Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kräuterblätter

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph last month, Andrew Graham-Dixon gave a four star review to the British Museum's Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic prints and drawings, an exhibition 'drawn entirely from the holdings of an extremely discerning English private collector, Charles Booth-Clibborn. On this showing, if his collection could be kept together and perhaps, one day, found a permanent home here, it would transform the representation of German art in Great Britain.'  A week later Richard Dormer left the exhibition 'fuming', disappointed not to find 'passion, excess, sweeping emotion' and regretting that the display left 'what must be enormous gaps': his review for The Telegraph gave it just two stars.  I found it fascinating, even though I only had a brief amount of time to look round, and like Andrew Graham-Dixon I was particularly intrigued by the work of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (1759-1835).

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Woodland pool with a man fishing and bystander, detail, 1793

Kolbe was born in Berlin (his father was a gold thread embroiderer) and pursued a career in philology alongside his artistic activities, composing a long book on the French and German languages.  It wasn't until 1789 that he decided to train in art at the Berlin Academy and had to put up with being 'a bearded man in his thirties among a flock of boys, ten to twelve years in age'.  He then obtained a post as court engraver in Dessau, publishing prints in Leipzig and Berlin and acquiring the nickname Eichenkolbe (Oak Kolbe) because he was so fond of depicting oak trees (he said 'trees have turned me into an artist').  The exhibition includes several examples of pastoral and woodland scenes with some impressive oak trees  My photograph above shows a detail from an early etching with some doodles in the margins (the face in profile is possibly a self-caricature).

I've always thought it would be fascinating to compile a dictionary of the many sub-genres of landscape art - sous-bois for example, the French term for woodland scenes of the kind shown above.  Such a book might include micro-genres particular to specific artists and one of the strangest of these would be Kolbe's Kräuterblätter (cabbage-sheets) - scenes featuring over-sized plant life, like his 1801 version of Et in Arcadia Ego.  As Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, these etchings 'plunge the eye into vertiginous screens of foliage, spectacularly sculptural blasted trees and writhing, threateningly enlarged clumps of wild vegetation.  It is hard to say if these are dreams of oneness with nature or fantasies of being consumed by it.'  Kolbe himself came to rather regret these later in life, admitting in his autobiography that he had invented these plants 'completely out of my head, and I acknowledge that I was wrong - very wrong - to do so.  Their perhaps not entirely unattractive forms may seduce the eye of the unlearned; the critical gaze of the naturalist cannot bear them.'

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