Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
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The Triumph of Art over Suffering
Crisis Magazine, August 1992
© Karen Laub-Novak

The diaries give us a valuable insight into Mother’s methods of work and her tempo. She constantly swung between long periods of depression and inability to work and the much shorter periods when she felt she was making progress in her work and mastering her task. She suffered terribly during these spells of emptiness.
Hans Kollwitz

May 19, 1992, when I headed for a press preview at the National Gallery of Art, was a bright sunny morning, with spring flowers scenting the air. I entered the museum to encounter muted rooms filled with stark visions of loneliness, grief, rebellion, poverty, anxiety. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) carved a unique place in the art world during the war years. She developed a deeply personal, figurative style. It began not only with “pity and sympathy” for the working class, but also with the realization that she “found it beautiful.” She became intent on visual images of beauty in ugliness. This style resonated with people around the world. For many she became an advocate for the proletariat and a critic of the Nazis.

Kollwitz was disappointed in her early failures to exhibit in conventional galleries. In 1898, however, she attained overnight success with a series of prints, “A Weaver’s Rebellion,” inspired by Gerard Hauptmann’s play The Weavers. This “subversive” cycle of prints, beginning with three lithographs and ending with three etchings, is technically accomplished and emotionally captivating. From then on she concentrated on printmaking and drawing, primarily in black and white.

Käthe (Schmidt) Kollwitz was reserved in showing emotion and private about her personal life. At the age of 52, however, she wrote a brief history of her early life for her son Hans. He later included this essay in a small book of her diaries and letters that he edited. A number of other diaries also referred to in the well-written and illustrated catalogue for this show. Kollwitz did not want the biography of her personal life to interfere with the judgment of her work. But the very nature of her work full of anguish, deeply humanistic and committed to communication invites some reflection on Käthe Kollwitz the woman. Her son wrote:

Mother loved laughter and longed for opportunities to laugh. People who have known her only in her serious moods, sitting with kind, melancholy eyes, listening attentively, or who know her only in her works, do not know the part of her that delighted in affirmation, in young people, in with, laughter, high spirits and comedy.

Kollwitz acknowledged that her life was filled with tension: “In the torment of all these years small oases of joys and successes!” When she was a child, “stomach aches were a were a surrogate for all physical and mental pains.” She was subject to tantrums and later “moods for hours and even days.” Her emotions were high-keyed, and she experienced frightful dreams about her mother’s well being. Eventually all this passion found a “clear aim and direction” in art.

What surprised her bohemian friends and disappointed her father was her engagement at age 17 to Karl Kollwitz. Her father, thinking her too plain ever to marry, had encouraged and supported his daughter’s art studies. He longed for her success. At 23, she married Karl, older, more emotionally open and even-tempered. They moved to Prenzlauer Berg, a workers’ section of northeast Berlin. There Karl, a social democrat and a physician, began working for the tailors’ health insurance plan. Kollwitz lived for 52 years in the same apartment, maintaining an outside studio. They had two sons. Hans, born in 1892, sturdy but prone to depression, later became a physician. Peter, born in 1896, often sickly as a child, frequently modeled for his mother’s work. In 1914 he died in battle, age 21, a volunteer in the army. His death shadowed the rest of Käthe Kollwitz’s life. She felt grief, anger, and guilt. She blamed herself for not opposing his enlistment. She once wrote, “For the last third of life there is only work,” as if all other passions, conflicts, and sorrows would diminish and leave her free for her art.

In viewing this show, my impression is that her most powerful work was completed before 1911, during the years in whish she struggled with her roles as wife, mother and artist. In her own words, she felt her happiest years were between the ages of 30 – 40 (1897 – 1907). Perhaps the intensity and tension of these conflicts, plus wrestling with depression, added to the energy of her art and the vitality she felt in those years. Her son Hans commented that after 1910 a melancholy descended upon her. Her work became more message-directed. She eliminated etching and concentrated on wood block, lithography and sculpture. Perhaps she hoped a new medium would revitalize her spirits. Her early delight in the time-consuming exploration of the intaglio gave way to a desire for the shorthand method of communication, which she found in lithography.

The joy of retrospective shows is the opportunity to see works in progress. Preliminary stages of prints and sketches enable us to experience vicariously the artist’s rummaging through her mind for alternative ways of expressing a certain mood or idea. We see how a small alteration in the drawing of a hand can completely change the force and meaning of the work.

In 1890, Kollwitz began her transition from painting to black-and-white printmaking and drawing. Unfortunately, part of that decision seems to have been based on criticism of her color work that she had received as a student. But it also coincided with Klinger’s theories on the importance of the graphic arts. Yet the small amount of color that appears in her work indicates that both she and her instructors underestimated her eye for color. She studied etching, engraving, and intaglio. She experimented with various techniques on the surface of metal plates, usually copper.

Etching uses only acids. Engraving uses special tools to carve into the surface of the plate, and intaglio is a combination of these techniques. The plate is heated. Soft ground is rolled on the plate. Soft ground will accept texture impressions of cloth, leaves, fingerprints. The ground will resist the acid and the texture impression will be permanently etched on the plate. Aquatint, something like granules of sugar, adheres to the heated plate and, depending on the size and density of the granules, creates a soft grainy effect. Hard ground painted on with a brush completely protects areas from the acid’s action.

The prepared plate is then placed in an acid bath for controlled time sequences. Areas can be covered with acid-resistant ground or varnish and then re-etched. Finally, the plate is completely cleaned, heated, and rubbed with ink. The etched areas hold the ink and the smooth areas are softly wiped clean with a puff of cheesecloth. The plate is put on the bed of a printing press. Dampened paper is placed on the plate and then pressure is applied as the plate rolls through the press. The paper is gently pulled from the plate. The image appears, in reverse. The final results of the acid’s actions are often a surprise. An inked impression appears on the papers that was not fully anticipated. For this reason, the artist needs to print and study many proofs. This can be a long and tedious process. Etchings are not as easily controlled visually or technically as lithographs.

Etching and intaglio use grounds, tools, and deep biting acids that alter the contour of the working surface. In lithography, the images are created with waxy crayons and greasy inks. When specially prepared lithographic stones were available, Kollwitz worked directly on the stone. At other times she drew on transfer paper that was then transferred to a stone or plate. After the drawing is completed, the surface of the stone is altered by a delicate acid wash that affects the open areas but not the greasy impressions. The stone is then kept moist as ink is rolled on the surface with a large roller. The greasy areas attract the ink, the etched, water-soaked areas repulse the ink. Dampened paper is placed on the stone, pressure applied, and a reverse image is impressed on the paper. In both etching and lithography, color impressions can be created with colored inks. Kollwitz also apparently used some kind of “mechanical grain” for texture. Probably a “half-tone screen with a light sensitive emulsion coated on the plate and then exposed to light.” Many of her print cycles combine both printing methods, as well as additional graphite drawing or hand coloring.

When viewing Kollwitz’s prints and drawings, step back take a long look at the whole composition. Then step forward. Notice the shades of gray, the texture, the occasional use of color. Independent of the image or the message the surface has its own validity.

Kollwitz was constantly treading a tightrope between the message she wanted to communicate and art for art’s sake. She shunned the avant-garde experiments of her time, expressionism and cubism, and concentrated on figurative work that could readily communicate with others. She chose print-making because multiple impressions meant that the artwork would be available to more people and the cost would not be prohibitive. Later in life, she concentrated on lithography with a kind of technical shorthand, which she felt more directly spoke of her social concerns. This leaves us with a critical conflict in her art work.

In many of her later works, the message becomes the predominant focus. She loosens the strict line between the medium and message. The balance in her earlier work between the joy of technical mastery and the expression of inner emotions later sometimes yielded to mere illustrations of ideas: Too much emphasis on the message and note enough on the medium. Those prints and drawings that blend her message with a visual delight in the surface and composition of the work are the most successful.

Her prints before 1911 are extraordinarily powerful. Of special note: “Woman with Dead Child,” a figure of a woman, her son, her desire to give her own breath of life to him, raw grieving pressed into the body of the child.

But as she said, the most important thing is the work itself. In fact, despite the depression she continued to work “as slowly as a snail.” An understanding of her struggle adds to our appreciation of her work, but if all she had exhibited were feelings of depression and anxiety within herself, that would not have been a life of art. Nor would we be viewing this impressive array of her works. She wrote: “Arid I stand before the door to myself but there is nothing in particular behind that door.”

Yet, as with Munch, Van Gogh, and many other artists, the clinical details of her anxiety and depression would be merely interesting, while what is far more important is that her arid struggles were paired with deep joys, delight in media, and ferocity in friendship. Moreover, art works of exquisite tenderness, subtlety, and anger were completed. Depression often tempted her to fall into a state of passivity or self-destruction; Kollwitz looked that latent danger in the eye and gave it form.

She had a listening heart, and often took on the emotional burdens of her husband’s patients. She would see beauty in those who were suffering. But grief empathized with and, later, grief experienced, seemed to change her work. Ironically, the earlier work is more passionate. Her most powerful work is filled with grieving, sorrow, and weight. “Woman with Dead Child” was done six years before Peter’s death, as if her own inner grief lay waiting in anticipation, and then the later reality was too much for her. After Peter’s death, her images of mothers took on an angry, stoic demeanor, as if she had failed Peter. As if her own patriotism and love of fatherland had doomed him.

Kollwitz’s depression turned to melancholy after 1914. It took her 18 years to complete the sculptural monument for Peter that she started in 1916. “Climbing like a snail,” but climbing.

What is striking is her tenacity “climbing like a snail, creeping, taking the tiniest steps, but at least going upward.”

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