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Käthe Kollwitz

KATHE KOLLWITZ:

Master Printmaker

The present exhibition, which coincides with the publication of Alexandra von dem Knesebeck’s newly revised catalogue raisonné of the prints of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), is the Galerie St. Etienne’s 24th show of the artist’s work. Although previous St. Etienne shows have focused on Kollwitz’s creative process, von dem Knesebeck’s research provides an unprecedented view of the artist’s engagement with the techniques of etching, woodcut and lithography. Rare working proofs borrowed from the Kollwitz museums in Berlin and Cologne and from the most significant private Kollwitz collection in America, plus two original etching plates from the Berlin Academy of Arts, vividly illustrate the insights contained in the new catalogue raisonné. The story told in this book and in our exhibition is multi-faceted. As a printmaker with a social agenda, Kollwitz struggled not just with the technical requirements of her chosen medium, but also with the inner content of her work, its impact on the public, and with her own slightly ambivalent relationship to the art market.

 

A catalogue raisonné—the comprehensive documentation of an artist’s oeuvre in a specific medium—is the cornerstone of art-historical scholarship. To date, five such catalogues of Kollwitz’s prints have been published. Max Lehrs, Director of the Dresden Print Cabinet, was the author of the first: a 1903 article in the magazine Die graphischen Künste. Kollwitz had come to the public’s attention only a few years before, in 1898, when her first print cycle, Revolt of the Weavers (checklist nos. 4 and 6), was nominated for the small gold medal at the “Greater Berlin Art Exhibition” (an honor ultimately vetoed by the Kaiser on account of the works’ subversive political content). The fact that a print catalogue was deemed necessary this early in the artist’s career is indicative of the following her work had already won among museum professionals, artists and the population at large. The second Kollwitz catalogue raisonné, published in 1913, involved a collaboration between Johannes Sievers, a young art historian at the Berlin Print Cabinet, and the dealer Emil Richter, who was the exclusive publisher of Kollwitz’s prints. A supplement, compiled by A. Wagner, was published by Richter in 1927 on the occasion of the artist’s 60th birthday. The fourth Kollwitz catalogue raisonné, which has for the past 47 years served as the “bible” for Kollwitz scholars, dealers and collectors, was written by the dealer August Klipstein in close collaboration with Alexander von der Becke, who replaced Richter as Kollwitz’s publisher in 1931. This book was published by Klipstein’s partner and successor, E.W. Kornfeld, in 1955. Kornfeld is also the publisher of Alexandra von dem Knesebeck’s 2002 Kollwitz catalogue raisonné.

 

Käthe Kollwitz was an extraordinarily skilled printmaker, despite––or perhaps because of––the fact that she never quite believed her work was good enough. The decision to give up painting (which, like most aspiring artists, Kollwitz had initially studied) in favor of etching stemmed both from her greater aptitude for drawing and from practical considerations. Shortly before moving to Berlin in 1891 with her new husband, the physician Karl Kollwitz, the artist asked the engraver Rudolf Maurer to show her the rudiments of the intaglio method, which she thought could be managed in a small apartment more easily than painting. Thus began a protracted and frequently frustrating process of self-education. Intaglio printing entails incising lines into a metal plate, either with acid (etching) or by hand (engraving and drypoint). After inking, the smooth surface of the plate is wiped clean, leaving pigment in the incised areas. When this plate is covered with a slightly dampened piece of paper and run through an etching press, the combined pressure of the press and the capillary action of the paper draw the ink out of the crevices and onto the sheet. An intaglio printmaker essentially has only two colors to work with: the white of the paper and the (usually) black ink. Intaglio technique revolves around devising various means to achieve the illusion of gray by artfully interspersing black and white. The most basic method (and a mainstay of engraving) is cross-hatching: closely incised lines read as dark gray, while a lighter gray is created if the lines are further apart. Etching, however, permits a greater variety of techniques that produce a far subtler range of grays. Etching is done by covering the plate with an acidresistant substance and then selectively removing this “ground” in those areas that the artist wishes to print. When the plate is immersed in acid, only the exposed areas are “bitten,” while the protected portions of the plate remain blank. When Kollwitz began etching, she used what is known as hard ground: an application of shellac that, as the name implies, becomes hard once dry. Lines can readily be scratched into this ground with a stylus, and textures can be achieved by placing a sheet of sandpaper on top of the shellacked plate and running it through a press. As the paper is lifted off, bits of the hard ground come with it, exposing a speckled pattern that, when etched and printed, will appear gray. Another means of achieving the illusion of gray, aquatint, involves sprinkling the plate with rosin. The plate is then heated, causing the acid-resistant grains of rosin to melt and adhere to the metal. The acid eats away the metal around these grains, creating a mesh-like network of crevices that yields particularly refined gray tones.

 

Kollwitz’s genius as an etcher lay in the manner whereby she combined multiple techniques to build up extremely intricate layers of texture, tone and line. Plates were often bitten repeatedly—some going through as many as fifteen states before the artist was satisfied. Working proofs—generally pulled after each immersion in the acid bath—vividly demonstrate Kollwitz’s painstaking commitment to the onerous demands of the etching process. In 1901, she added a new technique, soft ground, to her repertoire. First used by Kollwitz in Hamburg Tavern (checklist nos. 9 and 10), soft ground had been introduced to Germany by such artists as Max Liebermann, whom she came to know through her membership in the Berlin Secession. Unlike hard ground, soft ground is a waxy substance that remains pliable after application, allowing the artist to embed more varied and delicate materials, like fabric and paper. While it is possible, as with hard ground, to run these materials through a press to produce an over-all pattern, the pressure of the artist’s hand is sufficient to impress a texture into soft ground. Kollwitz often drew on paper or fabric laid over this type of ground. During the first decade of the twentieth century, she achieved such awesome expertise in manipulating a broad array of intaglio methods that scholars today still argue over her means and materials.

 

Kollwitz exhausted her interest in overly complex technique with the completion of her second print cycle, the Peasants’ War (checklist nos. 13, 14, 21, 22, 26 and 27). The artist’s collaboration with Sievers on the 1913 catalogue raisonné caused her to see her prior etchings as a closed creative chapter. Between 1912 and 1918, she turned her primary attention to sculpture and did few prints. The need to confront the anguish of World War I—which had claimed her son Peter—prompted a return to printmaking. Preliminary proofs for Kollwitz’s next cycle, War (checklist nos. 35, 40-42, 47-49 and 51- 54), as well as for her memorial to the slain Communist leader Karl Liebknecht (checklist nos. 38, 39, 43 and 44), show her grappling for a new, more elemental formal vocabulary to express her emotional and intellectual responses to the turbulent post-war political climate.

 

After a few experiments with etching and lithography, Kollwitz turned to woodcut, which remained her preferred medium until 1925. She was drawn to this technique because it appears very direct and straightforward. The artist cuts away those portions of the image that are to remain white, and the ink sits on the unscathed flat surface of the block. However, the bold simplicity of a finished woodcut is deceiving; the process itself can be extremely demanding. Kollwitz complained that soft woods, while easy to cut, encouraged sloppiness and errors. On the other hand, she feared that her handling of hard pear wood—which she used for the War cycle—was stiff and academic. Some of the artist’s woodcuts went through as many preliminary states as her etchings.

 

Finally, Kollwitz decided that lithography—which she had first encountered in 1896—was “the only possible technique” for her. “A technique,” she noted in her diary, “so simple it is practically no technique at all. It gets right to the essentials.” Unlike etching and woodcut, which require the physical cutting of the plate or block, lithography is a purely chemical process. The artist draws with waxy ink or crayon on a plate or stone, which is then washed with a chemical solution that “fixes” the drawing in place. So long as the stone or plate is kept damp, ink will adhere only to the fixed areas. The artist can paint or draw on the stone as if it were a piece of paper, and the finished lithograph will look more or less exactly like the drawing. In her earliest lithographs, Kollwitz used a combination of brush and crayon to craft relatively elaborate images that employed a roster of conventional academic techniques.

 

Kollwitz in fact found it much easier to create the sort of detailed compositions required for a narrative cycle like Revolt of the Weavers with lithography than with etching. Her main problem with lithography was the stones, which were just too heavy and large to transport readily to her studio. For this reason, she at one stage experimented (apparently not to her satisfaction) with aluminum plates. The transportation problems had not improved when, in the mid 1920s, Kollwitz committed herself full-force to lithography. On the contrary: postwar conditions only made it harder to have stones delivered. What had changed was the artist’s approach. She no longer needed or wanted the direct tactile engagement with the medium that had been so central to her etching experiments. In fact, often she was perfectly satisfied with transfer lithography, creating drawings on paper in her studio that were then transferred to the stone by her printer (checklist nos. 39, 45, 46, 57, 58 and 65-67). In keeping with her desire for simple, elemental images, she now used crayon almost exclusively for her lithographs. Gone were the complex narratives of yore. In Kollwitz’s late lithographs, an iconic figure or two usually suffice to convey the artist’s message. Though these works are less ideologically charged than her early etchings, their universal humanitarian themes are, if anything, even more widely accessible.

 

Printmaking had always appealed to Kollwitz as a means of communicating with a broad public, yet these egalitarian impulses occasionally clashed with the requirements of the art market, which seeks to cultivate exclusivity. Many of the artist’s prints were issued in unnumbered editions whose size was limited only by demand and the capacity of the plate, block or stone. However, after Emil Richter began publishing her work (and presumably at his suggestion), an effort was made to establish distinct quality and price levels among the prints. Starting around 1910, impressions “before steel facing” (an electroplating process that prolongs the life of the plate but slightly coarsens the image) were pointedly marketed as such. Not only did Richter publish a series of numbered editions in 1918, he also issued special “pre-edition” prints on more costly papers like Japan and Bütten. For the less affluent collector, there were inexpensive unsigned impressions. Kollwitz, to the dealer’s dismay, often agreed upon request to add a “courtesy signature” to these prints.

 

Kollwitz considered the art business “tiresome” and did not enjoy her periodic negotiations with Richter. And though she consented, at his instigation, to collaborate on the 1913 catalogue raisonné, she could not altogether fathom the purpose of such a documentation. “I attach more importance to being represented among the master printmakers than to having a catalogue of my works published,” she said. However, as Richter well understood, the two enterprises were intimately connected. Just as Kollwitz had to accommodate the demands of the art market if she wished to properly reach the public, a thorough understanding of her working process was necessary if her artistic achievement was to receive the recognition it deserved. Through Alexandra von dem Knesebeck’s catalogue raisonné and its long line of predecessors, the artist’s goal has today been realized. Käthe Kollwitz ranks with such artists as Rembrandt among the greatest practitioners of her craft; she is, without a doubt, a “master printmaker.”

 

We would like to convey our deepest thanks to the lenders who have gone out of their ways to make this exhibition possible, including Gudrun Schmidt at the Berlin Academy of Arts, Gudrun and Martin Fritsch of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin, Hannelore Fischer of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne and several anonymous collectors. Richard Simms, as always, was exceptionally generous. We would also like to express our heartfelt gratitude to James Hofmaier, the translator of the Knesebeck catalogue raisonné, and to Christine Stauffer of the Galerie Kornfeld, Berne. Last but not least, we are indebted to the Honorable Bernhard von der Planitz, Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Ute Minke-Koenig of the German Consulate, for their help in sponsoring this exhibition. Copies of Alexandra von dem Knesebeck’s two-volume book Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik (in German; 401 pages; 402 illustrations) may be purchased from the Galerie St. Etienne for $425.00. An English translation is available on CD-ROM for an additional $75.00. The CD-ROM is not sold separately. Postage and handling charges are $25.00; New York residents please add sales tax.

 

Checklist entries for the prints include both the Klipstein and von dem Knesebeck catalogue raisonné numbers. Those for the drawings include references to the pertinent catalogue by Otto Nagel and Werner Timm. Full sheet sizes are given for the drawings, image sizes for the prints.