At the British Museum

Alice Spawls

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.