The Glassy Essence of Life

Coming to Dresden without much prior research I happened upon the Blaschka House, which, sadly, is not usually open to the public except on special occasions, but does serve as an excellent excuse for a blog post.

The collection of specimens crafted from glass by the father and son team of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) was a rich and rare anomaly of biological modeling. While they largely produced elegant glass replicas of plants, they also made a number of sea anemones, squid, octopai, jellyfish and other invertebrates, several of which can be found in the art gallery at Cornell. The bulk of the collection, however, is held in Harvard after the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with the university in 1890.

When Rudolf died in 1939, he had no apprentices and no one to learn the craft skills behind his glass work. Many of the techniques used to create the Blaschka models were thus never revealed, and I believe they remain unknown to this day.

The choice of materials, glass, is interesting for a number of reasons. Glass was not the most immediate, or common material for such models in the nineteenth century, it was difficult to safely transport and difficult to work with when compared to wax. While it did have an advantage over more common, dead specimens, in being able to preserve the colours and structure of the living thing being modeled, it nevertheless took a great deal of time to make and perfect, and tasked the detailed memory and skill to produce a convincing replica.

There is, I suspect, an interesting, largely untold story about the quest for the basic unit connecting the organic and inorganic worlds in the nineteenth century with the Blaschka’s choice of materials. It culminates in what Bob Brain from the University of British Columbia has termed the “Protoplasmania” at the end of the century. Protoplasmania, a strand of nineteenth century culture that connects Thomas Henry Huxley’s undue excitement over Bathybius haeckelii, what he thought was the original source of all life and turned out to be a chemical artifact of specimen preservation, to french parapsychologists’ attempts to use high speed photography to capture images of ghostly ectoplasm, evidence of the ability of space itself to store memory, and Edward Munch’s “Scream”.

Ernst Haeckel (who lent his name to the short lived Bathybius haeckelii) was also invested in the glassy essence of life. His celebrated Kunsformen der Natur featured a wide array of

glassy radiolarians, whose silicate shells and startling symmetry lent them an alien, primordial appearance.

Haeckel was a friend of the Blaschkas, and lent them books from his library when they were called upon to work on a series of marine invertebrates. It is more than likely, then, that the material choice was not just an artistic statement, but was deeply embroiled in the theories about life and nature involved in protoplasmania, which tied together so much of the art and science of Fin-De-Siècle Europe.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_and_Rudolf_Blaschka

http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/June10/BlaschkaCollect.html

http://blaschkagallery.mannlib.cornell.edu/ernstHaeckel.php

http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Leopold_and_Rudolph_Blaschka.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Haeckel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstformen_der_Natur

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cienne/104865885/in/set-72057594070875957/

Brain, Robert. (2010). “How Edvard Munch and August Strindberg Contracted Protoplasmania: Memory, Synesthesia, and the Vibratory Organism in Fin-De-Siècle Europe”. In Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 35, No. 1.

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