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Käthe Kollwitz

KATHE KOLLWITZ

A Portrait of the Artist

Of all the artists exhibited at the Galerie St. Etienne over the course of its seventy-year history, Käthe Kollwitz has been most closely associated with the gallery's co-director, Hildegard Bachert. Simultaneously celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne and Hildegard Bachert's seventieth year at the Galerie St. Etienne, the present exhibition focuses on the autobiographical core of Kollwitz's achievement, as revealed in her self-portraits and related works. Although Kollwitz has long been revered as a champion of the oppressed, her commitment to social justice did not require an effacement of her personal identity. On the contrary, the artist's probing of the human condition began and ended with her own experiences.

 

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), who created over a hundred self-portraits in a career spanning six decades, ranks alongside Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Egon Schiele and Lovis Corinth as one of the most prolific exponents of the genre. In earlier times, portraits and self-portraits had been intended to affirm a person's position in the outer world, often depicting sitters with the tools of their trade or other indicators of social status. Following the roughly simultaneous advent of psychoanalysis and Expressionism at the turn of the twentieth century, however, artists became more interested in depicting the inner self. This new engagement with self inevitably engendered a need to distinguish transitory emotional states—so eloquently and dramatically captured in Schiele's self-portraits—from the deeper and ostensibly less changeable "real" self. Regardless of whether an artist believed in an immortal soul, the desire to create an image of the self that would survive its creator's demise was often tinged with intimations of mortality.

 

It is probably no coincidence that many modern self-portraits evoke explicit or implicit encounters with death. Corinth created his most moving self-portraits after a stroke in 1911 forced him to face his impending mortality. Schiele, whose mother suffered three still-births, whose eldest sister died when he was three and whose father died when he was fourteen, was literally haunted by death, which appears as a spooky Doppelgänger in some of his self-portraits. Kollwitz's mother lost two babies before the artist was born and a third when she was a young girl. This last death was especially traumatic for Käthe, because she felt it had been caused by her lack of Christian faith. Bearing her losses with characteristic stoicism, Kollwitz's mother remained emotionally remote. Käthe, too, internalized her grief, which emerged in incapacitating stomach aches, panic attacks and black moods that rendered her speechless for days on end. She was terrified that her mother would die, just as later she worried constantly that her own children, Peter and Hans, or her husband, Karl, would be taken from her prematurely. Confronting her fears, her self and death were intertwined necessities for Kollwitz.

 

The other cornerstone of Kollwitz's art--social consciousness--likewise dates to her childhood. Both her father, Karl Schmidt, and her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, were leaders of the Free Congregation, a sect that embraced the ideals of brotherhood and shared property characteristic of early Christian communities. Morally opposed to the authoritarian Prussian state, Schmidt was a member of the Social Democratic party, and socialistic beliefs permeated both his religious teachings and the family's domestic conversations. Käthe's husband, Karl Kollwitz, was also a socialist, but the artist made it clear that she chose to portray workers in her art primarily because she found them beautiful. From the time when, as a teenager, she and her younger sister Lise wandered the docks in Königsberg, Käthe came to appreciate the "grandness of manner" that made the proletariat far more interesting to her than the "pedantic" bourgeoisie. Later, she became intimately familiar with the socio-economic tragedies of proletarian life through her husband, a physician who ministered to the working poor in Berlin. Tormented by their problems, the artist found relief and fulfillment in depicting them; this was the only thing, she said, that "made life bearable."

 

Already as a girl, Käthe had shown a talent for drawing, and her father enthusiastically supported her artistic ambitions. He believed she would not, and should not marry, and was dismayed when, at the tender age of seventeen, she became engaged to Karl Kollwitz. It was, indeed, almost unheard of at the time for a woman to combine a career with marriage. Kollwitz attributed her perseverance to a single-minded focus on art and to a certain "tinge of masculinity" within herself. Traces of bisexuality notwithstanding, however, Kollwtiz's artistic mission was inextricably linked to her female identity. Motherhood was probably the most intense experience of her life, and she dreamed of that "sweet, lovely physical feeling" long after her two babies were grown. Nurturing the "seed" of life, and of art, were to her kindred duties. "As you, the children of my body, have been my tasks, so too are my other works," she told her older son Hans. Accordingly, Kollwitz empathized most strongly with other mothers. Their concerns fused with her own, and it has often been noted that the women depicted in her work resemble the artist. Rising above all these individual women was a universal archetype: "The woman watching who feels everything" and, in a manner analogous to Jesus, takes the sufferings of the world upon herself. Men, Kollwitz believed, might make "art for art's sake," but her work had to serve "purposes outside itself."

 

Of all the tragedies to which womankind is subject, the death of a child, Kollwitz knew, is the worst. As her two sons grappled with common childhood diseases, she could not easily overcome "the cold terror that grips one, when one feels, knows, that in the next minutes this young life may be cut off, and the child is gone." The artist's seven-year-old son Peter posed in her arms for the 1903 etching Mother with Dead Child, and Kollwitz again modeled for the 1910 etching Death, Woman and Child. Nevertheless, despite her fears and premonitions of death, her boys grew up healthy and strong. In 1910, when Hans was eighteen and Peter fourteen, the often melancholy artist had to admit that, "This period in my life has been very fine." But she added a note of foreboding, "Great piercing sorrows have not yet [italics added] struck me."

 

World War I broke out in August 1914. Initially, the Kollwitz family was caught up in the general patriotic fervor. Peter almost immediately volunteered, and though his parents had misgivings, they accepted the bitter necessity of sacrifice. "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?" Kollwitz wondered. The epitaph on the grave of her grandfather, Julius Rupp, provided one possible answer: "Man is not here to be happy, but to do his duty." However, when Peter fell on the Belgian Front in October 1914, the concepts of duty and sacrifice came to seem pointless.

 

Within weeks of Peter's death, Kollwitz vowed to create a memorial to him, which would serve as a monument to all the victims of World War I. Mourning Peter, grappling with the significance of his death and crafting the memorial helped define Kollwitz's mission in the ensuing years. Simultaneously goaded and crippled by sorrow, she sought to connect with Peter's spirit through her art, "as if I had to find him in the work." At the same time, she focused on the effects of war upon the living: the widow with desperate young children; the woman stoically awaiting news of a loved one; the bereft parents. As early as 1915, Kollwitz honed in on the latter subject in a drawing of a disconsolate father and mother flanking a ghostly Christmas tree. The couple appears again, without the tree, in a 1919 lithograph. Kollwitz’s goal was to express the "totality of grief" by refining and simplifying her forms and compositions. For Peter's memorial she chose the subject of the grieving parents, working through numerous variations before she was satisfied. In the final monument, which was installed at the military cemetery in Roggevelde, Belgium, in August 1932, the couple kneels, side-by-side at a slight distance from one another. The mother bears Kollwitz’s face.

 

Ever the granddaughter of Julius Rupp, Kollwitz still believed that the purpose of life is not to be found in personal happiness, but now she questioned the validity of an idealism that had led so many young men to their deaths. Unlike death due to illness, these deaths had been willed. The young had been exhorted to sacrifice themselves, for nothing. Peter, she recognized, had voluntarily given his life "out of love for an idea, for a commandment." Kollwitz would gladly have died in his or another loved-one’s place, but she no longer believed in such overarching, crushing causes. What then did she believe in? "Everyone who is vouchsafed life," Kollwitz wrote, "has the obligation of carrying out to the last item the plan laid down in him." For her, this meant being an artist. "I want to be free of everything that hinders my real self.... I want to develop myself, that is, to unfold, [to be] myself, Käthe Kollwitz."

 

Kollwitz, like her mother, was not emotionally demonstrative, and she seldom discussed personal matters. Yet she was deeply introspective, sorting through her daily activities, her feelings, her family’s moral legacy and the philosophies of favorite writers in a series of letters and diary entries that spanned almost her entire life. Underlying this was a search for spiritual truth, an attempt to reconcile inner and outer experiences, by an artist who once noted that she had "always worked with my blood." "All my work hides within it life itself," Kollwitz wrote, "and it is with life that I contend through my work." Kollwitz's numerous self-portraits, which complement her semi-autobiographical writings, are totally unpretentious and as transparent as possible. Even in youth, the artist looks serious, prematurely old. Thus her outward appearance does not change as much as one might expect in the self-portraits that follow her to the age of seventy-one. Kollwitz's self-portraits depict a constant, unwavering state of inquiry: a searching, rather than a finding; a questioning, not an answering.

 

Demoralized by recurrent bouts of depression, Kollwitz began to complain of feeling old and worn out when she was in her forties. Like many women, she was ambivalent about her children's transition to adulthood, and Peter's death vividly heightened her awareness of mortality. Her lifelong dialogue with death entered a new phase. "When death becomes visible behind everything, it disrupts the imaginative process," she observed. "The menace is more stimulating when you are not confronting it from close up." Kollwitz was growing less frightened of death, and therefore less respectful of it. The older she became, the more she began to see that death could, under certain circumstances, be a welcome release, a "friend." When she was fifty-six, the artist depicted herself huddled in Death's embrace, her facial expression a poignant mix of anxiety and acquiescence. In her last print cycle, Death (1934-35), she acknowledged her impending demise in the moving self-portrait Call of Death.

 

But Kollwitz would live another ten years. Forced by the Nazis to cease her outward artistic activities, she felt at once honored to be "among those who have been slapped down," and pained to be isolated from her public. "One is after all a leaf on the twig,” she wrote, “and the twig belongs to the whole tree." With her growing acceptance of death, however, she became resigned to the fact that her working life was reaching its natural end. "I am not altogether unhappy," she noted. "For there are moments on most days when I feel a deep and sincere gratitude." Though the early years of her marriage had sometimes been strained, Peter's death had drawn Käthe closer to Karl, and their bond deepened as they aged. Karl died in July 1940, and their grandson Peter (namesake of their beloved lost son) was killed in combat in September 1942. Käthe Kollwitz was more than ready to follow them to the grave on April 22, 1945: grateful for a long and fulfilling life; afraid perhaps of dying, but not of death itself.

 

In January 1942, some eight months before her grandson died, Kollwitz finished her penultimate lithograph, Seed for Sowing Must Not be Ground. The metaphor, taken from a poem by Goethe, had preoccupied her since the First World War. "I am the bearer and cultivator of a grain of seed corn," she said repeatedly, whereas children—hers and everyone else’s—were the seeds of the future and must therefore not be ground up by war. In the lithograph, a mother is hovering protectively over a group of eager boys, telling them (in Kollwitz's words), "You stay here. . . . But when you are grown, you must get ready for life, not for war again." Experience had led Kollwitz to abandon dogmatic idealism and place her final hopes in a lasting peace. Melding the personal with the universal, she wanted to be a "mediator between people and something they are not conscious of, something transcendent, primal." If she succeeded, her work would survive her death. "Then men will have been enriched by me," she wrote. "Then I shall have helped in the ascent of man." We have yet to achieve lasting peace, but Kollwitz’s message still rings clear and true.