The exhibition of etchings, lithographs and woodcuts by Käthe Kollwitz at the British Museum (until 12 January) confronts us with her characteristic, and still discomfiting, lack of decorum. Her subjects are almost unfailingly depressing – peasant rebellion and defeat, world war, poverty, hunger, the death of children and the despair of mothers – and her way with gouge and needle relentlessly precise. ‘The passion inspired in her by her theme,’ Clement Greenberg wrote shortly after her death in 1945, ‘required a complementary passion for her medium, to counteract a certain inevitable excess.’ Greenberg flinched from the excess, and many other viewers have followed his lead. ‘Protest’ in art, he thought, will always be ‘too much’. The British Museum show puts this verdict under pressure. Kollwitz’s work concerns death and poverty, oppression and rebellion. Are those subjects taboo?
Kollwitz was born Käthe Schmidt in Königsberg in 1867. As a young woman she studied art, in part because her father thought her too homely to attract a husband. In 1886 she lived for a while in Berlin, where she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor for the Tailors’ Union and a fellow Social Democrat. Karl set up his clinic in the working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, while Käthe established a printing workshop and studio at home. Her work quickly found buyers – and entered public collections – in Germany and abroad.
From the beginning, Kollwitz used the dramatic contrasts afforded by black ink and white paper to illustrate the plight of the poor. Need (Not), for example, a lithograph she worked on from 1893-97, depicts a weaver’s cottage lit by a single window – which is to say, hardly at all. Only the essential details stand out: a man and child, a loom, a winding machine and, in the foreground, a mother in despair. The faces of the living are cast in deep shadow, while the tiny, vacant face of the woman’s other child, who lies on the bed in front of her, is sketched in the faintest of lines.
By the age of forty, Kollwitz was well known not simply as an artist but also as a prominent and active member of the left. In 1913, she helped found and then chaired the Frauenkunstverband, an organisation of women artists that tried to improve the living conditions of Berliners, many thousands of whom lived six to a room. In 1927, she visited Moscow, where she was endorsed by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the people’s commissar for education: her ‘posterlike’ style, he said, makes ‘grief strike your heart, tears … choke the voice’. Having been the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy, in 1919, she became the first to be asked to resign, in 1933. She had signed a public appeal for unity against the National Socialists in the coming elections.
It would be plausible, as this outline suggests, to respond to Kollwitz as if she were simply a public persona, answering the needs of a violence-scarred world. It matters that her prints found an audience not only in New York and London, but also in Moscow and Shanghai. Romain Rolland said, perhaps too poetically, that Kollwitz was ‘the voice of the silence of the sacrificed’. His verdict seems both wrong and right. It’s true that her work is almost entirely devoted to the depiction of human suffering; true too that her admirers viewed them as among the great achievements of humanist art. Yet her prints often elude such abstractions. She worked in series, and the narratives offered by her images insist that those who suffer are not only victims. Her anonymous weavers, labourers, peasants, prisoners are crushed only because they have first risen up. Most often, the prints show us something that has just happened, or is soon to occur. An exhausted peasant hones a scythe, a woman lies raped among flowers, a man pulls a plough, a grieving mother sits naked, cradling the corpse of her child.
Sometimes the tables are turned. Weavers abandon their looms; peasants take up arms. Take the show’s central cycle of seven etchings, Peasants’ War (1902-8), which depicts the mercilessly repressed uprising of the early 1520s. The dimensions of each print are dictated by its subject, starting with The Ploughers and ending with The Prisoners. The crux of the series, and its only vertical composition, is Peasants Arming in a Vault, which shows a rising tide of rebels bent on certain death. Most already look skeletal. Look closely: you can see more than one death’s head among the crowd.
Each plate took a year. Why did the sequence take so long to complete? There were many reasons, starting with the subject itself. Kollwitz wasn’t simply trying to give the historical narrative graphic energy and figural anonymity. Oppression and violence were at stake. Who and what is a ‘peasant’? How can mass rebellion be captured in a print, whether alone or in series? One by one, Kollwitz frames the answers compositionally, through proportion, texture, shadow and line. Proof after proof was required. Consider the second work in the series, Raped, for which she made use of etching, drypoint, sandpaper and a lift ground imprinted by both fabric and Ziegler’s transfer paper – all before printing in brown ink on copperplate paper. Each step involved experiment and evaluation; the phrase ‘mixed media’ doesn’t do it justice.
The exhibition catalogue helpfully provides close-ups of six different works, which recall, but cannot replace, the encounters that happen in the exhibition itself. A Kollwitz image holds the wall. Its darks and lights flicker; the subjects call out. One group seems, however improbably, to give off a strange glow: Kollwitz applied gold wash and spray to both the lithographic stone and the surface of the paper, as if to turn the subject into something sacred. All three are impressions – variants, really – of Woman with Dead Child of 1903, which she exhibited at the Berliner Secession that year.
Kollwitz modelled for this image in front of a mirror, sitting naked cradling her young son Peter. Her mouth is pressed to his chest as if, in the words of her friend Beate Bonus-Jeep, she is trying ‘to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb’. Peter died in the first months of the First World War. A generation later, her grandson, Peter’s namesake, was drafted and sent to Russia, where he died in 1942. By then few remnants of the old life remained. Kollwitz’s Prenzlauer Berg home and studio had been flattened in the Soviet siege, as had her native Königsberg. She died 16 days before the end of the war.