Plant Talk

Cosmic Views of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt

Posted in Inside our Collections , Plant Science on June 2, 2021, by Stephen Sinon

Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives, in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of the cover of Humboldt's "Cosmos"

World clock image from Atlas zu Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos (Stuttgart, 1851)

Contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work contemplates the interconnectedness of all living things on Earth—and in the universe beyond. These ideas have inspired artists, spiritual thinkers, and scientists throughout history. From 1799 to 1804, while exploring the vast expanses of the South American wilderness, Prussian-born scientist, explorer, and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) pondered the universe as a “harmoniously ordered whole” while gazing up at the stars so vividly arrayed in the Andes sky. 

Humboldt’s ideas were based on the view of the harmonic order of the Universe, a concept called cosmos, borrowed from ancient Greek philosophy, by which the laws of the Universe can be applied to the apparent chaos of life on Earth. He wrote in his seminal work five-volume opus Cosmos: a sketch of a physical description of the universe, published between 1845 and 1862 that the general harmony of the cosmos offers to the person who contemplates it personal inspiration and a beneficial awareness about life.

He discusses the interconnectivity of living organisms forming a larger whole that is in turn part of something even larger and more infinite. In current scientific terms, this vastness is expressed as biodiversity. Wherever Humboldt went, he examined and measured everything he could. He saw patterns of distribution and change pointing back in an unbroken continuum through human history indicated by geological stratification and astrological observation that allowed humans to contemplate the infinite. 

Portrait of Humboldt

Portrait sketch of Humboldt (Berlin, 1807)

Humboldt wrote that there are two aspects of the Cosmos, “order” and “ornament.” The former refers to the observations that the physical universe exhibits rhythms and patterns that we can call laws. Kusama’s work attests to these patterns and their repetition. The latter, “ornament,” or beauty, like Kusama’s artwork, is perceptually and literally in the mind of the beholder. 

Humboldt found the world to be both ordered and beautiful. He believed that nature is experienced individually and that poetry, art, and emotion were our vehicles of sharing and describing our feelings about nature. He encouraged people to experience nature for themselves by taking walks outdoors to enjoy its soothing and calming effects.

Humboldt saw artists as both scientists and poets capable of observing and distilling the essence of nature and presenting it truthfully to viewers. Humboldt’s prose conjures up in our own minds his ideas of cosmic nature in a way that is strikingly similar to the concepts that Kusama explores. Her repetition of polka-dotted patterns is very much reminiscent of the cell structure of the human body and indeed all cellular life. Her Infinity Mirrored Rooms invite us to contemplate the vastness of the universe, and our small role in the much larger networks of life that are all around us.

For Kusama, nature is in constant flux and its patterns reflect the micro and macro workings of a larger cosmos. Humboldt’s cosmos too is fundamentally developmental and dynamic. It changes and grows as human conceptions of nature and the depth of human feeling for the natural world evolve and expand. He was very much concerned with imbalances in the natural world brought about by human intervention. 

While Kusama’s artwork expresses her ideas about cosmic nature for viewers to enjoy and contemplate today, one can only wonder what Humboldt would have created to express his own ideas had he too been an artist.

Timelapse photo of the starry night sky

Time lapse of stars in night sky

For more about Humboldt’s groundbreaking expeditions, theories, and writings, explore A well-attended symposium on Humboldt was also presented in 2016 by the Mertz Library’s Humanities Institute.

Visitors to KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature (now through October 31, 2021) will learn more about Kusama’s thoughts about the natural world. The exhibition catalogue, KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature, will be available at NYBG Shop beginning June 15. It brings together essays by art historians, curators, and a scientist, who each present unique interpretations of Kusama’s engagement with the natural world.

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