The 125th anniversary of Käthe Kollwitz’s birth provides an ideal opportunity for a reappraisal of an artist who, though beloved by millions around the world, is too often typecast by the sociopolitical content of her work. The present exhibition comes toward the end of a year that has seen commemorative presentations throughout the artist’s native Germany and, in this country, a groundbreaking retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Many of these shows, responding independently to a similar need, have attempted to refocus attention on the artistic procedures and achievements of Käthe Kollwitz and thereby to present this time-honored artist in a new light. For, as Elizabeth Prelinger writes in the National Gallery catalogue, Kollwitz’s accomplishments are far more complex than is generally recognized.
Both the art and the persona of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) are plagued by surprising contradictions. The seeming resolve of her unflagging and far-reaching oeuvre was in fact constantly undermined by the artist’s lingering doubts about both her competency and the overriding nature of her mission. Virtuosity was a double-edged sword, for while technical mastery was required for the effective delivery of her message, Kollwitz feared that if she became seduced by process, her work would acquire a counterproductive preciousness. Though committed early on to an attempt at improving the lot of the downtrodden, Kollwitz was at best a half-hearted revolutionary, who eschewed association with any political party and came to oppose violence in any name. If nonetheless her humanitarian sympathies placed her in the political vanguard, her style remained conservative, dependent on its resolute realism to reach a mass audience.
When one examines closely Kollwitz’s considerable production--over 1,600 prints, drawings and sculptures--the ambiguities and conflicts of her fifty-year career gradually emerge. The apparent effortlessness of many of the artist’s signature images is belied by the frequently arduous methods required to create them. To begin with, the decision to devote herself chiefly to printmaking was neither easy nor obvious. Pressed by convention as well as the potent expectations of her own father to become a painter, Kollwitz eventually found her true medium through the encouragement of her teacher, Karl Stauffer-Bern, and the example of the brilliant printmaker Max Klinger. Both in his own work and in his influential treatise Painting and Drawing, Klinger put forth the notion that black and white art (and print cycles in particular) was more effective and appropriate than painting for the formulation of social criticism.
Around 1888-89, Kollwitz determined to test Klinger’s theories by illustrating Germinal, Emil Zola’s novel about struggling coal miners in northern France. Focusing initially on a scene involving a barroom brawl, she researched the setting in a sailors’ tavern, producing over the next few years an elaborate sequence of preliminary drawings and etchings, as well as one final, fully realized print. Drawing--here and throughout her life-- was integral to the creative act, allowing her not only to assemble her ultimate compositions from detailed studies, but also to work out the interrelationships of light and shadow that are central to printmaking; often her studies and worked-over proofs highlight bright areas to be burnished in the plate, or indicate darker lines which must be etched more deeply. Despite her extensive preparatory work, however, Kollwitz did not pursue the Zola project, for in 1893 she happened to attend a première performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers, which immediately displaced Germinal in her mind.
Kollwitz was to devote over four years to her first print cycle, Revolt of the Weavers. The amount of time required for the production of these six images attests to the agonizing process of trial and error, the gnawing doubts and self-criticism, that were intrinsic to her approach. She was especially frustrated with what she perceived to be her inadequate command of the etching medium and felt compelled to resort to lithography to produce the shadowy, densely nuanced interiors of the first three scenes. Having rejected several etched versions of these subjects, the artist returned to that medium for the final three plates, so that the completed series has the unusual distinction of combining two different printmaking media. Its problematic genesis and provocative theme of oppression and rebellion notwithstanding, Revolt of the Weavers was, on the whole, well received, immediately establishing Kollwitz among the foremost printmakers of her day.
If Kollwitz felt to some extent defeated by the complexities of etching in Revolt of the Weavers, she emerged determined to master the medium once and for all. There followed a period of intense creativity, fueled by an experimental wizardry that even today confounds the experts. Kollwitz augmented aquatint--the conventional method of producing tone in etching--with a broad repertoire of soft-ground textures (cloth of different weaves as well as coarse-grained paper) and possibly even photomechanical dots. The masterful build-up of these various layers and tonal densities is dramatically revealed in the early states of her etchings from this time. These efforts climaxed in the seven plates of the Peasants’ War (1902-08) cycle, some of which went through at least nine preliminary stages. Yet Kollwitz’s continuing insecurity is betrayed by the body of rejected prints that preceded the Peasants’ War--including lithographic versions of two of the subjects. This time, however, her will and her skill prevailed, and she was able to execute the complete final series as etchings.
Like the Weavers, the abortive Germinal, and much of Kollwitz’s early work, the Peasants’ War had a literary/historical source and a loose narrative premise. Around 1903, however, Kollwitz began to abandon these elaborate scenarios for singular, iconic figures and more contemporary subject matter. This trend, along with a gradual technical simplification, was accelerated by the drastic social changes that followed World War I. The death of Kollwitz’s son Peter in the war had somewhat tempered her revolutionary fervor, yet the demoralizing conditions of the Weimar Republic reinforced her commitment to social advocacy. In order to refine and strengthen her message, she determined to subdue and minimize her technique. She perceived that the new content of the postwar period demanded a new form.
So it was that, in 1919 at the age of 52, Kollwitz began experimenting with an entirely new medium: woodcut. The occasion was the artist’s memorial to the slain Communist leader Karl Liebknecht, an image that, in stressing the mourners’ sorrow over the martyr’s heroism, was guaranteed to displease those on either political extreme. Once again, Kollwitz produced a flurry of cast-off impressions, executing the subject in etching and lithography before finally fixing on woodcut. She was to use woodcut very effectively for her next two series, War and Proletariat, though as usual she complained of inadequacy, albeit this time less her own than that of the medium itself. She was caught in an aesthetic quandary: woodcut was somehow too reductive, while lithography, her old fallback, seemed too easy.
Her reservations about lithography notwithstanding, Kollwitz in the last twenty years of her life reverted almost exclusively to that medium. Whereas formerly she had used lithography to mimic the dense textures that confounded her in etching, her mature work exploited the spontaneity and directness that are lithography’s unique assets. She realized, nonetheless, that lithography’s very simplicity of execution could be a trap, fostering sentimentality by diminishing aesthetic struggle and distance. The complex reworking of states that characterized Kollwitz’s etchings and woodcuts was alien to lithography, but the artist continued to wrestle with her subjects, often producing multiple versions of similar images, as well as a prodigious flow of preparatory drawings. In this manner, she kept her themes fresh and alive, free from the taint of cheap propaganda and the confining circumstances of a particular time or place. It is for this reason that her artistic legacy has survived through the century: not only because of its universal humanitarian passion, but because of its brilliancy and originality of execution.