Words by Lucy Mounfield
Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) has always been recognised as an artist but her status and place in art history, until recently, has been overshadowed by her male counterparts – Otto Dix, Max Klinger, George Grosz, to name but a few. Subsequently, Kollwitz’ work has been lumped into the canon of German Expressionism and has often been ignored due to her empathetic depiction of working life; instead of being the artistic stereotype with lofty ambitions she became a conduit to the suffering of the people she depicted, herself becoming invisible in the process.
Ikon Gallery’s current exhibition, Portrait of an Artist – presented in collaboration with the British Museum, puts Kollwitz’ prints centre stage and marks the 150th anniversary of her birth. Many themes are explored: the crushing weight of human suffering, the question of agency and creativity in a male dominated world, the role of industrialisation in the plight of the working man and woman, revolution, personal loss, and death.
These themes are not obvious at first; on entering I was greeted with a series of self-portraits spanning a forty-year period which, on their own, don’t lend themselves easily to interpretation. The prints are presented without comment; the accompanying text refers only to the medium of each print, eschewing lengthy biographical and symbolic interpretation. This allowed me to walk through the exhibition making connections as I went along.
Aesthetically, Kollwitz’ earlier self-portraits are excellent examples of her skill and draughtsmanship; these lithographs are incredibly detailed and the mark-making creates a sense of intimacy. However, as Kollwitz got older her technical ability became a little looser and her style changed from intricate lines to bold strokes that depicted the curvature of her older body. The latter depictions are particularly animalistic, with sunken eyes and a hollow face made up of several parts that don’t quite form a whole. These self-portraits from the 1920s and 1930s are barely recognizable – her face is worn down and the thick black lines create a sense of gloom. This technical and emotional change is somewhat baffling until you enter the second room.
Social and political protest is captured by Kollwitz in many small vignettes from her two series A Weaver’s Revolt (1897) and Peasants’ War (1908). Portrait of an Artist includes one lithograph and two etchings from the weaver’s series. These pieces were inspired by Gerhert Hauptmann’s play The Weavers (1892) which told the story of a failed revolt by Silesian weavers against mechanisation in 1844. Kollwitz may be referencing the literary world but her images have a universal truth about them that can be understood today.
Highlights from this section of the exhibition are The Carmagnole (1901) and Riot or Storming the Gate (1903-1897). These two prints stylistically reference images and iconography from the French Revolution most notably in The Carmagnole which depicts women dancing around a guillotine like a maypole. Indeed, the composition references a scene in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the title of the piece is taken from the French Revolutionary song, ‘Die Carmagnole’. Here, Kollwitz captures the revolutionary spirit of the German people who happily worship the guillotine.
While many works depict moments of insurrection, there is never much to be happy about; even during revolt, faces appear tired, distorted, resigned. The aftermath of one such outbreak is depicted in the woodcut Memorial to Karl Leibnecht (1920), where haggard mourners surround the dead Leibnecht. The large block of white around Leibnecht’s dead head creates the impression of an orb like halo (alluding to depictions of Christ). He, along with Rosa Luxemburg and others, was tortured and murdered by the proto-Nazi Freikorps following the 1919 Spartacist uprising (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands / KPD) in Berlin. Kollwitz herself was never a member of the KPD, and was in fact asked to create this piece by Leibknecht’s family. But looking at the work itself together with the other prints it can be interpreted as mourning not just Leibnecht the man, but the hope for a different future briefly glimpsed in the Free German Socialist Republic he had proclaimed.
From many wounds you bleed, o People (1896) continues the allusions to the Crucifixion by juxtaposing social commentary and religious symbolism. The image is very small and could almost be a preparatory print for a larger triptych or religious altarpiece.
The tripartite composition has two crucified figures of women to the left and right whilst in the middle section shows a body being stabbed by man with sword. The central figure is lying on bed of thorns, who when analysed alongside the title could represent the ‘people’ of Germany. It has been argued that the two women on either side reference Michelangelo’s Slaves, though Kollwitz expresses anguish as female rather than male. The religious symbolism is most striking in this image and suggestive that death is inevitable for the ‘people’ who struggle against social injustice.
Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz also proposes to look at her role ‘as an empathetic and suffering mother.’ A large wall in the second room is dedicated to Woman with a Dead Child (1903) which has often been analysed regarding the death of her son Peter in 1914. A dead child’s head sticks out from the hulking arms of a hunched crossed legged figure. The triangular composition and muscular frame is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà – a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the crucified Jesus. Four different versions hang alongside each other showcasing the creative process and the varying crescendo of emotions that erupt when losing a loved one.
However, for me, Raped (1907-08) stands out above the images of Woman with a Dead Child; this startling and visually unsettling work captures the empathy and social duty that runs throughout Kollwitz’ work. A woman lies tangled in an overgrown garden, her body contorted, her head and neck thrust back into the soil whilst her legs are bonded to the roots of the plants. She is forever bound by the memory of the rape. Unusually Kollwitz has chosen not to show the act of rape or the attacker, but instead the aftermath. The stillness of the scene makes the brutality of the rape more affecting. What I did not recognise at first but became clearer on my second and third viewing, is the young girl overlooking the scene from behind the shrubbery.
Kollwitz is often said to have been concerned with the ‘suffering mother’, but the suffering depicted – while the subject is often a mother – appears more universal. It is violation of not only the mother but the daughter that makes the image all the more chilling.
Like Raped, Kollwitz’ Death and Woman (1910) captures the artist’s preoccupation with the universality of suffering; Death twists itself round a woman’s naked body whilst a small child tugs at her breasts. The dynamic proximity of the three figures mirror that of the three stages of a human life, and the way the woman’s cheek touches Death’s forehead is as if she is greeting it like an old friend. The ecstatic face of the woman contrasts with her stiffly contorted body, implying that life is a cruel tightrope between pleasure and strife.
While Kollwitz depicts a world of downtrodden subjects, loss, and stillborn revolutionary moments, it is never apparent that to struggle on is foolish. How does one continue in a world without hope? Inspiration (1904-05) portrays a masculine figure hunched over a weary woman wearing a shawl. The larger muscular character is drawing into the ground using a scythe, their hands and arms becoming one as if being guided by him. This image can be read in two ways: firstly, the woman is Kollwitz the artist, hollow-faced and guided by inspiration. Secondly, the female figure represents the working people of Germany who continue to toil because the masculine rulers of society force them to. Here, Kollwitz could be arguing that while suffering is inevitable, it is also inescapable that she must continue to be creative in the face of anguish.
Portrait of an Artist: Käthe Kollwitz is a fantastic exhibition that not only showcases her as an artist – who had a brilliant sense of mastery and skill – but as someone who thought that printmaking was her egalitarian duty to expose the merciless and arbitrary cruelty of the poorer sections of German society. Yet in a way there is hope, because the pain that Kollwitz and others felt lives on through both her work and further exhibitions like this.
Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz is exhibiting at Ikon Gallery until 26th November. For more on Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz, visit www.ikon-gallery.org/event/kathe-kollwitz
For more on Käthe Kollowitz, visit www.kaethe-kollwitz.de/en
For more on the British Museum, visit www.britishmuseum.org
For more from Ikon Gallery, visit www.ikon-gallery.org