Friday, September 26, 2008

Kaethe Kollwitz, Printmaker and Pioneering Cinematographer

Kaethe Kollwitz, Mother and Dead Child, etching, 1903

Kaethe Kollwitz, "Sharpening The Scythe" from The Peasants' War, etching, 1905

Kaethe Kollwitz, "Prisoners" from The Peasants' War, etching, 1908

For most of my years in art school, "narrative" was a pejorative word. Perhaps it's because I was in art school in the last days of the domination of formalist criticism, but art that was "about" anything beyond itself was very much frowned upon. "Literary," "journalistic," "ilustrative" were among those terms of dismissal. The artist was thought to have abandoned the quest for form for the sake of storytelling, as though it was some kind of easy cheap magic. The underlying assumption behind all of this was that somehow, telling a story in pictures was the easiest thing in the world, and should be left to comic books.
Well, comic books have become "graphic novels" and everything from the Bayeaux Tapestry to Giotto to Goya to R. Crumb makes it clear that telling a narrative that unfolds over time in the form of one or many still images is no easy task at all.

I taught Kaethe Kollwitz today for the first time in many years. If anyone was a "literary" artist it was her. Her prints to my eye uncannily predict a lot of the storytelling-through-imagery pioneered in German Expressionist movies. I remember a time when Kaethe Kollwitz hardly appeared in the textbooks at all. Certainly there was the latent sexism among the overwhelmingly male cadre of scholars who wrote the textbooks 30 years ago. Even more so, I think it's because she didn't fit the standard Once Received From The Saints modern art narrative. That narrative was about the increasing self-consciousness of technique, the mechanics behind the image, and finally the liberation of form from the obligation to describe.
In no way did she fit into that narrative. In her long life, she saw Impressionism come to Germany. She was alive and in Berlin when Edvard Munch first showed his dark and anxious paintings at the Berliner Kunstler Verein in 1892. She met the Expressionists of Die Bruecke and The Blue Rider. She lived through both World Wars and the Nazi regime, dying in Moritzburg near Dresden just days before the Second World War ended. And yet, the formal language that she used most of her life was decidedly old fashioned and conservative compared to what was going on around her.
She was one of the very few modern artists who did NOT come from a comfortable bourgeois background. Her father was a mason and a carpenter. Her maternal grandfather was a former Lutheran pastor defrocked for his socialist sympathies. She married, at age 17, Dr. Karl Kollwitz, a physician who worked among the poor, and lived with him in the working class part of Berlin most of her life. She had tremmendous difficulty overcoming the reluctance of the German art academies to admit a woman, even a strikingly talented woman.
She is one of the great storytellers of modern art. The peasant sharpening the scythe in the print above from the series she did about the 16th century Peasants' War is a striking example of a use of imagery that would later be central to the movie making of directors like FW Murnau. A whole narrative is told in a single striking image. We need no text to see the anger in this image, as the half-blind peasant, brutalized by his toil, sharpens his scythe for war. It is as though Kaethe Kollwitz perfectly framed and lit a shot like Karl Freund or Gregg Tolland or one of the other great cameramen of the early movies.
The scene of defeated rebels captured and awaiting their fate is even more uncannily prophetic. It calls to my mind Margaret Bourke White's photographs of newly liberated concentration camp prisoners at Buchenwald. It is a centerless composition where we are invited to inspect the prisoners, and are appalled to discover not only grown men, but young boys among the captives, foretelling any number of scenes from the massacre filled 20th century from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Srebernica. Like a first rate film maker, she encourages us to move across and make discoveries in the scene.
Her powerful scene of a mother embracing her dead child clearly and deliberately recalls Christian imagery of the Pieta, but with a grief that is more animal than spiritual. The pose and the appearance of the bereaved mother is deliberately beastly. And again, we are astonished as we gradually awaken to the suffering humanity in what at first looks like a beast of burden.

I remain amazed that these clearly powerful and moving images remained ignored for so very long. Her contemporaries certainly didn't ignore her. The younger artists collected her work. And Adolph Von Menzel, the grand old man of German realism, paid her the supreme compliment of recommending her for a Berliner Kunstler Verein gold medal (a decision vetoed by Kaiser Wilhelm II in another compliment).

Here is a little sample from Murnau's  The Last Laugh where he sets up the whole coming narrative of the story without a single word.  This would become a commonplace of cinema, anticipated by Kaethe Kollwitz.


Anonymous said...

Kollwitz came to my attention through illustrations in history books, not through art history books. Her work provokes strong emotional response directed away from the art itself, and I suppose that some critics considered her work mere political cartoons.

I have liked narrative / figural art for a long time, and have wondered why it was ignored by most of the art industry magazines from the late 1960s onward. My parents subscribed to Art in America and other such, and in my teen years I used to pore over the magazines. Apparently figural art was OK if dating from the 19th century or earlier, but not OK in modern times. (I am not against abstract expressionism and the subsequent isms, just couldn't see why other forms should be downgraded).


Counterlight said...

I think that ideological conflict between abstract and figurative art is largely over now. As far as I'm concerned, Willem de Kooning was always right when he said that the whole conflict was a red herring. Even a painting of green, he said, was still an image. One of the things that people discover as they study figurative art techniques is how abstract they really are.

Now the big argument is over the viability of painting itself in a technological age. This is an argument that goes back to the invention of photography, and as far as I can tell, painting seems to be flourishing and the demand for it has not diminished And that's true not just in the official museum/ gallery/ academic art circles. The walls of neighborhoods in New York and many cities are covered with painting that is not vandalism. Some of it is memorials for the dead; some of it is commissions; some of it does what painting has always done, articulate matters of identity and belief.

Anonymous said...

In this regard, and with respect to stained glass, please see my latest blog post slideshow, and please pay particular attention to the frame with "the hands" (stop the show there), left-most frame. I'm sorry, it's late, I can't even come up with the name of the artist, but I'll research it if you like.


Anonymous said...

She didn't fit the standard Once Received...

; = )

Davis said...

The two Kollwitz etchings I have are both disturbing and fine. Her example was awesome.

June Butler said...

I've not seen Kollwitz's work before. It's powerful and wrenching, and all her own. The etchings remind me of some from a much earlier period, but I can't think whose at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about Kaethe Kollwitz. Her art, introduced into China by iconic Chinese leftist writer Lu Xun, greatly influence several generations of Chinese artists. I grew up with her art in China. My mother chose print making as her major at an art school in China because she was fascinated by Kollwitz's powerful art. Kollwitz was heavily promoted by the Communist Chinese government and art educators because of its socialist flavor and the depiction of the proletariat.Young artists in China nowadays are not familiar with her art as avant garde/abstract art is all the rage and figurative art has become old fashioned. It's also part of their rebellion against official propaganda art. I admired her art but disliked the socialist theme because it was all the propaganda has been about in China for so many decades.

Anonymous said...

hi, do you know what kollwitz' inspiration was for Prisoners? I cannot seem to find it, so if you know could please email me at That would be great thanku.