Brain Pickings

Gorgeous Vintage Japanese Illustrations of Animals and Scientific Phenomena

A vibrant minimalist celebration of nature, from the scale of cells and atoms to the scale of elephants and the Moon.

Gorgeous Vintage Japanese Illustrations of Animals and Scientific Phenomena

Around the time the mid-century French artist and natural history curator Paul Sougy was creating his stunning scientific diagrams of the living world, a young man on the other side of this living world was just beginning to direct his attention and his own uncommon talent toward making visible and beautiful the mysterious processes and phenomena of nature.

The Japanese graphic designer, illustrator, and printmaker Kazumasa Nagai (b. April 20, 1929) began his career in abstraction — in masterpieces of graphic design exploring the discoveries and advances in physics and chemistry that scintillated — and sometimes terrified — the popular imagination in the 1960 and 1970s. Three of his works appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine’s Science Library series.

Then, after marine biologist and conservation pioneer Rachel Carson made ecology a household word and humanity began awakening to its delicate interbelonging with the rest of nature, Nagai moved from the abstractions of physics and chemistry to the concrete splendors of biology, rising as a visionary voice in the postwar era with his stunning conservation-minded illustrations of animals. Two centuries after the self-taught artist Sarah Stone created her trailblazing natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals, Nagai drew on his roots in abstraction to subtly portray various species as links in the ecological chain.

Over the course of three decades, designing for festivals and exhibitions, for travel advertising and popular science publications, he created nearly 250 visual celebrations of nature from the scale of cells and atoms to the scale of elephants and the Moon. Many were later collected by the Toyama Museum of Art and Design in the bilingual monograph Kazumasa Nagai: Poster Life (public library).

Couple with these psychedelic illustrations of scientific processes and phenomena from an 19th-century French physics textbook, then revisit pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott’s gorgeous black-and-white abstractions of how nature works.

Published December 12, 2019




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