Käthe Kollwitz at the Museum of Modern Art

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Käthe Kollwitz

The Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is a reminder of why art exists, and, at its best, what makes it of timeless, universal value. Kollwitz’s work fulfills the condition of truth, which as Theodor Adorno observed, is to let suffering speak. Or in her own words: “I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high.” Her work also compels us to reflect on the nature of feminism, especially as it relates to art. Compare for example any piece of Kollwitz to the pretentious, corporate feminism of Judy Chicago who recently enjoyed a full-scale exhibition (sponsored by Dior) at New York’s New Museum, with the unfortunate and adolescent title of “Herstory.” Kollwitz’s Love Scene I (1909-10), sketched with black crayon on white paper, is far more sensuous and erotically charged than the sleek, shiny rings of Chicago’s Pasadena Lifesavers (1970), in which she supposedly sought to capture the “dissolving sensation” of orgasm.

There are various approaches to feminism, to be sure. Kollwitz’s feminism is, in a word, the feminism of revolt and is truly universal: it is the feminism that says women have lead uprisings in the past. See for, example, the extraordinarily dramatic and unprecedented Charge, plate 5 from Peasant’s War (1902-03) depicting “Black Anna,” the sixteenth-century revolutionary as she, with arms raised high, leads her followers into the fray of violent struggle. Kollwitz insists that women can continue to lead the revolution against the degradation of humanity that we now call neoliberalism: unregulated capitalism, with its shameless exploitation of children – even here in the United States – with its sweatshops and slums, its obscene concentration of wealth, and its economic inequality which has reached such staggering heights that it literally defies imagination.

It is perhaps worth noting that Kollwitz was from the city of Königsberg, as was the philosopher Immanuel Kant, for whom this April 22 marked the three hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1724. Kant was the philosopher of human dignity, par excellence, and I would suggest that the same concern ultimately drives the work of Kollwitz.  The exhibition commences with Kollwitz’s Self-Portrait en Face with Right Hand (1900), notable for its full command of itself and its materials, its comingling of confidence and vulnerability. Kollwitz emphasizes her right hand because it is representative of her vocation as an artist – not unlike the way Rembrandt would emphasize his hands in the Self-Portrait (1658) at the Frick Collection.

The six etchings of Woman with Dead Child (1903) which precede its seventh and final iteration reveal an artist tirelessly at work upon an utterly devastating theme – one that is evocative of a long tradition hearkening back to the La Pietà (1498-99) of Michelangelo. Kollwitz worked and reworked the piece until it finally came to the point where it achieved its maximum potency. One does not need to read the news of today, with its daily reports of children, infants, toddlers, dying in Gaza and elsewhere to feel the potency and the truth of this image. Look at it, study it ‘long and long,’ as Whitman would say: observe the mother’s hand, her anguished, half hidden face as it presses into the child’s lifeless torso. The image is so powerful, so intensely true, so universal in its timeless significance that one can barely keep one’s eyes upon it without choking. This is what art is for. Yes, art is joy. But if its joy is real then it is a joy born from sorrow, joy in defiance of infinite suffering.

Her work confronts head on the burden of the proletariat, it refuses to quit the fight; her work is the very emblem of fidelity, of faithfulness. Fidelity to the struggle for justice, for human dignity, for giving meaning to those who have gone before us. Kollwitz knows that right along beside every revolutionary, every worker marching towards to a new world are the ghosts of revolutions past. The dead live on when we are faithful to the universal meaning that their life embodied. In her 1888 etching, March of the Weavers, each worker is an individual, each is a person, but their individuality is incomprehensible apart from their unity, apart from the universality that binds them. In the foreground, just off center is a woman who bears on her back a sleeping child. Some of the workers bear scythes, and mallets, their faces gaunt with hunger. But the mother, hunched over, is the figure that brings the image together, that lends an irrepressible power: she is bowed, but not bent. She is also the only woman in the group. It is as if Kollwitz is reminding us that the workers are struggling not simply for themselves, to fill their own stomachs, but to save their children from the life of desperation, malnutrition and soul-sapping hardship. The child cannot fight, he is his mother’s burden. But he is also her strength, the reason she must march, he embodies the very necessity of resistance.

A Weavers’ Revolt (1893-97) was Kollwitz’s first print series, and it depicts the story of an 1844 textile workers’ uprising, a pivotal moment in the history of Germany’s socialist class struggle. Need we remind ourselves how garment workers continue to be among the most exploited workers from Bangladesh, to Myanmar, Vietnam, Pakistan to right here in the United States, from Southern California to New York City? According to the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) “over 60 percent of New York’s 7,000-plus garment factories operate in sweatshop conditions.” The Los Angeles Daily News reported in March 2023 that workers in Southern California’s garment industry “remain victims of wage theft and illegal pay practices, with some earning as little as $1.58 per hour…”  These facts are simply meant to demonstrate that the same exploitation which Kollwitz was dramatizing with unerring focus continue to plague workers right now, today, and not in poor, distant countries, but under our very noses.  The stench of greed is so strong and pervasive that we’ve grown accustomed to its contamination of our lifeworld, even as workers’ rights are being trampled on with often devastating consequences.

War is a portfolio of seven woodcuts which were published in 1923 and grappled with the terrible four years between 1914-1918 which gave a new, and horrifying face to the madness of modern warfare. Kollwitz is driven in no small part by the loss of her own son during the first World War, but in pieces such as The People where blackness predominates, we see that Kollwitz is confronting far more than her personal loss. A female figure on the right gnashing her teeth is evocative of Renaissance depictions of hell, which is just her point: war is indeed hell, a hell made more terrible by the forms it has assumed under conditions of modernity. One cannot but be reminded as well of Goya’s extended treatment of this theme in his series of 82 prints, The Disasters of War (1810-1820) of which Kollwitz was doubtless aware. And like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1820-1823), Kollwitz wants to underscore in plates such as the Sacrifice and the Widow II, that war is all-consuming: that it leaves us bereft not only of those who we treasure most in this world but of our humanity itself.

Another notable piece is Kollwitz’s first woodcut, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (1920) which pays homage to the fallen communist leader who led a failed uprising in Berlin in 1919. Liebknecht was captured and brutally murdered by paramilitary units. His shrouded body lies horizontally across the lower foreground, while mourners gather round in various postures of grief, including a mother and her babe. (The composition resonates with Kollwitz’s virtuosic etching The Downtrodden (1900) in which a nude and emaciated Christ-like figure is similarly placed stretched across the bottom center foreground.) On the chest of the martyred hero a worker has gently placed his powerful hand, reminding us not only that these are workers who live by manual labor, but that they remain strong, determined and faithful to the truth for which their leader gave his life.

Kollwitz’s final print portfolio, Death, was completed between during the years in which Naziism came to power and they can certainly be seen as a premonition of the horrors that awaited Europe – but the three crayon lithographs on display are also a testament to a lifelong need to confront the reality of the end, the finality of death; which, in one of the most harrowing pictures of the exhibition is personified as a gaunt figure seen from above as it clutches at several children cowering in terror. One child can be seen from behind darting away left. That will to life stands in some contrast to the Call of Death (1937) in which we see Death coming for Kollwitz herself: only its hand is visible as it reaches for her shoulder, while she, seated seems to be turning to face it: all fear has gone and only resignation remains. This is a woman who has spent her life peering into the darkness, in giving voice to the voiceless, in letting suffering speak to the world. In this mesmerizing work she seems ready at last to leave behind this vale of tears.

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