he had chosen. But radiolarians reignited his scientific passions. Haeckel described 144 new species in his first monograph alone and named nearly 4000 over his lifetime. After years of struggling to balance his artistic and scientific sides, through these organisms he found a way to "integrate the two conflicting worlds" and found even deeper meaning in the "eternal unity in manifold manifestation" of the organisms' ornate silica shells.Creating Proteus, Lebrun, a philosophy major, found himself immersed not only in a world of radiolarians, but in maritime history, Haeckel's life, Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and alchemy -- all of which figure into the film. "I worked on the film for so long in isolation, I didn't know if anyone would want to see it."But many people have wanted to see it ever since it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Just as Haeckel himself was "amazed at the inexhaustible richness" of the sea and its microscopic denizens, Proteus renews the viewer's wonder at the beauty and diversity in the natural world, while highlighting the strides scientists and artists have made in celebrating it.Learn more about Proteus and find information about David Lebrun's other films at its linkurl:website.; You can purchase Proteus at the Night Fire Films linkurl:store,; or at linkurl:Amazon.;
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