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Art Review: Käthe Kollwitz

Shades of Loss:  Expressions of Grief in the Printmaking of Käthe Kollwitz

In 1938 at the age of 71, Käthe Kollwitz drew another one of the over one hundred self-portraits she would create in her lifetime.  Self-Portrait in Profile, Facing Right depicts an aged woman in a dark shawl with her hair tucked under a white, skull-fitting cap.  With the lid covering half her eye and her mouth turned down at the corner, she looks weary as she faces an uncertain future.

A resident of Berlin, by that time Kollwitz had witnessed the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist party (1933); and by 1938, the persecution of the Jews and others was a distressing reality.  That year, for two days in November all across Germany, Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues had been attacked, an episode that came to be known as Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass).  The march to yet another war was well underway.

Born in Königsberg, Germany on July 8, 1867, Kollwitz witnessed her one-year-old brother succumb to meningitis just as her mother, Katharina Schmidt, had seen her first-born do soon after birth; another son had also died before Kollwitz was born.

In a 1919 lightly-sketched lithograph, Killed in Action, a woman covers her face with her hands save for the mouth, which opens in a scream, while her three children look up at her, wide-eyed with fear at their mother’s grief;  two of them tug at her skirt, the other holds his hands up near his face.  The drawing, one among many dealing with the personal toll of war, followed five years after Kollwitz lost her younger son Peter at the beginning of World War I.

Killed in Action might also reflect Kollwitz’s childhood experience of her mother’s unexpressed grief.  Katharina, who stoically suppressed her tears, focused instead on the tasks of raising four children (of which Kollwitz was the third), remaining out of reach for Käthe who ached to comfort her.  Unable to soothe her mother’s pain, though exquisitely receptive to it, Käthe carried it, expressing it in hours-long crying jags, feeling it in recurring stomach aches, and replaying it in recurrent nightmares throughout her childhood.  The three children startled by their mother’s wail in the lithograph could be Käthe and her two older siblings.

One can see these prints at The Galerie St. Etienne [1] along with many others in Käthe Kollwitz:  A Portrait of the Artist [2], a loan exhibition celebrating both the 25th anniversary of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne and the 70th anniversary of the affiliation of Hildegard Bachert (director, author and expert on Kollwitz) with the gallery.

The show included not just self-portraits but also images depicting motherhood, loss and death.  The plight of workers and their struggle, another prominent theme especially in Kollwitz’s early work, was largely absent.  The prints and drawings selected lend credence to the observation that from very early on the artist struggled against a tide of grief relieved only by the birth of each of her two sons and the joy that tending infants gave her.

On the subject of motherhood, in the lithograph Mother, Pressing Infant to Her Face (First Version), Kollwitz accentuates the closeness of mother and child by juxtaposing their profiles so that the curve of one nose fits into the curve of the other, foreheads and lips press together, and the visible eye of each completes the whole in an eloquent representation of their symbiotic relationship.

Attachment portends loss through separation or death.  When war broke out in 1914, 18-year-old Peter enlisted, caught up in the patriotism that swept through Germany at the time.  Kollwitz, deeply troubled by his departure, ruminated about how mothers could so readily offer up their progeny.  In a diary entry dated August 27, 1914 (two months before Peter was killed), she wrote, “Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over the lives of their beloved ones get the heroism to send them to face the cannon?”

Her 1942 lithograph Seeds for Sowing Must Not be Ground admonishes all to refrain from sacrificing their children, the seeds for future harvests.  In a triangular composition, a mother shelters her three children within the tent of her body and enfolds them in her arms, attempting to shield them, and perhaps herself, against the inevitable time when they outgrow her ability to keep them safe.  In September 1942, Kollwitz lost her grandson Peter to yet another war.

Very early on, Kollwitz had acquired the terrible knowledge that parents sometimes outlive their children.  She had witnessed her mother lose a son and later had lost her own son and grandson in two world wars.  She represented in many works the agony a mother feels over the death of a child but perhaps in none so poignantly as in the 1903 etching and drypoint Woman with Dead Child.

One of many such images, this one captures best the desperate grief of a mother who sits cross legged and clutches her dead child, her nose pressed against his neck as his lifeless head hangs down beyond her arms, as if willing her spirit into him, to give of her life so he can live.

There are images, too, of grieving parents.  After losing Peter in 1914, Kollwitz devoted herself to creating a memorial that became two monumental sculptures finally erected in 1932 at the gates of a military cemetery in Belgium.  The 1921-22 woodcut The Parents, Third Version shows an early idea for a single monument with both parents on their knees, facing each other, forming a single, sculptural unit.  The father rests his arm on the mother’s bent back and covers his head with his hand.  The mother buries her head in the crook of the father’s arm.  Their faces are hidden.  Their grief is palpable.

As she aged, Kollwitz began to look toward death for relief from her suffering.  Around the time she turned 70, she produced the self-portrait Call of Death.  In this 1937 lithograph, the artist looks at a skeletal hand that enters the picture from the right and touches her shoulder.  The orbits of her eyes are in deep shadow and she looks very tired.

Käthe Kollwitz lived another ten years, outliving her husband by five and dying several weeks before the armistice ended World War II.  Her work remains a testament to the power of art to triumph over even the most profound despair for surely it was Kollwitz’s passion for art that kept her productive for so many years.

Käthe Kollwitz:  A Portrait of the Artist [2]
Galerie St. Etienne [1]
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

No catalog.  Other books available include:
Kearns, Martha.  Käthe Kollwitz:  Woman and Artist
Kollwitz, Hans, editor.  The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz
Prelinger, Elizabeth.  Käthe Kollwitz

Upcoming anniversary exhibition in Cologne will have a catalog.
Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln [3]
www.kollwitz.de [3]
October 29, 2010-January 16, 2011