Early Life and Education
Walther Klemm (June 18, 1883 – August 11, 1957) was an accomplished German painter, printmaker, and illustrator best known for his monochromatic woodblock prints of animals. His outstanding work was characterized by a documentary style, often featuring subjects centrally within a small linear frame. Several of his prints today can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York collection. Klemm’s career spanned a wide variety of artistic techniques and themes, significantly impacting the art world, from the German Federation to the United States.
Born in Karlsbad, a town of the German Federation, Klemm received early encouragement in observing nature from his teacher’s father. This early influence was evident in his later work, which showed an acute and passionate observation of nature and animals. In 1901, Klemm graduated from high school and studied art history at the University of Vienna. Here, several eminent teachers such as Theodor Groll, Anton von Kenner, Felician von Myrbach, and Kolo Moser tutored him here.
Early Career and Artistic Development
Klemm developed his skills in woodcut under the guidance of Kuno Amiet and learned the techniques of Japanese colour woodcut from Emil Orlik. He made his first original colour woodcuts in 1903, and his talent was recognized as early as 1904 when he was successful at the Vienna Secession Exhibition. His work was acquired by the Vienna Court Library, the Munich Graphic Collection, and numerous private collectors, marking the start of a prosperous career.
In the same year, Klemm moved to Libotz, near Prague, where he established a studio with Carl Thiemann. From 1907 to 1913, he spent time in the Dachau artists’ colony near Munich, experimenting with drawing, painting, etching, and various woodcut methods.
Professorship at the University of Fine Arts, Weimar
In 1913, Klemm was appointed professor and head of the graphic department at the University of Fine Arts in Weimar. He found a circle of like-minded artists there, including Theodor Hagen, Fritz Mackensen, Ludwig von Hofmann, and Henry van de Velde.
The principles of Japanese art, particularly their simple composition and the detailed observation of nature, powerfully shaped Klemm’s early work and remained consistent in his art throughout his career. By 1909, Klemm had focused primarily on lithography and monochromatic woodcuts. His illustrations for Kipling’s Jungle Book in 1920 and Tierbuch (Bestiary) in 1929 helped him achieve international recognition.
Erotic Art and Recognition
In addition to his public body of work, Klemm also created a series of erotic woodblock prints depicting bestiality, indicating his keen interest in the sexual aspect of the world. His most well-known work in this series, Erbsünde (Original Sin) of 1919, subverted the Genesis creation story to highlight female desire.
Contributions and Honors
Klemm’s contributions extended beyond the realm of painting and printmaking. After the Second World War, he played an instrumental role in reconstructing the Weimar Art School. He was named an honorary Weimar School of Architecture and Civil and Structural Engineering senator in 1952, now part of the Bauhaus University, Weimar.
His talent was widely recognized during his lifetime. In 1928, Klemm won a bronze medal in the art competitions of the Olympic Games for his “Schlittschuhlaufen” (“Skating”). Later, in 1953, he received the Nordgau-Kulturpreis for visual art.
Walther Klemm passed away in Weimar, Germany, in 1957, leaving behind a unique and compelling body of work that continues to be celebrated in art. Despite never marrying or having children, Klemm’s influence lives on through his extraordinary artistic legacy.