Born in 1867, the German Expressionist and master printmaker Käthe Kollwitz was quite the rara avis in her day: a female artist and a female activist. Though her work was not considered avant-garde at the time, she was highly regarded throughout her sixty-year career for the humanistic approach to her work–especially for several series of etchings that dealt with historical events. Of particular interest was the plight of the lower class and peasants. These series, along with a multitude of other works, are on display in a magnificent show that opened last month at Davidson Galleries, titled From Many Wounds.
The show includes works from Kollwitz’ first print cycle, A Weaver’s Revolt, inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play, Die Weber (The Weavers), which told the true story of Silesian weavers who revolted against low wages and poor working conditions. Kollwitz illustrates the drama in a poignant and sympathetic way, simplifying the action to create narratives of emotion. A Weaver’s Revolt was first exhibited in 1898 and she would have been awarded a gold medal for it had the Kaiser not vetoed the committee. The activist undertones of the work were at least part of his objection, but she was nonetheless embraced by the artists themselves and invited to join the Berlin Secession in the following year.
Conditions and expectations of the working class in Europe and the United States have dramatically improved since Kollwitz’ time, at the dawn of mass industrialization and before labor unions, but her prints remain resonant. Especially as concerns about class divides grow throughout the west and the plight of workers remains dismal in manufacturing centers and construction projects throughout Asia. The display of these works in Seattle is timely, in regard to other coming and ongoing exhibitions. For example, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Future Ruins at The Frye, explores similar concepts, drawing attention to the invisible class of migrant workers in the United States. Also at the Frye, the exhibit Pan refers to Kollwitz as one of many artists who were part of the swell of secession, aesthetic and craft movements devoted to making art more accessible than ever, expressing all classes with dignity, seeking new modes of expression and even pushing for new economic and political modes.
Kollwitz’ work seems more like creative non-fiction than documentary, as her frames emphasize emotion and universal themes over specific events. Her visions are more humanistic than utopic, and the exhibition provides a layered view of her artwork and life, exemplifying her masterful technique, dynamic compositional style and keen sensitivity to each subject. There is rage and grief, and also great tenderness, a bevy of Kollwitz’ self-portraits, pieces on the theme of women, mothers and children, of men and brotherhood, and allegorical works.
As previously stated, A Weaver’s Revolt illustrates the plight of Silesian weavers who revolted against low wages and poor working conditions. Kollwitz captures each stage of the narrative with clarity and drama unique to its subject, starting with the pained face of a mother looking over her bed ridden child—barred from treatment by their poverty. The gallery’s accompanying text states, “It is their poverty, their need, which has rendered them so pitiable and doomed their child to death.” The heart-wrenching scene is emphasized by the strong contrast and overall darkness of the piece. The contorted faces of father, mother and children are the only elements truly in focus for the viewer.
The quiet early scenes move from grief to seething anger and plotting before the violence boils over in the fourth sheet, titled “Weberzug.” The gallery writes, “Men, women and children alike band together, frightened, but determined. Kollwitz rendered eighteen different faces to show that workers could not merely be grouped into faceless masses. Each person has a different personality, a unique story, and a right to fair treatment.” The dark and solid horizon line locks the workers within the landscape, pushing down at the top of their heads—a symbolist gesture toward the systemic oppression that defined their world. The hand of a worker clutching a rock breaks through this line and into the emptiness of the sky. In the sixth and final sheet, titled simply “Ende,” Kollwitz shows the results of the failed revolution—corpses being carried into a room, the end of violent suppression in the public sphere brought into the deathly interior space that began the series. Kollwitz goes beyond the simple illustration of a historical event to evoke sympathy and respect for her subjects, never letting the individual become a statistic.
It is that raw, imperfect but beautiful humanity that is common to all of Kollwitz’ work, even at its most tragic. In Peasants’ War, she illustrated another peasant revolt that occurred in 1522-1525, again in violent protest of economic burdens and intolerable conditions. Kollwitz drew her own impressions from the history of the event written by Wilhelm Zimmermann. In Kollwitz’ age, new labor movements were forming out of new social philosophies, following ages of revolution throughout Europe and its colonies. In the 1500s, it was the Lutheran demand for church reform that provided the kindling for revolts targeting the aristocracy and monasteries, and in Zimmermann’s history a woman known as Black Anna was among those who lit the flame.
Peasants’ War is unique in its focus on feminine force, power and grief in its depiction of the conflict. As the Davidson Galleries literature points out, “[Kollwitz] breaks with tradition by telling most the story from the viewpoint of the women involved.” It begins with a print called “Raped,” depicting a peasant woman left in a wooded glade—just one of the many abuses suffered by the peasants that spurred them to strike back. Also central to this series—and in much of Kollwitz’ later work—is on the face and its expressive capacity…the multitude of emotions with one wince.
A formal analysis of the works shows an increasing attention to how the compositions can convey movement and latency. Kollwitz depicts the sweeping power of Black Anna in “Losbruch (Charge),” sheet 5 of the series. Her arms and hands stretched above are clenched in anger with the form of her body directing the mob forward, moving past her in seething rage, almost in the posture of a sorceress. Compare it to sheet 4, “Arming in a Vault,” one of her most frightening works. The peasants have raided the lord’s armory and have become a singular wave of humanity, sweeping up, spiked with blades beneath the curved arches. The eye spirals around the scene, the flow of anger never ceasing.
The battle itself is omitted. Instead, we see its aftermath. In “Schlachtfeld (Battlefield),” Kollwitz shows a mother’s heartbreaking search for her deceased son. It is night, and the stooping woman illuminates one corpse’s face with a lantern, peering out at us from darkness textured with obscured piles of bodies. In the final sheet, “Die Gefangenen (The Prisoners),” men, women and children are brought into a starkly different unity than seen in the previous scenes; they are bound in a wall of anger and despair, awaiting their fate.
These brutal works can be overwhelming, especially in the quantity they are presented in the gallery’s close quarters. There are quieter, tender works by Kollwitz, but even in them there is a reminder of mortality and human frailty. For viewers who want to really feel something when they see a work of art, From Many Wounds is not to be missed, but it is a vital show for all, as we all continue to face the consequences of violence and class struggles. These pieces still contain a potential to change the course of our social and cultural mores. By losing ourselves in Kollwitz’ work, we may be inoculated against losing ourselves in a mob as we consider the class struggles and violence that continue to this day.
From Many Wounds is on display until March 28 at Davidson Galleries (313 Occidental Ave S).