On display now at the William Benton Museum of Art is Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art, which is comprised of several dozen prints and a few drawings, chosen from the museum’s permanent collection. One hundred and nine works by Kollwitz were gifted to the Benton Museum by Walter Landauer, a German-born professor of zoology who taught at the University of Connecticut from 1928 to 1964; his specialty was chicken genetics. Landauer also had a thing for Kollwitz’s work, which is another way of saying that he was a humanitarian. He spent years searching out the artist’s drawings, lithographs and woodcuts in the United States and Europe. Landauer wrote Kollwitz directly, and she responded by writing that she no longer possessed early impressions of her prints. She was grateful nonetheless.
“Just the thought that there is a human being in America who appreciates my works and makes it understandable to students is naturally very dear to me….But all in all, America cares little about me.”
Kollwitz may have been the greatest draftsman of her era, and her “Cycles” the best graphic art of the twentieth century. In 1898, Kollwitz exhibited The Weavers series, based on a failed workers’ revolt that occurred in Silesia in 1844. Her next cycle, The Peasants’ War, illustrated events of a German revolution during the 1520s; the project took six years for Kollwitz to complete and yielded seven works. Their technical complexity can be inferred from the cataloging of one work: “line etching, drypoint, sandpaper, aquatint and soft ground with imprint of laid paper and Ziegler’s transfer paper.” For Losbruch (Outbreak), Kollwitz added two fabrics to the printing process, which were laid over the plate and run through the press. A third cycle, War, was comprised of woodcuts and completed in 1923; it is the series most amply represented here. Her final cycle, Death, was a set of lithographs made in the 1930s. For the last two series, Kollwitz abandoned any pretense of historical narrative. In Berlin between the wars, all the material she required was close at hand.
Central to the exhibition is a pair of prints depicting the same subject, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht. The works, commissioned by Liebknecht’s widow, show a group of mourners beside the body of a communist revolutionary who was murdered while in police custody. In their pairing of lithography and woodcut, the prints establish the show’s emotional theme and summarize Kollwitz’s technical evolution. From beginning to end, a unifying vein of lamentation runs through Kollwitz’s work. What changed was the tenor of her rhetoric. In the years after World War I, the precision of an etching needle was no longer sufficient to express her personal indignation. She continued to make lithographs with gorgeous gray sweeps akin to her charcoals, but she saved her bluntest statements for the woodblock. The images are stark, the gestures broadly symbolic, with figure groupings held together in a base of ebony ink, their shapes distinguished by the incursion of gouged white lines. While working on Parents in the War cycle, Kollwitz wrote that her initial versions were “much too bright and harsh and distinct….Sorrow is all darkness.” By the 1920s her prints were pure propaganda, but not of the kind the German government desired. Hers was the advocacy of humanism. Kollwitz produced only about thirty woodcuts, and though I prefer the nuances of her work in other media—a case can be made that as a continuum of honest appraisal, her self-portraits are second only to those of Rembrandt—all her art is animated by the same moral force. It was somber stuff. This was the embodiment of Ingres’s epigram: that drawing is the probity of art, though Ingres could have little imagined her determination to find beauty in the night of the soul.
Kollwitz’s art was both a response to the suffering of others (her husband was a doctor, and she became familiar with his poor and sick patients) and a processing of personal experience. She lost several siblings during childhood. For Kollwitz, character born of hardship was indistinguishable from—lo, was the necessary source of—beauty.
“The motifs I was able to select from this milieu (the workers’ lives) offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful…. People from the bourgeois sphere were altogether without appeal or interest. All middle-class life seemed pedantic to me. On the other hand, I felt the proletariat had guts. It was not until much later…when I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me, that I was powerfully moved by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life…. But what I would like to emphasize once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful.”
Later on, life bestowed further heartbreak. World War I claimed the life of her son, Peter, and World War II stole a grandson of the same name. Death was a constant in Kollwitz’s art, visiting her subjects at the dining table, on the battlefield, swooping down on children from above or pulling a mother and child under water. Its victims are taken with mouths open, in surprise or defiance, or with a tap on the shoulder, in the resignation of old age.
During the 1920s, Kollwitz received official recognition for her work; she was the first woman elected as a member to the Prussian Academy of Arts, an honor which included a full professorship, steady income and a studio, and was later made a director of graphic arts at the Berlin Academy. Much of this was undone the following decade, when the Nazis forced her to resign her academic position, removed her work from museums and barred her from exhibiting. In 1936, the Gestapo visited, and Kollwitz and her husband were threatened with arrest and exile to a concentration camp. Fortunately she was protected by international fame, and was left unharmed. It turned out that America did care about her; she received an offer to relocate here, and by the late 1930s, the United States was the primary market for her work.
At the entrance of the exhibition are three of Kollwitz’s greatest works. Beim Dengeln (While Sharpening the Scythe) and Losbruch (Outbreak) are both from The Peasants’ War. In the first, a haggard woman, illuminated from below by a candle or lantern, leans against her tool in a state beyond exhaustion. The leathery hands—the term ‘Kollwitzian’ ought to be coined for her drawing of peasant hands alone—are anatomical evidence of a life of hard, mean work. In Outbreak, peasants rush downhill en masse in a cathartic attack against feudal lords. The revolution failed miserably, with thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of workers massacred by soldiers representing the nobility. Some of the most harrowing prints from the series are absent—Raped depicts the body of a woman lying amid a trampled garden; the subject of Battle Field is a mother, lantern in hand, searching for her son’s body among those killed in battle.
Just as searing is Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with Dead Child), which was not part of the Peasants’ War cycle, but hangs here alongside the contemporaneous prints. Possibly the most powerful of Kollwitz’s images, it is a peasant Pietà. Seated cross-legged on the ground, a woman encases the body of her child within her embrace. When a friend of the artist first saw it, she was shaken by the mother’s primal urge to “swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb.” This is lamentation at its most intimate; Kollwitz’s son, Peter, was the model for the boy. In 1925, Kollwitz wrote,
“When he was seven years old and I was working on the etching Woman with dead Child, I did a drawing of myself, holding him on my arm, in front of the mirror. That was very exhausting and I groaned. Then he said in his little child’s voice: ‘Stop groaning, mum, it is going to be very beautiful.’”
The brilliance of the drawing, its volumetric heft, insistent realism and masterful range of middle tones, both heightens the emotional force and offers egress from the oppressive sorrow. One can choose to be distracted, if only for the moment, by the tour de force draftsmanship of entwined arms, legs, and the child’s lovingly described head. It is the perfect communion of skill and conscience. It is very beautiful.
The Saturday afternoon I visited, the museum was quiet. Distancing protocols are in place, but don’t be too distant. Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art, is scheduled to run through April 10.