Natural Archetypes in Art: Karl Blossfeldt’s Influential Photographs

The photographs of Karl Blossfeldt are intricate, black-and-white close-ups of plant forms, which have an aura of distinct and stark contemporaneity belied by the fact that they became greatly influential in both modern art and design more than a century ago. A selection of Blossfeldt’s vintage photogravures, taken from the artist’s significant 1928 book Urformen Der Kunst, was recently shown at Tasveer in Bangalore after having traveled from Kolkata. It becomes very clear, even at first viewing, that these works have had a strong influence on generations of designers, architects, and artists.

Blossfeldt was a self-taught photographer as well as a sculptor, painter, and teacher. Since his student years, was also an amateur botanist, and held a strong belief that forms found in art and architecture could be linked back to specific archetypal structures already present in nature. As an art professor, he developed a homemade magnifying camera and lens to document the varieties in the geometry, texture, and patterning of plants collected to use as models for drawings, with the intention of creating a pedagogical resource for artists and designers that could also illustrate this concept. A major archive comprised of over 6,000 of these photographs developed while he taught at the Royal Arts Museum in Berlin and eventually, toward the end of his career, a selection of the archive was published in book form. 

Urformen Der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) was an incredibly influential and groundbreaking in its use of a photogravure printing method. It was popular both among artists and the public: the compositional technique of isolating the individual flora and magnifying this subject by thirty times related these plant forms to portraiture, and changed the way the public was able hitherto to perceive their natural environment. Viewing one of these images, philosopher Walter Benjamin remarked that Blossfield had “played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world.” Benjamin also connected Blossfeldt's work with that of the New Objectivists, whose movement took inspiration in the facts of daily life (as opposed to Expressionism).

Each plate exhibited in the series at Tasveer shows the lasting impact of Blossfeldt’s work. From Art Nouveau’s curving floral forms and geometric symmetries, to intricate patterns and stark imagery in modern painting, to the ability to deconstruct natural life both as a cause and effect of art, a trace of Blossfeldt’s forms can be seen in a host of art-historical and design movements. In attempting to develop a taxonomy on which other art could be based, with his own richness of detail, attention to composition, texture, and lighting, Blossfeldt created a wealth of pieces that are important artworks in their own right. 

—K. Sundberg

Discover more artists at Tasveer.

Share article