Saturday, 27 November 2010

Walther Klemm: a book of birds

Anyone who has read a dozen or so posts on the blog will have realised I have a soft spot for central European printmakers working between about 1900 and 1930. This interest began quite casually with picking up prints in salerooms, junk shops or on the Portobello Road in London during the 1980s. Carl Thiemann, Helene Mass, Englebert Lap, Paul Leschhorn, the Frank brothers, Bresslern Roth - all of them were there. You might not have been able to read their signatures, but they were always stylish and sometimes dirt-cheap. And if you had to pay, they smacked of sophistication from beyond the river Rhine. As I said in the October post, a good Walther Klemm (1883 - 1957) was hard to find.

In 1912 he published his 'Vogelbuch' a portfolio of six colour woodcuts of European birds in an edition of only 40. He had already made a book of Prague street scenes but his bird prints owe far more to the example of the Japanese. Look at the work of his contemporary, Ohara Koson (1877 - 1945). Koson, only six years his senior, had generally stopped making woodcuts under that name in 1911. Many were of birds and were widely sold in Europe. The eagle (also picked up for next to nothing) isn't really typical but you see the form: concentration on a single image, a neutral background with few details, an unsentimental approach. This one would appeal more to the ornithologist than most. I don't think Klemm's would.
Klemm wasn't a naturalist. They are birds but he was also concerned with line, form and their relationship to space. The Japanese example that he had learned through Emil Orlik, suited him very well. If he knew Koson's work - and I would think that he did - it is even more interesting. For all that, these are European prints. Koson's line is much sharper than Klemm's. The rhythms and inwardness of Klemm - look at the way he describes the feel of the feathers and the atmosphere the birds live in - are really quite foreign to the Japanese artist. By comparison, Koson is almost shockingly objective.

Klemm uses the long Japanese image to suggest the kingfisher about to dive, the ducks doing so, but the sense of violent drama in Koson's eagle print in missing.

AW Seaby is also famous for his birds. But Seaby was a naturalist and his work still appeals to ornithologists. Ten years older than Koson, there is no sense of influence here. Klemm looks alot more Japanese. Seaby's work is a portrait of a bird in its environment. This is very British. He also avoids the neutrals of both Koson and Klemm. He talked about 'the tendency of our time to enjoy colour'. He also made this print in green and the blue strikes me pretty arbitrary. Klemm thought harder about what the Japanese were actually doing and was basically more abstract in the appproach he took to his work.

I wanted to include Klemm's complete set so people could see them all together. I think this ptarmigan is undergoing psychoanalysis. There is more of a sense of the instincts in Klemm than there is in Seaby.

The play of feathers in the game bird is beautifully Klemm, vivid and a bit bizarre. He likes the way wings stretch out for us to see. It's unexpected. I always think there is a bit more to Klemm than meets the eye. I don't think you would ever say that about Seaby.

I had to finish with the more usual kind of Koson. The frailty of the blossom and the crow's terrible beak and eye are masterly. His sense that something is about to happen, of vigour, and of the fleeting moment, is beyond most European artists. (I should also add that Joseph Fach in Frankfurt-am-Main currently have 'Vogelbuch' for sale. My thanks are due to them).


  1. That was a great find Charles, thank you for sharing it. Considering the price and only having seen the little owl somewhere, it must be a pretty rare booklet.

  2. I get the feeling good colour prints by Klemm are generally rare. But after buying this complete set, you will be €2,800 poorer.

    I'm glad you liked them. I was very pleased - and surprised - to turn the set up.

  3. Charles,

    what a brilliant set of prints, and how fascinating to see all six together! Let me confess that after school I wanted to become an ornithologist (I ended up as a teacher, though), so I am quite fond of birds (the animals, I mean) and bird prints until today. The kingfisher is superb, I didn't know this image. And I think this print, like the diving ducks (are they really ducks?), clearly proves that Klemm knew Koson's prints: the snow covered twig in front of the greyish background looks like a blueprint of some of Koson's works. But you're right: there is a deeper, hidden dimension to Klemm's birdies -“undergoing psychoanalysis“ really takes the biscuit!
    However, to be honest, I don't think you are fully doing justice to Koson's achievements in your post. True, I would not want neither of the prints that you picked as examples of his work to be hanging in my living room: the eagle is too melodramatic to my taste, and the raven is a brilliant design, but – as you point out – ruthless and inherently violent It would scare me and reminds me of some of Ted Hughes' bird poems („Thrushes“, for example).
    Having said that, I have a Koson in my living room: It shows three swallows, their black wings and white breasts sharply cut against a soft blue/white summer sky in the background, flying under some light green branches of a weeping willow tree. After nearly one hundred years, a light summer breeze still seems to emanate from the image. I don't think that Koson was primarily interested in giving us the exact image of the swallows (although he comes pretty close). I get the feeling he sees the birds as emblematic of the typical atmosphere of the season. They aren't just swallows, they are the epitome of summer. And Koson is brilliant in achieving this effect: there is a very acute sense of movement, line colour and space. Some of his prints are very elegant. So no wonder that Klemm obviously was impressed by what he saw when coming across Koson's woodcuts: the Japanese was a real genius!

    Again, this comment has turned out much longer than I had planned. But I find it thrilling to discuss these things with other enthusiasts. So, let me know what you think.

    All the best,


  4. Klemm was fortunate enough to learn woodcut from Emil Orlik who had first-hand knowledge of contemporary printmaking in Japan. It shows in some of his birds as early as about 1905 but this extraordinary set looks like a conscious effort to be thoroughly Japanese in the manner of Koson.

    As for poor Koson, you are right, he didn't get a very good showing. I think we used to take him for granted: 'Oh, look, it's Koson. It's only £10'. And you bought it. I think that attitude found it's way - quite wrongly - into the post. I really just wanted images to make a point, specially about the use of dark background. It was all about creating mood as you suggested when you described your swallow print. All of us bloggers try to cover too much and we depend on readers to point things out to us.

    As for the kingfisher, I'll be looking at someone later on in the week who I believe was also very taken with it, someone you wouldn't straightaway associate with Ohara Koson. But the British printmakers were nowhere near as innovative as the Germans and Austrians and they stole when it suited... but I'm giving things away.

    Needless to say, I'm pleased that you have enjoyed 'Vogelbuch', too. You can probably imagine my astonishment when I came across it.