Proteus is a bit of an Unidentified Film Object. A work that mixes documentary with animation, its subject is a scientist who walked a tight line between arts and sciences. Is the film a documentary or an artistic vision? As our guest speaker Nick Hopwood pointed out, Proteus is not an academic essay. Nor is it a documentary as we have learnt to expect them – with actors walking around pretending to be nineteenth-century naturalists on a day trip. The connections it draws between Haeckel’s inner life and work and the Ancient Mariner may be the fruit of director David Lebrun’s poetic and imaginative take on the great scientist life rather than a historical fact.
However, the tension between Haeckel’s scientific mind and his artistic bent could be felt even in a short, self-deprecative letter to Darwin – although he seems to have hidden behind a light, and apparently slightly condescending reference to Darwin’s family female members:
“You may, however, apart from a detailed representation of the Rhizopod organism, not find much that is valuable, particularly not much that is useful for the theory of descent. Perhaps the delicate siliceous shells can provide you an aesthetic pleasure, or at least, perhaps, they might serve the female members of your family as embroidery patterns or architectural ornaments in the making of feminine works.”
(Haeckel to Darwin, 2 January 1864)
Haeckel’s radiolarian collections of plates became an example of art forms in nature that influenced the pattern books of Art Nouveau design. A propagandist of Darwinism, who coined the word ‘ecology’, Haeckel was also a visionary artist whose work is strikingly remembered in this unexpected, entrancing movie.
You can listen to Nick Hopwood’s presentation here.