In the closing decades of the 19th century, Germany produced a number of well-known experimenters in intaglio and lithography, including Max Klinger, Ernst Barlach, and Käthe Kollwitz. Whether because of the cheap reproducibility of the medium or because of the influences of Hogarth and Goya, the graphic arts seem inevitably allied to the representation of the abject classes. In this regard, the work of Käthe Kollwitz is no exception. The stark imagery of her 21 prints on display at the Robert Brown Gallery projects an image of Kollwitz as an artist of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and often the dead.
Kollwitz may have been more exceptional in her life than her subjects. By all accounts, she was saintly, modest in her ways, always willing to help, determined, courageous. And late in life, when personal losses made her long for death, she was honest about her fears. But however much we may want to complete the connection between the person and her artwork, Kollwitz’s depictions of the poor, like this show’s simple and sketchy Municipal Shelter and more elaborate Riot, belong to a late-romantic genre of misery, which is as rule-governed as poetry. Most of this art, whether we like it or not, has been rather ineffectual.
Kollwitz enjoyed the writing of Friedrich Engels, another famous poet of the poor, whom her brother Konrad had met on a trip to England. While never too closely allied with any political cause, she shared the socialist predilection for aestheticizing poverty. “From the beginning,” she wrote in her diary, “my impulse to represent proletarian life had little to do with pity or sympathy. I simply felt the life of the workers was beautiful.” And just as Engels’ depictions of the poor could serve an oppressive Stalinism, so Kollwitz’s images, like Hunger (which is at Robert Brown but not on display), could sever the causes of good or evil equally well. The Nazis borrowed this emotional picture and others for their cause and made money from Kollwitz’s work through sales in Switzerland.
In the postwar period many European artists, attuned to the way objects could float freely between causes, made their art as neutral or as minimal as possible. This was nowhere more true than in Germany, where the influence of Joseph Beuys led a generation of artists to turn away from objects altogether and treat them as mere residues. Now that things have come full circle, with painters like Anselm Kiefer returning to imagery (and to a booming market for the object), it pays to take a lesson from Beuys and attend as carefully as possible to the exhibition conditions for art that is not mere personal expression (like Kiefer’s) or technical achievement. With whose version of the artist are we being asked to empathize? If this is a picture of the human heart, in whom and for whom does it beat?
Kollwitz exhibitions in America have over time emphasized different aspects of her work, sometimes making her out as an anti-Nazi, sometimes as a champion of the oppressed, and more rarely as a feminist. The Robert Brown show is happily diverse in drawing from a variety of her modes, from the fairly upbeat Greeting to her literary-historical Revolt of the Weavers series to the manifestations of the later, more generalized interest Kollwitz took in mankind. Consequently, it does not fall prey to the oversimplification of Kollwitz’s many-faceted artthe tendency to make her out as either an unproblematic revolutionary or unskeptical humanistthat Elisabeth Prelinger identified in an essay for the National Gallery’s exhibition of her work six years ago. However, there remains a notable ellipsis in our picture of the artist that, to my knowledge, has not been redressed by any American gallery or museum. These are the drawings from Kollwitz’s erotic series Secreta which, while suppressed for some time, have been exhibited in Germany. When they finally appear in America, we will have a better perspective on the artist’s still somewhat obfuscated legacy.CP