December 2: We had Graphis magazines stacked deep on the fiendishly constructed wedge-like shelves of a cylindrical Deco unit, its dark wood veneer painted grey by my mother to match the curtains in our sparsely furnished 1960s lounge room.
Amongst the articles on its luxurious high gloss pages, all in French, English and German (so exotic!) microphotographs would often feature; one can’t help thinking that they may have morphed into the forms of the heavy glass ashtrays and electric light fixtures and the Miro-esque decorations of fabrics of the period. A set of these scientific images was accompanied by an article New Fields for Photomicrography (Graphis May 1, 1956) by Carl Strüwe, born this day in 1898.
In it he speaks of the strange world of microscopy; “Strange, whorled and wonderful” he calls it, and immediately recruits art and design into his discussion and artists Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Wili Baumeister who, he recalls, said that modern art ’emulates nature’. He goes on:
Photography has been the great intermediary of the microscopic world. While illustrating the results of research in medical, crystallochemical, metallurgical and other fields it has also been the starting point for a new aesthetic, opening the door to an unsuspecting domain of creative morphology. Mysterious impulses reveal themselves in crystals gathering molecules to give birth to form. Tiny structures rear up out of the amorphous substance into rigid frameworks. The expressive power of these diminutive shoes either in isolation or in collective patterns are not without their profound human interest To the creative mind the microcosm offers new pathways into the realms of imagination.
Objects under the microscope show more than their scientific existence: they have a character of their own…they might be termed the natural graphic existence of things.
Springs or solenoids release a chain reaction, the aperture clenches, the mirror slaps and the shutter blind sweeps up the image; the mechanism of the camera seems so harsh an instrument, so alien a snare for unsuspecting organisms for a ‘creative morphology’. It is right here at the frontiers, indeed the border checkpoints, of science and art that microscopy stands. So abstract, so original seem the images that they must be art, but so precise are they that they constitute scientific evidence.
Though he looks the part of the archetypal nerdy scientist, Strüwe’s training was as a lithography apprentice 1913-1917, followed, from 1919-1923, with a course at the Handwerker und Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Bielefeld in north-west Germany – no scientist is he (though he illustrated their papers, working for E. Gundlach AG, Bielefeld 1919-1963), but man who made of microscopy an art. He dared cross the border.
Self-taught in photography, Carl Strüwe made his first photograph through a microscope in 1926; an image he titled, not with the Latin name of the specimen which was a slice through the jawbone of a Greenland Whale (Balaena mysticetus), but with a poetic title White Suspended over Grey clearly signifying an artistic interest in the subject. The image is presented not in the usual scientific format of the circular image seen through a microscope, but in the format we associate with artworks; the rectangle.
The year 1926 was in the period of ‘classical’ Modernism when Joan Miro painted his Spanish Dancer and Paul Klee his Around the Fish, Pablo Picasso made loose-wristedly linear with works that blended his earlier monumental neoclassic figures with a surreal manipulation of the human face and body, and it was when Max Ernst was first constructing a ‘natural history’ from his ‘automatic’ frottages.
For Strüwe 1926, his 29th year, marked the beginning of a three-decade artistic project: Formen des Mikrokosmos, which resulted in a set of 280 microphotographs, and in a 1955 book of that name.
Multiple exposures, assembly and the deliberately precise play of light are formative in this work, a singular vision of the formal potentials of images of another world. Here in Anchor Composition he employs side-lighting to create a graduated backdrop for a contrasting, very graphic counterchange of the tonality of these microscopic forms (500 µm-2000 µm long) that apparently project from the dermis of a sea cucumber. So convincingly anchor-like are they that they would not look out of place on the curtains in a 1950s bachelor pad or even in Dobie Gillis’s bedroom.
Starting in 1927, microphotographs by Strüwe were published in important avant-garde magazines including Atlantis (Berlin), Arts et Metiers Graphiques (Paris), Graphis (Zurich), and Striven (Amsterdam). Though bombs destroyed his studio in Bielefeld and most of his archives and photographs in 1945, Strüwe had his first solo show in 1947, followed by 15 solo shows in Germany, France, and the United States, and he was included in iconic curated group exhibitions: the first edition of photokina in 1950, the 1951 Subjektive Fotografie curated by Otto Steinert, and The New Landscape in Art and Science organized by Gyorgy Kepes at MIT, also in 1951. Strüwe made his last microphotograph, Finale, in 1959.
Never well-off, after the publication of his book Strüwe was forgotten, his work only making a brief appearance in 1966, and it was not until 1982 that a retrospective of his work was shown at the Waldhof Cultural History Museum in Bielefeld. In 1986 he received the Cultural Award of his native town, only months before he died on January 7, 1988.
Lately, there has been keen interest in this eccentric pioneer. In 2012 an exhibition of Carl Strüwe’s work in the context of contemporary photography Carl Strüwe, Reisen in unbekannte Welten (Carl Strüwe: Journey into Unknown Worlds) was shown at the Bielefelder Kunstverein, which highlighted the relevance of Carl Strüwe’s work for new artists like contemporary photographers, Liz Deschenes (*1966, lives and works in New York), Jan Paul Evers (*1982, lives and works in Cologne) and Jochen Lempert (*1958, lives and works in Hamburg).
A dissertation by Gottfried Jäger on his life’s work was published in 2011: Microphotography as Obsession – The Photographic Work of Carl Strüwe (1898-1988), also shown at Galerie le Minotaure, Paris, 2012. More recent solo exhibitions include Carl Strüwe, Formen des Mikrokosmos at Galerie f5,6, Munich, 2015 and this year, Carl Strüwe: Microcosmos at Steven Kasher Gallery April 14 -June 4, 2016 at 515 W 26th St, New York.
Artists using photography now are more comfortable with their medium that so comfortably crosses between the realms of science and art. From today’s perspective, Strüwe’s Formen des Mikrokosmos is the model for the spectrum between ‘artistic’ and ‘scientific’ photography, which commenced in the 19th century wiht Henry Fox Talbot.
Strüwe’s life work opens up the fundamental questions of representation, of the visualisation of knowledge and of the relationship between documentation and abstraction, and these are still hot topics. The science model of peer review relies on dissemination and imaging is so often the means that it uses most effectively. Picture making may be a creative activity, but it invariably draws on the full spectrum of reality its inspiration.
It is representation, the stuff of art, that broaches the comprehension of concepts at the very threshold of human understanding. Morbis Artis: Diseases of the Arts currently on show at RMIT Gallery until 18 Feb 2017 in Melbourne, Australia contains many examples from artists and scientists Alison Bennett, Drew Berry, Cameron Bishop, Chris Henschke, Harry Nankin, Andrea Rassell, Sean Redmond, Joshua Redmond, Simon Reis, Jodi Sita, Lienors Torre and Anne Wilson. Some are beyond the photographic, and yet all are indebted to the heritage of Fox Talbot and Carl Strüwe, such as the animations of Drew Berry, a biomedical animator who makes visualisations of the molecular world inside our bodies which because they occupy space below the wavelength of light, defy visual microscopy. The capacity of his animations to reach a wide range of audiences is what will ensure the viability of science in our ‘post-truth’ world.
In our joint paper Russell Tytler and I argue that the core of the creative process in both art and science is the construction and refinement of representations which solve a problem. Coordination of the visual representation within explanatory narratives allow logical processes to be engaged with through argumentation; the burden of the scientific analysis thus rests on forms of evidence that test and affirm visual innovation. In science different representations focus attention on key features of phenomena, to build conceptual insight. In art the ultimate purpose of the analysis is to explore and refine the possibilities of the medium. While these may be employed for scientific ends, as Strüwe’s work may be, ultimately for the artist the creation of affordances, means of seeing and representing, is the core purpose.