Kathe Kollwitz's Moving Work on Display at Smith College

Käthe Kollwitz
Smith Museum of Art, through May 29, 2016

The Mothers 
Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy of Lysistrata is so often performed that you may have seen it. Its humor—drawing upon the social values of Antiquity—derives from Lysistrata’s unique strategy for ending warfare: rally women to deny sex to men until the fighting stops. German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) tried a different tactic: shame. The Smith College Museum of Art features a selection of her paintings, drawings, lithographs, graphics, and sculptures, nearly all of which touch upon themes of social justice—poverty, class oppression, and the ravages of war, as seen through the eyes women, especially mothers.

The Peasants War
Kollwitz was born into the bourgeois comfort of a religious Prussian family, but she quickly left it behind and embraced her grandmother’s socialism. A sense of loss permeates much of her work, perhaps induced by her brother’s early death, and enhanced by marrying and having two sons while still in her twenties. Socialism certainly influenced early efforts that gained notice: her 1898 series titled The Weavers, which commemorated an 1842 Silesian strike; and her homage to the 16th century Peasants War, completed in 1908. In each case, Kollwitz was drawn to both the plight of the poor and to the deep loss felt by mothers whose young children suffered and whose older ones became combatants and casualties.

World War I deepened her anguish and left her heartbroken; her son Peter perished in the conflict. Although she was recognized as a leading voice in German art and co-founded the Women’s Art Association, the chaos and deprivations of the Weimar Republic led her deeper into the pacifist fold. If you will, they made her into an artistic Lysistrata committed to the idea that war was futile as an agent of social change and a form of male aggression that repressed women and children.

Many of Kollwitz’s works have a Pieta-like quality, with ordinary women supplanting the Madonna and offering final succor to dying husbands, sons, neighbors, and each other. The latter is not to be overlooked—log before second wave feminists spoke of communities of women, Kollwitz depicted them in mutual embraces that evoked a sense of building a mass-bodied shell against the external realm of pain. Sometimes they bear their children like offerings that will not go into the basket, as in her 1924 poster The Survivors: Fight War, not Wars; sometimes the women huddle back to back but with eyes gazing outward as in the powerful woodcut The Mothers (1923).

Of Kollwitz’s works, her woodcuts and sculptures made the most impression upon me—there is an ineffable sadness in their solidity and the somber tones of rock and black or sepia ink. The woodcuts in particular invoke the heavy outlining of Georges Rouault and the profound emotions of German expressionists such as Max Beckman, yet with a perspective that it is identifiably female. Still other evocations include Tahitian statuary and the Depression era portraits of Dorothea Lange.

The Sacrifice 
Kollwitz merged her art with her social conscious and became known as an outspoken opponent of militarism. This, of course, failed to endear her to the Nazi regime that came to power in the 1930s. Her art was removed from museum walls--though luckily not destroyed as “degenerate art”—and she was forced to resign as head of the Women’s Art Association. In a profound irony, she died on April 22, 1945, just 16 days before World War II ended. It is, though, fitting that her art lives on long whereas that failed painter, Adolph Hitler, endures only in infamy.

Of course, another distressing irony lies in the fact that somehow Kollwitz’s pieces at Smith—some of whom are now more than a hundred years old—feel so profoundly relevant for our own time of military conflict. Change a few costumes and it could be Syria. Or Afghanistan. Or Ferguson, Missouri. See this exhibit. And weep for humankind.

Rob Weir  

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