Festooned: Martin Gerlach’s Decorative Groupings (1897)

A prolific engraver and photographer, Martin Gerlach (1846–1918) made his name by founding an eponymous publishing company in Berlin. After relocating to Vienna, he launched a series of children’s books, Jugendbücherei, which featured illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka, Gustav Klimt, Franz Wacik, and other artists, many in vogue or soon to be. Eventually starting the Polygraphic Art Institute with Ferdinand Shenk, Gerlach passed on his business and artistic legacy to his son, also named Martin Gerlach (1879–1944), who adopted a surrealist approach to photography.

Below you will find a set of images from one of the lesser-known works by Gerlach (senior), Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Thieren (Festoons and Decorative Groups of Plants and Animals), originally published in 1893. It is a quintessential “book of examples”, a reference manual meant for inspiring artists and artisans designing plaster, textile, wallpaper, and wood, with an aesthetic adjacent to Art Nouveau. Similar to Karl Blossfeldt’s experiments with magnified photography, Gerlach’s collotype images arrange natural elements with such precision as to make them seem almost artificial. They anticipate, to an uncanny degree, the modernist boxes of Joseph Cornell, where paper cut-out parrots live in palimpsestuous ecosystems of color, pattern, and text. And yet, Gerlach’s festoons, swags, and friezes feel less like dioramas or mixed-media collages and more like fantastical worlds frozen in place.

Part of the brilliancy, here, comes from the use of borders and frames, which look like Instagram layouts circa 1895. Orchids almost writhe in front of a cornsilk-colored panel. Crayfish crisscross cattails, arranged in rings with the circumference of a serving platter. And a cockatoo gets spotlit in the negative, cocking its head over leaves of Monstera deliciosa. Each image is positively baroque, but never overwhelming. These still lives are exactly that: still lives — quiet scenes lifted from the decomposing stream of time. There’s a winking suggestion throughout that the flora and fauna might awake from their collotype fixity and bloom into full saturation once again.

You can browse our highlights from the third (and final) 1897 edition of Gerlach’s Festons und Decorative Gruppen, held by the Rijksmuseum, below. The 1893 edition can be viewed here.

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