« | Home | »

At the British Museum

Tags:

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Kräuterblätter.

Born in 1759, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe worked as a teacher before the declining fortunes of his school prompted him to train as an artist. He went to the Berlin Academy of Art, a man in his thirties among boys of twelve. Even more unusually, Kolbe produced nothing but etchings, some of which are currently on display at the British Museum, along with other German Romantic prints and drawings from the collection of Charles Booth-Clibborn, the founder of the Paragon Press.

The turn of the 19th century was a fruitful time for German printmakers. London and Paris had dominated the market for years but the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars disrupted the flow of images eastward, and homegrown printmakers rushed to satisfy demand in the new industrial towns. In Scenes from Clerical Life, George Eliot ridiculed the ‘refined Anglican taste… indicated by a German print from Overbeck’. But unlike Johann Friedrich Overbeck and his fellow Nazarenes, who moved to Italy to live in a monastery, grow their hair like Raphael and paint religious scenes, Kolbe stayed in Dessau as the court engraver of Leopold III, and was more interested in vegetation than the holy family.

In Kolbe’s etchings, people and animals are always secondary to the plants, which are scaled out of all proportion and etched with obsessive attention. He said he liked it when ‘dulcet plants encircle me from all sides’ and ‘stretch out salaciously as if wanting to embrace me’; his Nude Woman doesn’t look so happy about it. Standing in a pool of water, seen from behind, she leans forward, arms folded protectively across her chest. All around, giant burdock, reeds, dandelions and foxgloves compete for space.

The two human figures in Woodland Pool with a Man Fishing are barely visible in the bottom left corner, lightly etched and lacking the definition that the heavily bitten lines of the etching plate give to the plants on the river bank and the shaded leaves of the oak trees. When Kolbe does try to give his people muscular definition, as in Nude Woman Wearing a Hat, they are as disproportioned as his plants – and far more ridiculous.

The finest and strangest things in the exhibition are the two examples of Kolbe’s Kräuterblätter (‘vegetable leaves’; blätter means sheets of paper as well as foliage). Detailed plant studies were not uncommon, but Kolbe’s Kräuterblätter are far more than that. From a distance they are dramatic and vital and more than a little monstrous. The massive leaves and grasses fill the confines of the print, sometimes spilling over into the margins. Standing close you can see the minute cross-hatching and careful depiction of patches of disease and decay, and the play of light and shade on the thousand tiny leaves under the giant burdock or rhubarb. Kolbe claimed to work from imagination but the detail suggests otherwise and Leopold’s uncultivated Englischer Garten would have provided plenty of material. Commercial innovations in printmaking had made it easy to reproduce smooth tonal areas and even lines, removing any trace of the human hand. But Kolbe disregarded them: in his etchings every painstaking gesture is visible.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement