Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz

British Museum: 12 Sep 2019 – 12 Jan 2020

It’s been a long while since I was moved to write about an exhibition but I was lucky enough to see the work of Käthe Kollwitz on my brief visit to London recently, one of the most powerful draftsman/woman that I have ever seen. It took a long time to go around the room as I wanted to stay and study every work and I came away with the desire to study her work and life even more. Here are some reflections on the exhibition & Kollwitz’ work.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945) was a German artist and print maker, recognised in her own time and ever since for the power and narrative ability of her work to convey human experience and to reflect the deepest and, often, darkest parts of humanity and society. She was the first woman to enter the Prussian Academy of Arts but forced to resign when her work was banned the Nazis (who at the same time utilised it for their own purposes) because of its’ power to bear witness to the times she lived in, the life she saw about her and the particular, yet universal, emotional experiences of being human with intense skill and un-blinkered sensitivity.

“Expression is all I want. I have never done any of my work cold. I have always worked with my blood, so to speak. All my work hides within it, life itself, and it is with life that I contend, through my work.”

~ Käthe Kollwitz ~

This small exhibition, spanning just one room, is tucked away in the top of the British Museum. Visiting on the day the museum opened after Christmas the queues of people were immense, however, when we found this room it was almost empty, overlooked. I suppose it is not the most obvious holiday viewing: Kollowitz’ themes are not soft ones and the window she opens onto life in Germany at the turn of the century is in many aspects unflinching, dark and brutal. However, the humanity, the tenderness and intensity of life expressed in the work is so vivid, so tangible and powerful, that I defy anyone to say that it is not beautiful.

Here are some of the works that moved me for their combination of narrative, masterly technique and humanity.

Unemployment, before late November 1909

The softness of these sleeping children is almost absolute, they nearly vanish into the folds of the duvet, so imperceptible are their edges that they merge with the fabric and with one another. Left on their own this could be an image of complete calmness and harmony. The arc of the mothers arm over the coverlet creates a smooth circle that joins with the body of the closest child, the other arm and the fall of the cloth create further arcs, encompassing the other child. All are encircled in a moment of apparent unconscious, carefree dreaming. But this soft domesticity is darkened by the gaunt and heavily shaded features of the mother and all is set in contrast to the solid, black mass of the father. His form is so heavy that it recalls Kollwitz’s earlier woodcuts where whole bodies descend into darkness as if, by their emotions they absorb the light rather than reflect it, as if they have a gravitational pull of blackness into which the viewer could also fall. He sits by the bed, head supported by his fist, a reaper, a mourner, a  hardened cliff face against the soft hills and valleys of the bedding and the children’s features. This contrast gives the delicately rendered scene behind him a sense of intense vulnerability, pulling out the narrative of the poverty, the depression of unemployment and the precarious and difficult lives facing this family and many other of the working class and poverty stricken families that Kollwitz was drawn to portray. A true narrative artist, Kollwitz uses every mark of her medium to tell the story.

This work was perhaps the most beautiful of all the ones I saw in the exhibition. Some artists use their skills to achieve a softened romance, some use bolder, expressive mark making and exaggerated forms that transmit a more primal and guttural experience of life, few artists can bring the two approaches together in such apparent harmony and with such purpose and effect.

Peasants War, 1902-08: Plate 1, The Tillers

Kollwitz understands anatomy to a degree of solid tactility: you can sense her sculptor’s training and, when looking at her figures, you know that you could wrap your hands around their limbs and feel the muscles move beneath your fingers. Yet she will bend the body for expression, she will subject the outer layers of a man or woman to the inner torsion of soul and experience. Something that is beautifully and painfully expressed in this plate and throughout this series of etchings, ‘Peasants War’ that depict the peasants revolt in southern Germany in 1525.

“Pacifism simply is not a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work.”
~ Käthe Kollwitz ~

Though drawn to portraying proletariat society initially for the beauty she found there, Kollwitz’s husband was a doctor to the poor and in her lifetime she witnessed World War I and almost all of World War II, dying just months before the war ended and loosing her son and grandson to the conflicts. She describes a deep humanitarian feeling and awareness of social injustice that grew throughout her lifetime and became ever more embedded in her work. Her artworks power, however, lies not in propaganda-style flattened characters of people, but in the deep humanism, the astute tenderness of her observation that gives each character individual life, and the sense of empathy that this invokes. I feel that each and every work was done with some kind of love.

“I have received a commission to make a poster against war. That is a task that makes me happy. Some may say a thousand times that this is not pure art…. but as long as I can work, I want to be effective with my art.”

~ Käthe Kollwitz ~

Inspiration, 1904 – 05

There is much I could have written about this work, showing the inspiration of Black Anna, a powerful female leader of the peasants revolt, but I didn’t have time to do so in the exhibition and I would rather write standing in front of an artwork than from memory or a screen reproduction. So, instead, I only inscribe here the list of techniques used to create this work because it shows not only what an incredible artist but what a consummate craftsman Kollwitz was, pushing her medium to its very edges to achieve her vision and yet working in such a way that the work doesn’t call attention to this complexity, rather it feels like a unified vision, stripped to a core of apparent simplicity that hits you right below the ribs. 

Etching, dry point, lift ground, sandpaper, soft ground with the imprint of laid paper overworked with brown wash, graphite & white crayon. Fourth state.

“I do not want to die… until I have faithfully made the most of my talent and cultivated the seed that was placed in me, until the last small twig has grown.”
~ Kathe Kollwitz

Woman With Dead Child, 1903

One of Kollwitz’s most famous works, I had seen this reproduced many times, always on screens, always on that minimal scale and flattened space. Even in the digital sphere this work always impressed me but as I so often find, the work itself, the physical thing, is a different experience. There is more written into that thick, ink-laden paper than a screen can reproduce. There were also several versions of this print, which is wonderful to see. Printmaking is an art that naturally creates reproductions, many versions and trials along the way which, unlike painting, don’t get covered over but remain, independent voices the choir of that artwork. Each can be worked in a new direction, pulling out a different thread of that same idea, narrative or emotion. This version with the gold-leaf background I had not seen before.

The work is larger than I thought, about 50cm across. And, as always, scale makes a difference, it requires different movements of the makers’ body which, when you stand before it, you can feel reflected in your own. Kollwitz matches a determined and almost aggressive roughness of marks with traces that are as soft as a whisper. The dark lines shading from the upper arm to the elbow of the mother where she clasps her child are long and controlled but also fervent, thrown from the artists shoulder. There is an organic rhythm of fast work in the thick shadows that gradually shifts towards ever softer and subtler lines as the marks move into the light on the child’s face. Again this contrast of control, of tender and absolutely attentive and consummate technique against the emotive, primal mark making creates a piece in which the balance of light and dark, of wildness and tenderness tells this heartbreaking story of loss in a way that is physically felt and so utterly human.

Standing there, feeling the force of those limbs, I had to wonder if Kollwitz was drawing from her own body to study the mothers figure, sitting on the floor, facing a mirror, legs crossed, watching her own toes arch up over her knee, pushing to feel the tension in her body and to observe it at the same time. The perspective would allow it, and these figures feel close, they are not observed objectively, across a room but encompass all the given space, as if you, the viewer, are also seated on the floor, huddled towards the two entwined figures, pulled into the gravity of their experience, a personal and intimate moment and the universal force of emotions that draw a dreadful line between love and loss, but also from loss, back towards love.

“Without struggle, there is no life.”

~ Käthe Kollwitz ~

The exhibition is on at the British Museum, London, until January 12th 2020 and is free to enter, I strongly encourage you to do so.

If you would like to learn more about Kollwitz I recommend this page: Art Story, which gives in depth descriptions of her individual artworks and how they relate to her personal history and also this film: Portrait of the German artist of expressionism which tells Kollwitz’s life story, looking back in old age, in her own words as taken from diaries and letters.

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