Ulrike Meyer Stump’s Karl Blossfeldt: Variations (2021), just published in German and English, offers a new approach to the classic series of photographs. Contemporary approaches to Blossfeldt’s work have displaced his images from their original context as decorative tools. As Stump argues, reproductions of Blossfeldt’s images in museums, books, posters, and advertisements, have “spiraled out of control,” far beyond their intended use. We have, in a sense, forgotten that Blossfeldt’s study of botanical motifs originated in more practical settings. To him, they were pedagogical and decorative templates.
Stump’s Variations traces the critical evaluations and public perceptions of Blossfeldt’s work over nearly a century of circulation. She gives an historicist’s reading of works contemporaneous with Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst, including reviews, in an attempt to bring the book back to life in its original context.
Divided into six chapters, Variations covers three distinct eras of Blossfeldt’s work. The first two chapters illustrate the artistic practice of ornamentation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when photography offered new possibilities to the field. Under the guidance of the ornamental artist Moritz Meurer, the decorative arts blossomed in Germany. Blossfeldt, who served as Meurer’s assistant, found himself in the middle of that movement.
But Stump insists that Blossfeldt’s images were not self-sufficient works of art. They functioned, rather, as botanical “holotypes,” or renderings of plant specimens in a perfected form by way of “simplification, schematization, beautification.” To achieve this end, Blossfeldt and Meurer adopted a process both scientific and artistic.
Blossfeldt’s photography is less akin to modernist art and more like Ernst Haeckel’s work in Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1904). Not only do Haeckel’s and Blossfeldt’s projects bear similar titles, but as Stump observes, they also share a similar theoretical trajectory. Just as Haeckel used the microscope to investigate marine life, Blossfeldt relied on extreme close-up photography in order to seek the deeper epistemological truths of biology, which would then become the origin of new design motifs.
Stump intersperses the chapters of Variations with images spanning Blossfeldt’s entire career. Where the first two chapters focus on Blossfeldt’s milieu, the middle sections of Variations contextualize the release of Urformen. After several failed attempts to create his own designs, Blossfeldt found himself better suited as a kind of consultant, producing ideas for designs rather than applying them himself. Moving away from his Haeckelian project of recording the natural “architecture of plants,” Blossfeldt later became more focused on repetition, the technique for which he is most known today. To illustrate this transitional stage in Blossfeldt’s career, Stump presents several images of Blossfeldt’s failed design sketches, including a bizarre lemon juicer adorned with floral motifs.
Stump argues that Blossfeldt has been taken out of context since the moment Urformen was released in 1928. Even the introduction to Urformen, written by the art dealer Karl Nierendorf, ignores the design focus of the project. Stump concedes that Nierendorf’s analysis served his own interests as an art curator, placing “Blossfeldt’s work within a contemporary discourse, thus proclaiming its gallerist-author’s commitment to the avant-garde.” In more nefarious assessments, Blossfeldt’s work became Nazi propaganda. For the National Socialist Party in Germany, the existence of holotypes in nature served as evidence for “the existence of a God-elected race,” something Blossfeldt never intended.
Blossfeldt kept out of such debates. Stump even refers to him as an “unpolitical” agent. But given the inclusion of Nierendorf’s essay in the original release of Urformen, Blossfeldt’s work, whether he intended it or not, has become part of a complex history of contradictory political aims and ideological agendas.
In the final sections of Variations, Stump considers more recent appropriations of Blossfeldt’s images. The photographs, for example, have been co-opted by the environmental conservationist movement—a trend Stump classifies as a “takeover” of Blossfeldt’s work. Before that, Blossfeldt’s plants had been used frequently (and phallically) in surrealist collages.
In the final section of Variations, we learn that, notwithstanding the potential misuses of his work, Blossfeldt did value “comparative viewing,” the printing of his photographs alongside other, analogous illustrations from different sources, which allowed the viewer to see them “merely as parts of significant pairs rather than as self-contained works.” More importantly, Blossfeldt’s photography generates what Stump calls “the visual memory of the age.”
Stump directs her readers to the fact that Blossfeldt’s work functions through cycles of reproduction. Perhaps more fascinating than the pursuit of what true artistic forms exist in nature, or the original context of an artist’s portfolio, are the ways in which we choose to re-interpret these forms over and over again. Their truths are renewable, as Stump’s Variations clearly show.