Haeckel’s Tears

Phonotrope with gold wedding ring, snakes, hands and weeping eye.

After long last, I have finished the construction and assembly of my Haeckel’s Tears wedding cake phonotrope, complete with all its various paper layers. In the rough, off-the-cuff smartphone video posted above, I give the phonotrope a quick whirl on my turntable.

 The imagery on this phonotrope includes a twirling gold wedding ring, a hand holding this same ring, a snake that twists and turns into a variation on a figure-eight, and a weeping lover’s eye. Lover’s eye jewellery was popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when stylish aristocratic men and women often wore the miniature portraits depicting one eye (usually) of their spouse or lover. Typically painted on ivory, the tiny portraits were fashioned as brooches, rings, pendants, and lockets. I added this lover’s eye image to my current phonotrope as it purports to tell the story of the 19th-century marine biologist Ernst Haeckel and his young wife Anna, who died suddenly shortly after the couple were married.* The lover’s eye is surrounded by an ouroburos (a snake devouring its own tail, symbolic of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth), which ties back to the snake loop below (itself a looping infinity symbol) which appears on the first layer of this phonotrope.

I plan on building one more phonotrope, making the total number of phonotropes for my proposed Haeckel’s Tears installation three. I will video these again with decluttered backgrounds once I’ve completed all three. Have also decided to build a silhouette-style animation — telling the story of Ernst & Anna Haeckel — to fit around the videos of the phonotropes. Stay tuned.

Incidentally, below is a video of the first phonotrope in this series — this one prominently features the medusae jellyfish so beloved by Haeckel.

Phonotrope with medusae jellyfish, seahorses and waving seaweed.

*The German biologist Ernst Haeckel was fascinated by medusae, the umbrella-shaped animals commonly called jellyfish. For Haeckel, whose imagination was shaped in the Romantic era, medusae expressed the exuberant yet fragile beauty of Nature. And in their ethereal forms he glimpsed a reflection of his great love Anna Sethe, who died tragically at the age of twenty-nine.

Haeckel had been engaged to Anna for four years when, in 1862, he became associate professor of zoology at the University of Jena. The job gave the adoring pair the economic security they needed to finally marry. In the same year, Haeckel published a book on radiolaria (microscopic plankton) which he furnished with stunning illustrations. In Jena, the newlyweds lived together in bliss for eighteen months. Then, on the day he was supposed to celebrate his thirtieth birthday and receive an award for his radiolaria book, Anna died suddenly, probably of a burst appendix. Haeckel became mad with grief. A partial delirium kept him in bed for eight days. A month later he wrote to a friend, “I am dead on the inside already and dead for everything. Life, nature, science have no appeal for me. How slowly the hours pass.”

Haeckel travelled to the Mediterranean town of Nice to attempt a recovery from his suicidal malaise. One day he took a walk and saw a medusa in a rock pool: “I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals.” He made a sketch and named the species Mitrocoma Annae [Anna’s headband].

The grace and beauty of the medusa soothed Haeckel’s grief and contributed to what would be a lifelong fascination with medusae.

— source.

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