Kollwitz’s War and Grief at the British Museum

Käthe Kollwitz Woman with dead child, 1903,© The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

 

Käthe Kollwitz, née Schmidt, is not a name I had come across in the art world until the British Museum’s show. 

Born in 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz established herself as a leading, influential graphic artist by the time the First World War came about. Her travels to communist China and Russia, and finally to USA in the mid nineteen-thirties, consolidated her reputation abroad, which probably explains why she is virtually unknown in the UK.

But she was always going to succeed in the male-dominated art world she grew up in. Having been raised by progressive parents, who encouraged debate and self-expression at home, she was never going to be a wallflower! And there was much to discuss in this period of social and political unrest.

At art school in Berlin and then in Munich, she focussed on drawing, believing it to be the best medium for conveying what she had to say and feel about the injustices of society. Her father, who was supportive of her career, was not by the same token supportive of her marrying. A proposal from a medical student, Karl Kollwitz, got given short shrift. Interestingly, the Munich School for Women Artists she attended dissuaded female students from forming romantic liaisons with men. Celibacy was not only encouraged but a rule of the institution.

Independent-minded Käthe finally jumped ship after producing her first print in 1890. She went ahead and married Karl Kollwitz who was now a doctor. His practice took them to a deprived part of Berlin.

It is no surprise, given Kollwitz’s concerns, that the poor and down-trodden would dominate her early work. 

At the show I was swept up in the drama of her etchings and lithographs of revolt. In Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak) we see a woman with her back to us, sinewy arms and fists held aloft, firing up an army of men charging with pitchforks. Great stuff! 

Käthe Kollwitz, Losbruch (Outbreak), 1903 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Weavers’ Revolt series, where she follows the uprising, backroom plotting and anguished family scenes, is also arresting and earned her an art prize. A lithograph entitled Tod (Death) shows a dimly lit room, where a man sits, his face, a mask of grief, shock and exhaustion.

Kollwitz’s images are never neutral. In her evocations of war, produced post 1917, her heart and focus is always with the civilian. Mothers offer their children up as sacrifices. Parents huddle together in grief. Mothers form a tight circle around their children. ‘The Mothers’ is an image which has stayed with me.

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‘The Mothers’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1922-23)

The works are heart-rending as you would expect them to be and the use of the wood-cuts, the grooves and crude lines, have a primitive quality, one which perfectly conveys the starkness of the WW1 nightmare.

When I was there, the curator, Frances Carey, drew our attention to a searingly emotional lithograph entitled ‘Woman With Dead Child’ (See Header Image)

 It is a self-portrait of Kollwitz with her son Peter from 1903 . She executed it in front of a mirror, much to her young son’s annoyance I imagine, who was told to keep still. A woman embraces her lifeless child with mad passion. Peter was to die on the Western Front in 1914.

Her son’s death confirmed Kollwitz’s pacifist outlook.

In Berlin today, in front of the Neue Wache (a museum dedicated to the victims of war), you will see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s sculpture entitled Pietà, featuring a mother with dead son (1937-39). I will certainly be going there on my next trip.

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in a long while. Well worth a visit.

And if you need a little cheering … walk into the British Museum’s Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970, next door. It is a neat, colourful, and thought-provoking, themed show. The ‘Identity’ section, containing works by Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney is of particular interest.

 

 

KH

‘Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz’ and ‘Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now’ are on until 12 January 2020. In Room 90 of the British Museum. Both are free entry shows.

 

Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

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Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28EZ2l3yZg

I had never heard of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art until I set foot in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Founded  by wood engraver, Iain Macnab in 1925, the Grosvenor School was different from other London-based art schools of the time. There were no exams, students enrolled on courses when they could, and once they learned the rudiments of linocutting (the course most associated with the school), they were encouraged to develop their own style. 

The emphasis on printmaking, and more specifically linocutting fell in with the ethos of key members of staff. Claude Flight, art department head, wanted cheap, easy to use materials, firm in his belief that art should be accessible to all. Not only should one produce art, irrespective of one’s standing in life, but it should be affordable, selling for no more than a few guineas.

In this forward-thinking environment the linocut, once a sombre monochrome affair, underwent a make-over and became a new, democratic art form. Colours were introduced into the printmaking process and both teachers and students, inspired by the ever-changing scenery of London, set to work recreating the energy of the capital in their compositions.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see the work of this generation of print artists, who in the 20s and 30s captured the mood and preoccupations of the inter-war years. 

I dived into the ‘Urban Living’ section and was struck by the proliferation of styles.

Ethel Spowers’s compositions stood out for me, particularly Special Edition 1938. A crowd forms in the street, each member of the public avidly reading the newspaper. Have Hitler’s troops just marched into Czechslovakia? White sheets, like billowing sails, fill the frame. Interestingly, they are principally women readers, judging by the cloche hats on show. Spowers’s repetition of plum, russet and green hues and her flattened perspective remind me of a beautiful Japanese woodcut. The traffic lights emerge from a sea of newspaper.

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Equally appealing but perhaps less elegant, was another of Powers’s prints, A Gust of Wind 1930-31. A figure clutches at a newspaper being swept away in all directions. A little scene captured to perfection.

In the ‘At Work At Play’, ‘Pastoral Life’ sections, one was reminded of how, despite the reduction of working hours for many, how hard manual labour could be for those straining to produce food for the expanding cities. I was particularly struck by Sybil Andrews’s rather unnerving Fall of the Leaf 1934.

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Three horses tug an obsolete, hand-held plough up a remarkably steep terrain. The fields surrounding, curve off at odd angles and the trees resemble half-opened fans. It is an extraordinary work of warped reality which makes one feel quite queasy!

On the ‘Play’ front, Dorrit Black’s Music 1927-8 (see Title Image) was a more vibrant version of Matisse’s The Dance,1909. Black’s print encapsulates the ecstasy of dance during the jazz age. Meanwhile Cyril Power’s The Concerto, 1935, is a study of an orchestra in full flow. Here it is interesting to see the old woodcut style appear in the cellos and piano strings.

Cyril Power also impresses in the room entitled, ‘On the Move’, where, in The Tube Train 1930, the printmaker captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the commuter train, referred to as ‘The Tank’ at the time. The discomfort of its red-faced occupants is palpable, sweltering no doubt in  their suits, top hats and Trilbies! 

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Power also sought to capture the speed and movement of the new spectator sports such as tennis, sports car and horse events. The Sport section was interesting in that it was the first time sport was captured in this way. The elongated arms of the tennis player at the net and the racing car distorted by the speed it is travelling at, are all exaggerated images and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but they are an early record of the excitement caused by these spectator sports which were in their infancy.

This was a very satisfying show on many fronts. The art-deco age will always attract the crowds of course but what was of particular interest for me, was to see an equal input of both female and male artists. There is so much talk these days of women been underrepresented in art and this show certainly redresses the balance. It gives it a satisfying wholeness.

So what happened to the humble print priced at a couple of guineas? Well now an original Cyril Power print  may go for as much as £100,000!

Highly recommended.

KH

 Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking runs until 8th September 2019