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ESSAYS

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

BECOMING KATHE KOLLWITZ

An Artist and Her Influences

Artistic development seldom proceeds in a vacuum, but modernist mythmakers have tended to stress iconoclastic individualism over shared influences. The great (and largely male) modernists, we are told, broke decisively with the past, dispensing in the process with a vast, stale tradition of literary-historical painting and the musty academic methods that went along with it. Amidst this tremendous stampede of iconoclasts, it is ironically Käthe Kollwitz (1867--1945) who emerges as the nonconformist, for unlike many of her male colleagues, she devoted her life to exploring a broad array of long-established visual motifs. In so doing, however, Kollwitz did not merely recapitulate the past, but used it to forge an idiom that was distinctly her own and of her time; that was, in other words, both original and modern.

 

The story of how the young Käthe Schmidt--plagued by gnawing self-doubt but blessed with an exceptionally supportive father and later an equally sympathetic husband--became the great artist Käthe Kollwitz is the focus of the present exhibition. Like all women of her generation, Käthe Schmidt was forbidden entrance to the German academies, and instead she attended the School for Women Artists in Berlin--an acceptable but distinctly inferior substitute. Her desire to master classical iconography, complex pictorial narratives and realistic rendering techniques may in part be attributed to a desire to make good the lapses in her education: It was, as a rule, difficult for female artists at the turn of the century to reject an academic system they had never been privileged to experience. However, as Kollwitz gradually developed her own artistic voice, it became evident that many aspects of the classical tradition were uniquely suited to her purposes. From these sources, as well as from more contemporary influences, she developed a repertoire of forms and themes that not only perfectly expressed her socially-oriented messages, but could be readily understood by her public.

 

Although Kollwitz did not consider herself to be particularly religious, both her father and her maternal grandfather had been leaders of a liberal Protestant sect, and the artist was thus well acquainted with the liturgy. Much of her work is informed by Christian iconography, especially by such subjects as the Madonna and the Pietà. It is not surprising that Kollwitz chose images which encapsulate in sacred terms the universal human experiences of birth and death to deal with those same themes from a secular perspective. Of these Christian subjects, it is the Pietà and the closely related Lamentation of Christ which are most deeply ingrained in Kollwitz's early work, and through which one can therefore best study the evolution of her approach.

 

Much has been written about the iconography of the 1896 etching You Bleed from Many Wounds, Oh People! (checklist no. 22) and its slightly later incarnation in The Downtrodden (checklist no. 29). The figure of the slain male in these works has a venerable history dating back to Hans Holbein's 1522 painting of the prone Christ, but including as well more recent reworkings by such artists as Max Klinger, Franz von Stuck and Constantin-Emile Meunier. The relative secularization of Christ's death by the latter group of nineteenth-century artists served both to give the subject a vital contemporary context and to give contemporary loss a sacred spiritual grounding. In Kollwitz's two etchings, however, the corpse has become a symbolic body of the "people," whose struggle for justice is likened by association to the sufferings of Christ. Most curious is the transformation of the mourning figure characteristic of a traditional Lamentation or Pietà into a kind of avenging angel, who bends over the body with sword in hand. In the evolution of this avenger from a symbolic figure to a specific one over the course of the next years, one can trace not only Kollwitz's developing artistic methodology, but her changing attitude toward revolution.

 

As indicated by You Bleed from Many Wounds and The Downtrodden, and by the desultory endings of her first two narrative print cycles, the Revolt of the Weavers (1893-98; see checklist nos. 23-26) and the Peasants' War (1902-08; see checklist nos. 32, 37, 39, 40), Kollwitz was always aware that the fight for justice entailed suffering, yet she did not in these early works question the necessity of the fight. Her revolutionary fervor came to be embodied by the "avenging angel," who during this period assumes a more distinctive personality and a more active role in the artist's work. In her 1899 etching Revolt (a bridge between the Weavers and the Peasants' War; checklist no. 27), the avenger has been transformed into the allegorical spirit of rebellion (recalling Delacroix's renowned painting of Liberty Leading the People in the French Revolution). But in the Peasants' War cycle, she is a real woman, or more accurately, several women, who appear first as leaders and finally as a survivor.

 

As Kollwitz's avenger acquires greater realism in the Peasants' War etchings, however, the reality of loss also becomes more palpable, offsetting the brave gestures of the cycle's early scenes. Setting up the plot of her narrative, Kollwitz was initially interested in capturing the pivotal moment when oppression finally provokes action, and she looked to classical depictions of divine intervention when crafting her 1905 etching Inspiration (checklist no. 38). However, she dispensed with the deus ex machina in the final version of this subject, Sharpening the Scythe (checklist no. 37), choosing instead to personify her theme in the face of a brooding woman, who clutches a symbolic scythe: the tool about to turn weapon. The central character and true-to-life heroine of the Peasants' War is "Black Anna," whose incarnation in the etching Uprising (checklist no. 32) was loosely drawn from a history-book illustration. In the penultimate plate of the cycle, Battlefield (checklist no. 40), Kollwitz returned to the theme of the Lamentation, this time presented in a far more realistic context than in You Bleed from Many Wounds. Now the mourner, viewed frontally, is a mother searching for (and finding) her dead son. Only the glow which distinguishes these figures from among the many other victims of the slaughter alludes to any sort of divine oversight; otherwise, the prospects for revolutionary justice seem bleak.

 

Kollwitz's use of symbolism had lightened considerably between the time of You Bleed from Many Wounds and the execution of Sharpening the Scythe, and the practice would gradually disappear almost entirely from her work. However, subtle allusions to classical and especially religious prototypes continued to endow even the quite straightforward, realistic images of her later years with profound undercurrents of meaning. As Kollwitz grew older, she abandoned the sort of complex literary- and history-based scenarios essayed in the Weavers and Peasants' War in favor of simpler, more iconic compositions. This development, too, was indirectly a legacy of the Symbolist movement, which was less interested in formulating blunt allegorical equivalencies than in finding subtle visual correlatives for emotional states. Edvard Munch's anxious souls and the pondering figure made world-famous by Rodin's Thinker find echoes in the introspective, resigned and sometimes visibly suffering women who recur throughout Kollwitz's oeuvre (see checklist nos. 21, 36, 41, 47, 49). The combination of these emotionally-laden figures in groupings with Biblical or historical undertones generates a potent double impact.

 

Beyond its various aesthetic influences, the content of Kollwitz's work was decisively shaped by the artist's experiences of motherhood and by the death of her younger son Peter in the early months of World War I. It is telling that most of Kollwitz's Pietàs (several of which chillingly used Peter as a model) were done before the boy's death (see checklist nos. 33, 34). Conversely, the rare "happy Kollwitzes" that allude to traditional Madonna-with-child compositions are more common after World War I (see checklist nos. 43, 45, 57). In the earlier period, Kollwitz had not yet tasted the effects of real battle and was still inclined to idealize the sacrifice intrinsic to revolution. As her post-war work indicates, she subsequently came to believe more in the protective strength of the mother than in the sacrifice of the son. Revisiting the subject of the Lamentation in her 1919 woodcut memorial to the murdered Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht (checklist no. 46), Kollwitz chose to focus on the mourners. It easy to understand why the Communist Party denounced the woodcut for its inert portrayal of their now impotent leader.

 

By the 1920s, Kollwitz had achieved an apparently effortless (but in fact hard-earned) mastery of her mediums and sources. Current as well as historical events, personal experiences and Biblical prototypes all merged seamlessly in her prints to create a running commentary on the human condition. In part by studying the work of earlier masters, she had refined a vocabulary of basic expressive poses and gestures capable of conveying exceedingly complicated feelings. With the Liebknecht memorial and a number of subsequent woodcuts, she also made a belated foray into the realm of Expressionism. Inspired especially by Ernst Barlach, she hoped that the bold, block forms of woodcut would simultaneously simplify and strengthen her messages. Although Kollwitz created some quintessential anti-war imagery during this period, her overall attitude toward death became increasingly ambivalent as she aged. The hand of God which once incited revolution in Inspiration returns to summon the artist home in her 1934-35 lithograph Call of Death (checklist no. 58). A prominent leitmotif of her last print series, Death, is acceptance.

 

It was not death itself that Kollwitz identified as her enemy, but the injustice of life squandered and death prematurely meted out. Never an ideologue and no longer a youthful idealist, she had long ago abandoned faith in a radically transformative revolution. Redemption would come neither from God nor from human sacrifice, and violence could not be fought with violence. Kollwitz rather put her hope in innate human decency and the will to survive. In her final print, Grain for Sowing Must Not be Milled (checklist no. 59), a mother (modeled on the so-called Schutzmantel-Madonna or Virgin of Mercy) protectively shields her children from all forces that would rob them of their future. Delivered in the midst of the Holocaust, it is a call to all of us to follow our better nature.

 

Although the subject of the present exhibition is new to the United States, our research has been aided by a number of previous German studies. In particular, we would like to acknowledge our debt to the excellent exhibition, Schmerz und Schuld, mounted by Gudrun and Martin Fritch at the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin in 1995, as well as to the scholarship of Renate Hinz, Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, Harald Olbrich, Elizabeth Prelinger and Annette Seeler. We would also like to express our warmest thanks to Hannelore Fischer of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne and Andrew Robeson of the National Gallery in Washington for their advice and help in assembling some of the source material in our exhibition. Last but not least, we are extremely grateful to the collectors Ruth and Jacob Kainen, Dr. and Mrs. S. William Pelletier and Dr. Richard Simms, as well as to our colleagues C. G. Boerner/Artemis, Theodore Donson and Marvel Griepp, C. and J. Goodfriend, Paul McCarron, Galerie Pels-Leusden, Shepherd Gallery and David Tunick, whose generous assistance made this presentation possible. Checklist entries include references to the relevant catalogue raisonné numbers when applicable. Full sheet sizes are given for drawings, image sizes for prints.