BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 117

Käthe Kollwitz: Portrait of the Artist

Sometimes reviewing feels impossible. Awe and an overwhelming duty to do it justice weigh heavy like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, leaving the hands and mind paralysed. Portrait of the Artist, a collection of Käthe Kollwitz’s prints from the British Museum, in Room 3 at Swansea’s Glynn Vivian Gallery is just such a show.

The first impression is of an understated display. A single line of mostly monochrome, medium-sized, framed works on paper follow along the walls of the three, slightly dimmed rooms. There is a faint smell of something vaguely chemical. Temperature-controlled, Room 3 on this hot May day is cool and empty, except for the black-shirted Gallery assistant who keeps bobbing in and out. (It’s much warmerer out there, he says by way of an explanation.)

It’s over twenty years since I saw a Kollwitz in the flesh. My memory is of a series of huge, stark, darkly relentless portrayals of toil, uprising and death. But looking at the comparatively modest-sized, smoky grey images before me, I begin to doubt my powers of recall. These are not what I expected. And I got another thing wrong. Kollwitz’s political narratives, I now find, are not reportage but allegory. As a doctor’s wife living in a poor district of Berlin from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, I’d assumed she was merely relating what she saw. Not so. Kollwitz used real and fictional events as metaphors to represent what she regarded as universal human suffering. In ‘The Ploughmen (The Peasants’ Revolt)’, 1907 a series illustrating the Russian Peasant’s War, 1525–26, two pre-industrial figures, their hands groping at the soil, the sinews of their necks and calves taut as the leather straps across their backs, haul the plough through the barren earth. It’s an astonishing image. As are ‘Woman with Scythe’, 1904 and ‘Sharpening the Scythe’, 1905 – their bodies and the tools of their labour, human-sized blades that are both cutter and crutch, are indivisible. And both will clearly be the death of them.

Contemporaries of hers, I can trace echoes of van Gogh’s ‘Peasant Woman Stooping and Gleaning’ in these pieces and of Munch’s ‘Sick Child’ graphic works in ‘Need’, 1893–97 part of the series The Weaver’s Revolt, inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1893 play. But there the similarity ends. Kollwitz’s vision is harsher, more real, more felt, more understood.

But it is Kollwitz’s depiction of women that is most remarkable. They are not the stolid, bovine-like creatures of van Gogh’s oeuvre or the femme fatales of Munch’s. Her women, as in ‘Storming the Gate’, 1893–37 or ‘Charge’, 1902, fight alongside the men, labour with them, and even, as in her depiction of ‘Black Anna’, incite revolution – their shoulders are just as stooped and their sleeves rolled up to reveal the same strong arms. But, as in ‘Battlefield’, 1907 and ‘The Widow’, 1921, it’s the women alone who grieve. For it’s here, in these images, that Kollwitz poured her fellow feeling for the contemporary women she encountered – they were her models. And she allied herself with them, electing to use her own body for ‘Woman with Dead Child’, 1903 a breathtaking memoriam for the death of her son in WW1.

Walking out into the city’s sunshine I’m struck by how little things have changed in a hundred years. Poverty and unemployment are still rife, but its embodiment is now flaccid, sedentary and inert. Then I think about last month’s referendum in Ireland. There is hope, I say to myself, and there is Kollwitz’s exquisite draughtsmanship. It is that that had rendered me speechless, that, and that alone.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

This exhibition ran at the Glynn Vivian gallery in Swansea ended on 17 June. It moves to the Ferens Gallery, Hull, from 30 June and runs until 30 September 2018.


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