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Art exhibition displays Kathe Kollwitz's works in a fresh light


Washington -- Writing in a 1981 catalog of a Kathe Kollwitz exhibition in Britain, essayist Frank Whitford could state, "Any kind of art with a message is unpopular today." And, he continued, "Most modern art has been concerned with other things and most obviously with problems which have to do with art itself rather than life."

How times have changed. In 1992, when art about social issues is all around us, it would seem like an ideal time for a rebirth of interest in Kollwitz, to whose work the plight of a suffering humanity was central.

But actually Kollwitz has never really been out of fashion. As the catalog of the newly opened exhibition "Kathe Kollwitz" at the National Gallery points out, streets are named for her all over her native Germany, and there are Kollwitz museums in Cologne and Berlin. Closer to home, this is the third Kollwitz show at the National Gallery in less than 30 years, a record surely matched by few, if any, other artists.

But in a deeper sense questions of fashion have nothing to do with Kollwitz. Rather than going in and out of fashion, she remains perennially aside from fashion. Her dates, 1867 to 1945, span the decades of so many of modern art's isms --

impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, etc. She had to be aware of them all, but embraced none. One can relate her peripherally to expressionism, but she was too interested in communicating with the viewer to allow the elements of a particular style to become central to her concern.

"One can say it a thousand times," she wrote, "that pure art does not include within itself a purpose. As long as I can work, I want to have an effect with my art."

And she does. Her enduring power does not depend on art critical analysis or interpretation; it speaks directly to those who see it, and we all carry around with us at least one of those powerful images of war, poverty, suffering and death in which she invariably identified with the downtrodden.

Many of them are included in the current show, which contains more than 100 prints and drawings (Kollwitz was almost exclusively a graphic artist) together with a few small sculptures. The most surprising -- and refreshing -- aspect of this project is its unexpected approach.

One would expect a Kollwitz show right now to emphasize her as a social issues artist, a champion of causes which it is once again popular for artists to address in their work.

But virtually everything about this exhibit points elsewhere. The picture on the catalog cover is not a reproduction of any of the images from Kollwitz's famous succession of series -- from "A Weavers' Rebellion" to "War" to "Death" -- but of the subtly rendered and beautifully lighted lithograph of a woman's back, "Female Nude with Green Shawl Seen from Behind" (1903).

Stepping into the first gallery of the exhibit, the viewer finds himself surrounded by an extraordinary group of self-portraits spanning most of her career, from the early pen and ink and wash "Self-Portrait en face, Laughing" (1888-1889) to the late bronze head "Self-Portrait" (1926-1936).

These force us to concentrate less on subject matter than on the manner of making in the various media in which Kollwitz worked, and on psychological insight: the fine lines and white highlights of the 1891 drawing "Self-Portrait," in which the face and hand stand out with striking clarity and the gaze is penetratingly straightforward; the play of light and shadow, the delicate colors and the introspective expression of the 1900 pastel "Self-Portrait en face with Right Hand"; the different effects achieved by different colored papers and printing techniques in two impressions of the 1901 lithograph "Self-Portrait Facing Left," and so on.

The particularity of this introduction to Kollwitz's work is of course deliberate; it sets the stage for the entire approach by the show's curator and catalog essayist Elizabeth Prelinger, who wishes to provide an alternative to the traditional way of looking at Kollwitz. To do so she mounts an attack on two fronts.

First, she brings to the fore the formalist means by which the artist achieved her seemingly straightforward effects. "Because Kollwitz steadfastly adhered to a figurative style in the era of abstraction, because she was a woman in a field dominated by men, and because she depicted socially engaged subject matter when it was unfashionable, critics have focused on those issues and have rarely studied the ways in which the artist manipulated technique and resolved formal problems." Prelinger continues, "In her best work . . . [Kollwitz] achieved a brilliant balance between subject and form."

Rather than showing as many different images as possible, Prelinger picks certain ones and presents them together with preparatory drawings and in different states to explain the complex process by which Kollwitz arrived at her finished works.

In the most detailed of these analyses, the curator follows the artist through no fewer than seven separate versions of the great "Woman with Dead Child," from chalk drawings to early versions of the etching with additions in charcoal, pencil and gold wash, to the creating of texture through the soft-ground etching process, to final arrival at an edition state in which some of these experiments are included and some left out to achieve the most effective work.

We are not aware, of course, when we see only the final print, of everything that has gone into its creation; nor does Kollwitz want us to be, for the work is not about process. What we see is a magnificent expression of the agony of love: a woman crushing her lifeless child in her arms and burying her face in its chest as if she would suffocate herself to be with it.

Or, as Kollwitz's friend Beate Bonus-Jeep saw it: "A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-colored corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and her arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb."

Prelinger's analyses in this and other cases reveal Kollwitz as a master of form not for its own sake but in the service of her desire to "have an effect."

The other half of the curator's argument against seeing Kollwitz purely in terms of this or that social issue is that the artist was not primarily a political animal. Although she created posters for certain causes, such as her 1924 "Never Again War!," she referred to herself as "not at all revolutionary, but rather evolutionary."

Although her work has been used by many political movements (including, against her will, the Nazis), "she herself," Prelinger states, "rejected active membership in a specific political party." Rather, the curator concludes, "Her outlook was humanitarian and universal."

And surely that is why it remains, and will continue to remain, valid and moving. Political movements come and go, but the human condition remains much the same. It was that condition )) that Kollwitz addressed, and because of that she will always reach us.

Kathe Kollwitz

What: "Kathe Kollwitz," an exhibit of more than 100 of the German artist's prints and drawings, together with a few sculptures.

Where: The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 4th Street Northwest, Washington.

When: Mondays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Aug. 16. Beginning May 22, the gallery will be open Friday evenings until 8.

Admission: Free.

Call: (202) 737-4215.

Note: Running simultaneously with the Kollwitz exhibit, one floor up in the National Gallery's East Building, is a show of 41 paintings, drawings and prints by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

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