“When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.
KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints…”
While reviewing a book on Käthe Kollwitz’s art – which features prominently images of labourers, the poor and the socially deprived, with a view to eliciting sympathy with the plight of the urban poor in the era of industrialism – I was struck once again by the multivalent political character of Social Realism. Social Realism needs to be distinguished from Socialist Realism. Social Realism is the use of naturalism to depict the life of the poor, working class and social outcasts, specifically with the intention of effecting social, legal and cultural change in favour of the depicted subjects. Socialist Realism is the political conformity of artists to the cause of advancing and consolidating the policy and ideals of Socialism and Communism, usually within the structures of states pursing such political goals. So Kollwitz, Jules Bastien-Lepage and Marie Bashkirtseff are Social Realists; Vera Mukhina and Isaak Brodsky are Socialist Realists.
To complicate matters, Kollwitz may not have been a Socialist Realist but she was definitely a Socialist. Her close family members were members of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), expressed support for it and she made posters for SPD causes. She accepted commissions from the SPD and the pro-Communist Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung newspaper. She was twice a signatory to a petition for left-wing parties to unite against the Nazi Party in 1932 and 1933. One essential feature of Socialist Realism is idealisation; Kollwitz did not idealise her subjects, though she did simplify and turn living subjects into types. Her art (even the political posters) criticises inequity rather than celebrates the success of Socialist action and organisation.
A curious fact about Kollwitz’s Socialist iconography and messages is that they are equally amenable to the politically left and right…”
“In November, the Horniman Museum returned Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (as announced in August) and Cambridge University pledged to return human skulls to Zimbabwe. Last week, Egypt requested the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and there have been reports of a discussion between the British Museum and Greek authorities regarding the Elgin Marbles.
Barely a week goes by without news of repatriation of artefacts. So, why is this happening now?
Repatriation of items from one country to its supposed country of origin has been a hot topic for five years, since President Macron sent items from the French national collection to Burkina Faso. This is a form of deaccessioning, which is when a museum removes an item from its permanent collection. This can be by sale, exchange or destruction. The latter only usually for an object so deteriorated it is now worthless or dangerous.
Although public museums in the UK rarely deaccession – it is effectively prohibited by legislation except in very limited circumstances – the practice is common in American museums…”
Käthe Kollwitz née Schmidt (1867-1945) was born in Königsberg and went to study painting in Munich. She aspired to follow the informality and liveliness of Max Liebermann’s Impressionism, combining this with the social-realist trend, current in the 1870s and 1880s. The movement came largely from the elevation of the peasant by Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. This became inflected by the dramatic symbolism of Max Klinger, whose example dominated the German art world in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. The young artist married physician Dr Karl Kollwitz in 1891 and moved to the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. This brought her into frequent contact with the working-class poor, labourers, the elderly, children and pregnant women.
These types formed the basis of her art works, sometimes illustrating scenes from Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Gerhart Hauptmann. Narrative is generally eschewed in favour of the impact of the isolation figure or pair of figures. The subjects are often women who are suffering or supplicating. Children (sometimes the artist’s sons) are usually young and poor, sometimes accompanied by mothers. Mother’s grieving over the death of infants is a recurrent subject. This was a staple of not only social realists but of book illustrators and Victorian academic painters. Without a belief in religious redemption and certainty of an afterlife – Kollwitz seems (as a socialist) to have been an areligious materialist – her scenes have a powerful bleakness.
Kollwitz soon expanded her media to graphics, which became her primary means of working, something that allowed her to exhibit widely, sending her art by post. It also corresponded with her increasingly socialist outlook, which advanced the idea that art should be cheap enough for even labourers to purchase. Her work in woodcut is not as effective, as it loses most of it corporeality. This book includes posters, drawing attention to poverty and opposing war. They were noticed at the time and considered provocative. The artist commented on her dissatisfaction with the lettering done by typographers on the final printing of the posters. Editor Hannelore Fischer selects quotes from the artist’s journals, memoirs and letters that give us Kollwitz’s personal testimony. Comments by contemporaries tell of how her art was received during her lifetime.
She also studied sculpture at the Académie Julian, Paris and visited Rodin. She built respect and won awards for her art over the next decade. In 1914, one of her two sons, Peter was killed in Great War. The despair and anguish of her grief drove Kollwitz to commemorate his death in the statue group Mourning Parents (1932), erected in the Belgian cemetery where her son is buried. The experience turned her into a pacifist. War themes and maternities dominated the late work she made. Kollwitz opposed the Nazi government, using her pacifist work to implicitly criticise the militarism of the regime. She died a few weeks before the end of World War II.
This book is published under the guidance of Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne, which holds a large collection of the artist’s drawings, prints and sculptures, as well as personal documents, which come primarily come from the artist’s family. The book acts as a generous introduction to the artist’s world and the range of her oeuvre. There are thematic chapters covering the artist’s output, with bibliography, exhibition list, chronology and index. This catalogue publishes 15 newly authenticated drawings by Kollwitz, not included in the 1980 catalogue raisonné. The reproductions are pin sharp and tonally rich. Most of her art is monochrome.
Kollwitz’s drawings are very close to the prints. Kollwitz started with etching but soon moved to lithographs, often made with transfer sheets. That where, rather than drawing directly on a stone, the artist draws in crayon on a special paper, which is then mechanically transferred to the stone. It requires less involvement from the artist and is more convenient. The drawings are mainly in charcoal, of faces and half-length figures, usually set in a dark, non-descript surrounding. The detachment from specifics of place and time are deliberate; they stress the universality of the situations and amplify the emotions of both the depicted and the viewer. There is no relief, no incidental detail, no anecdotal aside, no attractive colour. There is nothing except the subject of the art and the subject-as-viewer. Kollwitz’s drawing may have been influenced by the realism of Adolph von Menzel’s studies from life and Seurat’s conté drawing on textured paper, which created monochrome analogues to his Pointillist paintings. Her exhibitions with different societies of avant-garde art would have brought her into contact with a great variety of art. Two artists she knew from Paris was Eugène Carrière and Théophile Steinlen. Following his example, she made smoky drawings of women workers. Some of the newly found drawings are of Paris workers, sleeping or in drunken stupors in cellar bars. Social critiques of poverty, alcoholism and working conditions are frequent topics. Kollwitz’s tableaux of mothers with sick or dead children is one that we can find throughout Symbolist and Secession art of the 1890-1918 period.
The graphics are in no way supplementary to unique works. Kollwitz was ideally suited for prints, especially the lithographs that are drawing facsimiles, and we do not miss oil paintings. It is the absence of such paintings that mean that Kollwitz’s art is not discussed in overall surveys of realist art of the period. In 1910s and later, we find a degree of expressionism; not the Expressionism of Die Brucke or Edvard Munch but that of Daumier or Van Gogh – exaggeration rather pure Expressionism of primitivism and schematic treatment. The fold-out pages allow readers to view the sequence of two print suites: A Weavers Revolt (1893-7), The Peasants’ War (1902/3-8) and Seven Woodcuts on War (1921-2). The account of the 1524-5 Peasant’s Revolt was written Wilhelm Zimmermann, who was a source for Babel and Engels as a template for a workers’ Socialist revolution. Kollwitz included scenes of a raped-and-murdered woman, workers arming themselves and the march of the mob, selecting the most rousing scenes.
While Kollwitz’s maternities and lamentations are well known; less reproduced are her drawings of lovers embracing. She kept them secret during her lifetime. They are as tender and urgent as scenes of sad emotion. More detached are her drawings of herself. She drew workers and children from life but did not make many portraits made for fee-paying subjects. She had a gift for portraiture, as seen in some character heads. She sometimes wishes that she had described more specific physiognomies and record something of their life experiences. One of the greatest blind spots of socialists is indifference to the individual, in preference to the abstract masses. Kollwitz is relatively free of this failing but too often we encounter the general in her art when the specific would have been more piquant and engaging. She was invited to draw the body of Communist Karl Liebknecht after the failed revolt of 1919.
It seems that the English edition is currently sold out. Let us hope that a reprint makes this attractive volume available again to Anglophone readers.
Hannelore Fischer (ed.), Käthe Kollwitz: A Survey of her Works, 1888-1942, Hirmer, 2022, hardback, 304pp with 6 fold-out pages, 259 illus., €45, German version available, English version ISBN 978-3-7774-3079-9
A substantial exhibition of paintings by School of London painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is now reaching its last days. (23 September-16 December 2022, Piano Nobile, 96/129 Portland Road, London, W11 4LW, www.piano-nobile.com.) This review is from the catalogue only.
Auerbach was born in Berlin and arrived in England in 1939. He studied painting at Borough Polytechnic by David Bomberg (1947-53, alongside Leon Kossoff), St Martin’s Art School (1948-52) and the Royal College of Art (1952-5). He became friends with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj who became the nucleus of the School of London, which upheld the engagement with traditional painting techniques, figuration and the primacy of the human body (especially in the form of portraiture) as the prime subject of art.
Like other painters in the London School, Auerbach left many of his sitters unnamed. As with other artists, in their last years and posthumously, identities and biographical details emerge about the sitters. This comes with the process of historical, biographical and archive research that accompanies the elevation of the art to the status of classic. Also, as sitters die, pictures they owned enter the secondary market. Researchers make a point of asking for memoirs by and interviews with sitters. Biographers also seek out primary information from sitters.
Auerbach’s approach is to create a picture over multiple sessions from life, sometimes reworking the entire painting or drawing each time. He would often scrap a panel clean of paint and work from scratch in a following session. Over 40 or so sessions, a sheet of paper might be erased of its charcoal or graphite marks so often that is becomes rubbed right through, then patched be before the drawing is finished. The sprezzatura finish to the paintings belies the concentration put into each over a prolonged period, although the visible surface paint maybe indeed have been applied in one session. The impasto is so thick that it takes months to dry to state in which it can be hung vertically without slipping. An oil painting sometimes takes many years to dry, sometimes taking on a shrivelled appearance. A more schematic approach using encaustic wax would eliminate paint shrinkage, but Auerbach is not that type of painter.
The notes here relate to known portraits subjects of Auerbach, whether or not their pictures are among the exhibits at Piano Nobile. Some – such as Kossoff and Freud – are famous; others – such as curator and author Catherine Lampert – are known associates of the artist. Other initials reappear in exhibition listings over years without viewers knowing the identities. Julia is Auerbach’s wife and E.O.W. is Stella West, one of Auerbach’s lovers. Is usual, the reason artist’s conceal the identities of sitters and models is because exposure brings to light the tangled skein of personal affairs, failings in fidelity and awkward chronology. Is it any wonder that artists prefer to keep such information concealed for as long as possible. Auerbach’s determination is also shown in his loyalty to sitters; he has worked with some for decades.
Another sitter was Sandra Fisher, artist, muse and wife of Kitaj. Kitaj produced a memorable pastel of Sandra and Auerbach seated at a table (illustrated here). Sandra also sat to Auerbach, here in one drawing and one painting. Naturally, Auerbach’s sitters have been taken from individuals in the art world. Stephen Finer and Laurie Owen are painter colleagues; James Kirkman was an art dealer; David Landau is an art collector. Michael Podro the painter met before he began his career as an art historian, when they were both art students. Podro and his wife Charlotte collected Auerbach and were painted and drawn by him; Podro wrote about Auerbach – the essay is reprinted here. There is are discussions of the Podro-Auerbach friendship by Natasha Podro, Michael’s daughter, and by Luke Farey. The introductory material is a short foreword, a brief essay by art critic and portrait subject William Feaver and an interview with the artist by Martin Gayford; the latter are both old pieces (dating from 2009 and 2001 respectively), although the interview includes unpublished parts. There are commentaries that accompany the 41 paintings and drawings by Auerbach. There are new comments and information about sitters and their experiences of posing for Auerbach.
There also are eight photographs of Auerbach in his studio, shot by Nicola Bensley in one morning in 2015. The studio is famously small and spartan, situated in the Mornington Crescent (near Euston) and was previously occupied by (consecutively) Kossoff, Gustav Metzger and Frances Hodgkins. Auerbach’s studio is not as famous as Bacon or Freud’s but is an important part of the creation process. He has worked in the studio almost every day since moving there in 1954. As with Freud, sitters mention the powerful impression the studio makes upon them. The small, paint-encrusted cell is the site of most of his painting. Like Freud, Auerbach wrestles with paintings, displaying signs of frustration and tension as the image (usually) fails to cohere.
What of new art? There is a self-portrait drawing from 2020 – very light in touch and tonality – and we are promised further unpublished works in an updating of Feaver’s catalogue raisonné of Auerbach’s paintings, published this year. There is also a new head, which is daring; the black calligraphy seems quite detached to the slurred yellow brushwork below. The self-portrait drawings have a degree of liberation and dignity, as if the artist had freed himself of his previous penchant for Rembrandtian gloom and dramatic chiaroscuro.
The book gives a good overview of the artist’s achievements, presenting new information and publishing unseen art. It provides thorough provenances and exhibition/literature history for each piece; a chronology is also included. The production quality is very high. Getting the full intensity of the colour range is often tricky with Auerbach and this catalogue gets commendably close to the originals. Although the price of this book is high, it will become a coveted treasure for Auerbach connoisseurs.
William Feaver, Martin Gayford, Luke Farey, et al., Frank Auerbach: The Sitters, Piano Nobile Publications, 2022, cloth hardback with paper-band wrapper, 176pp, fully illus., £100, ISBN 978 1901192629