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Käthe Kollwitz - Lea Grundig
Two German Women & The Art of Protest

March 25, 1997 to May 31, 1997

For some years, the Galerie St. Etienne has been engaged in a project which we hope will culminate in a book and a museum exhibition exploring the hitherto unacknowledged role played by women in the development of German Expressionism. The present show, based on a single chapter of this research, combines the work of one of Germany’s best known female artists, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), with one of the least known, Lea Grundig (1906-1977). Conventional art history posits Expressionism as a kind of Oedipal revolt of sons against fathers; a revolt which took aesthetic form in the first decade of the twentieth century and then assumed a more socio-political guise under the pressures of World War I and its aftermath in the unstable Weimar Republic. In this version of the story, the later heroes are artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, who risked persecution and prosecution to expose the corruption of Weimar society. However, the deeper and truer tradition of German artistic protest is that which was forged by Käthe Kollwitz at the turn of the century and which climaxed in the work of Lea Grundig, virtually the only artist who between 1933 and 1938 dared disseminate a substantial body of anti-Nazi art while still living in Hitler’s Germany.

Not only did a significant art of protest arise earlier among German women than it did among men, but its female proponents evidenced a more sustained engagement with the genre. The most impassioned phases in the oeuvres of Grosz and Dix were fading by the mid 1920s, whereas Kollwitz and Grundig maintained a lifelong dedication to socially committed subject matter. And while Kollwitz and Grundig may be the most salient examples of this phenomenon, there were numerous other women (such as Kollwitz’s pupil, the slightly younger Sella Hasse, or later on, Jeanne Mammen and Hannah Höch) who in disparate ways trod similar paths. Indeed, social protest was one of the few areas in which female artists chose to and were allowed to take the lead. The question that must now be asked is, why?

The most obvious answer to this question is that women were inclined to craft an art of protest because they were themselves an oppressed class. Though born into the bourgeoisie, Kollwitz (née Schmidt) and Grundig (née Langer) viewed the proletariat with a compassion that was for the most part alien to male artists of comparable social station. It is no coincidence that both women, once they had left the economic safety of their parental homes, began their careers by drawing empathic portraits of the working class. These portrayals violated significant taboos: when Kollwitz’s first print cycle, The Revolt of the Weavers (checklist nos. 6-10), was nominated for a gold medal at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II vetoed the award because he found the artist’s vision too gritty. Curiously, similar sentiments would be voiced over half a century later by the authorities in East Germany, who accused Grundig of catering to a decadent “cult of ugliness.” Neither Grundig, a dedicated communist, nor Kollwitz, who declined any party affiliation, would bend to the requirements of left-wing ideology. Their art rather reflected personal experience.

As a result of their sympathetic identification with the under-class, Kollwitz and Grundig produced work that differs significantly both from that of Weimar Germany’s radical men, who concentrated on attacking the ruling powers, and from the kitschy idealizations of the proletariat that typify socialist realism. In her second print cycle, The Peasants’ War (checklist nos. 13, 17, 18), Kollwitz continued to describe and to some extent advocate armed revolution. Men and women were depicted equally as victims of oppression and as participants in the revolt, though the starring roles were given to female characters. Yet in the penultimate panel of the series, Battlefield, Kollwitz acknowledged that it is invariably men who die in battle and women who mourn. This reality was brought home by the artist’s own travails as a mother and especially by the death of her son Peter in World War I. Hereafter an avowed pacifist, Kollwitz devoted the remainder of her oeuvre to promulgating a world in which the female principles of nurturance and life would triumph over the male principles of war and death. The very fact and essence of being a woman thereby became a protest against the system that men have established.

Kollwitz’s oeuvre is populated by a vast panoply of heroic women: the legendary “Black Anna,” who leads the peasants into battle; the mute widow whose open palms hang at her side in a gesture of stoic suffering (checklist no. 27); the anguished mothers who thrust themselves between their children’s bodies and death (checklist nos. 19, 24, 35). Grundig’s work, created at a slightly different time and under different circumstances, tells a sadder, quieter story. Like Kollwitz, Grundig executed print cycles, though hers were usually loosely related meditations on a common theme, rather than narratives with a specific linked sequence. The three Grundig cycles that are of most immediate interest, Woman’s Life (checklist nos. 49, 53, 56, 58, 62, 68, 69, 74, 75), Under the Swastika (checklist nos. 51, 52, 57, 60, 61, 73, 76) and The Jew is to Blame (checklist nos. 66, 67), were created more or less simultaneously over a five year period following Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. There are no heroes in these works, unless one counts Grundig herself, who courted death to produce and distribute them. Pulling editions that never exceeded five impressions on her own etching press, Grundig eventually managed to circulate hundreds of drypoints broadcasting the truth about Nazi Germany. Those that survive are from a relatively small group that made it out to Switzerland or Denmark. Grundig, who was Jewish, managed to survive, after two arrests, by escaping to Palestine.

Grundig’s prints were for the most part attempts to bear witness, and while she was not above editorializing, she had no constructive solutions to propose. It was already an incendiary act to show that Nazi Germany was no paradise, but that its citizens wanted for adequate food and clothing (checklist no. 72). In contrast to Hitler’s icon of the happy Hausfrau, Grundig’s women were battered slaves to the domestic grind, so subordinate to this role that their presence need not even be mentioned in the titles The Kitchen and The Laundry Room. And though Grundig was devoted to her husband, the artist Hans Grundig, she depicted love as merely a momentary, fevered refuge from a living hell (checklist no. 59). For women less fortunate than she, suicide beckoned (checklist no. 70). Pregnancy was not a blessing, but a curse. The threat and then reality of Nazi persecution made it impossible for Grundig herself to consider motherhood, and perhaps in part for this reason, she (unlike Kollwitz) was not inclined to present children as the innocent seeds of a brighter future, but rather as the witless dupes of militaristic indoctrination (checklist nos. 63, 65, 71). Grundig concretely countered Nazi propaganda by recording realistic human scenes of Jewish life, and she detailed the effects of Hitler’s policies by documenting mass emigration (checklist no. 64), Gestapo raids and the step-by-step legalization of murder. As early as 1935, her work spoke of impending war.

It is clear that Grundig required great courage to pursue her chosen artistic course, and though Kollwitz, by then an elderly woman, allowed herself to be effectively silenced by Hitler, she had earlier demonstrated equivalent stamina and integrity of vision. Paradoxically, however, for all they risked in terms of content, neither Kollwitz nor Grundig was a stylistic revolutionary. In this, they represented the flip side of their male colleagues, who often stormed the bastions of academic aesthetic tradition, only to fall back on comparatively tame subject matter. One may surmise that it was difficult for German women to reject an academy from which they were officially excluded until 1919; how could they feel constricted by a tradition they had scarcely known? Beyond this, artists such as Kollwitz and Grundig may have sensed that aesthetic experimentation was in essence the prerogative of bourgeois male privilege. This fact, as it turned out, doomed much ostensibly revolutionary art of the early Weimar years: the male aesthetic was simply too rarefied to reach the masses.

In choosing to retain a relatively realistic manner of rendering, Kollwitz and Grundig adopted the style that could most effectively serve their political purposes, while (perhaps unconsciously) skirting issues of male competition that might otherwise have sabotaged their careers. This was, admittedly, a double-edged sword: for while realism allowed the women to prevail professionally, up to a point and within certain narrowly defined parameters, their achievements were consigned, in part owing to their own aesthetic choices, to secondary status. It is not just that male-oriented histories of modernism grant the highest accolades to the stylistic revolutionaries, while disdaining work that is “merely” political. A humanistic bent can easily be branded “feminine” in a pejorative sense: sentimental, domestic, minor. Furthermore, both Kollwitz and Grundig, in devoting themselves chiefly to printmaking, had intentionally elected a minor art form.

Kollwitz and Grundig decided to become printmakers both because printmaking suited their political agendas and because it offered a more viable alternative to painting, the medium of choice for men. Kollwitz could trace her decision to Max Klinger’s famous pronouncement that black and white is best suited to the expression of complex ideas, and to the discovery that she was an indifferent colorist. Still, not all painters have been great colorists, and as her rare colored prints demonstrate, Kollwitz could manipulate limited harmonies with profound subtlety (checklist no. 15). Similarly, Grundig turned to printmaking because she was overwhelmed by the superior coloristic talents of her husband Hans, a painter; while he readily created etchings, she did not feel comfortable treading on “his” turf. Printmaking was, in any case, the preferred medium for reaching the masses: inexpensive, capable of generating work in quantities that could be widely dispersed, and lacking the bourgeois preciousness of the painter’s touch. Especially for Grundig, but to a degree also for Kollwitz, printmaking provided a substitute for the conventional art market, with its elitist system of prizes, dealers, curators and critics. Once more, there was a trade-off between expediency and stature.

The art of protest thus not only accorded with Kollwitz’s and Grundig’s personal experiences, it permitted them access to professional avenues that would otherwise have been foreclosed. They and women of similar inclinations could succeed in this genre because the logically attendant style and medium happened to be of relatively little interest or value to men. Like many of the most successful women artists of this period, Kollwitz and Grundig learned to function in the interstices and lacunae vacated by modernism’s overriding obsessions. It is for this reason, of course, that women’s achievements are often left out of the standard texts on modernism: much of their work does not quite fit. Perhaps, however, it is time to rethink a view of modernism so one-sided that it cannot encompass art as bold and moving and original as that created by Käthe Kollwitz and Lea Grundig.