Purchase by Akron Art Institute (Museum), 1979
2017: "Serial Intent" 6/3/17 - 9/10/17, Arnstein Galleries, Akron Art Museum
20 x 16 in., mat
Blumenbachia Hieronymi (Loasaceae), date unknown, from Wundergarten der Natur (Nature's Garden of Wonders), 1932
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
For thirty-five years Karl Blossfeldt had been producing photographs of plants for use as teaching aids. Around 1925, these were suddenly designated works of art by an art dealer. Blossfeldt was then a sixty-year-old professor of drawing and sculpture at a Berlin college of fine and applied arts. His first exhibition, held in 1926, was followed two years later by the publication of Urformen der Kunst (issued in English as Art Forms in Nature). The popularity of this book led to the production of a second volume, Wundergarten der Natur (Nature's Garden of Wonders), which contains Blumenbachia Hieronymi (Loasaceae). These books of photogravures of Blossfeldt's images were the primary means by which his work was disseminated. 1
The professor deemed his images to be documentation, not art. "My flower documents," he wrote, "should . . . reawaken a sense for nature, pointing out its teeming richness of form, and prompt the viewer to observe for himself the local plant world."2 Blossfeldt made regular excursions to the countryside and occasionally took trips abroad to harvest botanical specimens for the six thousand images he photographed in his studio between 1890 and his death in 1932. The format of his images is always the same: sharply focused, shot at extremely close range, and usually only a detail of the plant. Occasionally he included several examples of the same plant to form a pattern. The cleaned and trimmed specimen was photographed against gray cardboard. Blossfeldt used a camera he had built himself, to which he added a special lens to magnify the object between three and forty-five times.
The purpose of his "flower documents" was to teach future architects and designers that the best engineering and aesthetic solutions to design problems could be found in nature. He instructed them that "the plant . . . developed according to the same structural rules which every architect must observe . . . [but it] never reverts to mere functionality: it . . . is compelled, by an elemental force, toward the highest artistic form."3 This philosophy, first espoused in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, was put into wide practice by the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements. It still influenced German design education in the 1920s.
Even though Blossfeldt's theories had been long established, his work was acclaimed for its modernity. His technique exemplified a new German style known as the New Objectivity (Die Neue Sachlichkeit). Its hallmarks were careful naturalistic observation, extreme detail, crystalline clarity, and above all a (supposedly) neutral stance toward the subject—all qualities evident in Blumenbachia Hieronymi.4
The Blumenbachia Hieronymi is a flowering plant native to Argentina but cultivated elsewhere. Blossfeldt photographed it not for its botanical value but for its visual interest. Its spiraling closed seed capsule, seen here magnified eighteen times, is said to resemble the top of an Asian mosque. While Blossfeldt's presentation of it is factual, a surreal aspect is added through magnification, lighting, and angle of view. Unnatural scale transforms the viewer into a Lilliputian gaping at biology gone mad. Each hair could be a menacing thorn, each leaf a pincer. Little wonder that Blossfeldt was compared to the surrealists as early as 1927.
Blossfeldt's impersonal study of the variations within one subject has influenced contemporary German photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Struth (see pp. 238–39). Irving Penn, Harry Callahan (see pp. 118–19), and Robert Mapplethorpe are among the many photographers who employ similar techniques, using isolation and magnification to glorify humble objects. Like much photography that was never intended as art, Blossfeldt's plant pictures have had a profound effect on the medium.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. Blossfeldt was included in numerous group exhibitions in the late 1920s, but had few solo exhibitions of his photographs. In fact, until the mid-1980s, scholars believed that while Blossfeldt routinely produced glass slides of his images for use in teaching drawing and sculpture, he created relatively few prints on paper. This notion was disproved in 1984 when a large cache of prints made by the artist was discovered.
2. Blossfeldt's words are from the only statement he published about his art, "Zu meinem Bildern" (About My Pictures), the short introduction to Wundergarten der Natur. Quoted in Blossfeldt (1994), not paginated.
3. From "Zu meinem Bildern" (About My Pictures), quoted in George Walsh, Colin Naylor, and Michael Held, eds., Contemporary Photographers (New York: St. Martin's, 1982), 81.
4. This information is from the list of plates in Wundergarten. A vintage gelatin silver print of this image bears a different description by an unknown hand: "Frucht einer Losazee, 8 x vergrössert" (Fruit of a Losazee, 8 x magnified). Important Avant-Garde Photographs of the 1920s & 1930s: The Helene Anderson Collection (London: Sotheby's, May 2, 1997), 15.
Blossfeldt, Karl. Karl Blossfeldt Photographs. Oxford, England: Museum of Modern Art, 1978.
_______. Art Forms in the Plant World. Mineola, N. Y. : Dover Publications, 1985.
_______. Karl Blossfeldt Photographs. With a text by Rolf Sachse. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1994.