Käthe Kollwitz is an artist we should know and celebrate. Controversy is the least of the reasons why, although it’s something I appreciate.
By the mid-1950s, just 10 years after her death, her socially engaged art was no longer much valued in the art world. The American art theorist Lucy Lippard once explained this disappearance from the radar by referring to Kollwitz’s closeness to real life that was incompatible with the artist clichés of the Post-War period: Rather than presenting herself as a lofty genius or an outsider, she worked on themes such as poverty, hunger, motherhood, death, or bereavement.
In 1989 I spent a month in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR, or East Germany). The foreign contingent attached to FDJ student work brigades in Berlin actually was subjected to little in the way of overt political propaganda. However, we could see for ourselves those aspects of culture being approved and espoused by the government.
For whatever reason, two artists from many stood out for me: Werner Tübke, whose name slipped my mind for decades (stay tuned for more), and Käthe Kollwitz, who remained lodged in my cranium all this time.
I tend to dislike documentaries that “re-enact,” but the 1981 film embedded above is quite good. The words are Kollwitz’s, and location shooting in East Germany gives the footage an accurate postwar feel. For a more orderly career overview, go here: The Art Story: Käthe Kollwitz.
A while back I posted a link to an essay in which the author, an American living in Germany, related (among other things) her visit to an art exhibit in Cologne. The essay is worth considering in its entirety, quite apart from the artist.
A bank in a mall was a weird place to find the largest collection of prints by the German artist, socialist, and pacifist Käthe Kollwitz, since her work is famously concerned with the agonies and struggles of the working class. In the old boardroom of the bank, Kollwitz’s work hung, some of it so blazing with grief and feeling it was hard, actually, to take.
Here’s a lengthy excerpt from Art Story: Summary of Käthe Kollwitz.
Fiercely committed to portraying the plights of workers and peasants, Käthe Kollwitz rendered the grief and harrowing experiences of both historical and contemporary wars in the first decades of the 20th century. Bucking usual artistic trends, Kollwitz adopted printmaking as her primary medium, and drawing from her own socialist and anti-war sentiments, she harnessed the graphic and expressive powers of the medium to present to the public an unvarnished look at the root causes and long-lasting effects of war. While her interest in printmaking and sometimes her subject matter coincided with the Expressionist painters in Germany, she remained independent from them, charting her own path in the burgeoning world of modern art.
In following the example of Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War, Kollwitz’s depictions of rebellion, poverty, and loss refuse the melodrama of war and sacrifice and instead concentrate on specific personal experiences that can be understood by many. In addition to her powerful visual legacy that still reverberates among graphic protest artists, her role as a recognized, leading female artist of the time ensures her place in the annals of 20th-century modern art.
In closing, the cover photo is of Kollwitz’s The Grieving Parents, which she sculpted not only in memory of her son Peter, who was killed in the opening period of World War I, but for all the parents who lost children in the war. Originally the sculpture was installed at the Roggevelde cemetery. After World War II, scattered German cemetery sites in Belgium were consolidated, and The Grieving Parents was moved to the cemetery at Vladslo.
In 2002 I visited the German war cemetery at Langemark with one of my tour groups. In contrast with the sprawling, open layouts of the nearby Allied cemeteries (dare I use the word “triumphant”?), the atmosphere at Langemark was somber and melancholy. We all noticed it; not much grieving as clenching, or stewing. The world should have approached it Kollwitz’s way, but then again, if political elites paid attention to mourning mothers and fathers, wars might have ended long ago.