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…”
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