Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Kollwitz’s weavers

‘Went to the theater with Karl; saw The Weavers [. . .] I was overcome by something of the same feeling I had when I saw The Weavers for the first few times. Of the feeling that animates the weavers, the desire for eye for eye, tooth for tooth, the feeling I had when I did the weavers. My weavers. In the meantime I have been through a revolution, and I am convinced that I am no revolutionist.’ This is from the diaries of Käthe Kollwitz, a famous German artist and sculptress who died 75 years ago today. She is largely remembered for her depictions of the effects of poverty, hunger and war on the working class.

Kollwitz was born in 1867 in Königsberg, Prussia, the fifth child of a housebuilder and his religious wife. From the age of 12, she was instructed in drawing and copying plaster casts; and by 16, much influenced by her grandfather’s socialist politics, she was drawing working people, the ones she saw coming to her father’s office. With no colleges open to her nearby, she studied in Berlin and Munich art schools for women. Initially trained as a painter, she was influenced by the work and writings of fellow artist Max Klinger and began to focus on the graphic arts. After 1890, she was mostly etching and working with sculpture (later also turning to lithography and woodcuts). She became engaged to Karl Kollwitz, a medical student, while in Munich, and by 1891 they had married, and were living in a large apartment in Berlin, and he was practising as a qualified doctor. They had two sons, Hans and Peter.

Kollwitz’s series of etchings The Weavers (1898) - inspired by seeing a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844 - first brought her critical attention. She joined the Berlin Secession artistic movement from 1901, and in the years through to 1908 - during which she made several trips to Paris - she produced her second major cycle of works - Peasant War. She was awarded the Villa Romana prize for the etching Outbreak, and the prize allowed her to study in Florence during 1907. On returning to Germany, biographers says, she became inspired by the Expressionists and Bauhaus artists to simplify her modes of expression. Her son, Peter, died in combat in 1914, leading her into a deep depression. She worked for years on a monument to him, destroying one and not completing a second until 1932.

In 1922–23, Kollwitz produced the cycle War in woodcut form. Much of her art in this period was taking pro-war propaganda and turning it round to create anti-war works, critical of the growing nationalism she was witnessing. In 1924, she finished her three most famous posters: Germany’s Children Starving, Bread, and Never Again War. By the mid-1930s, she had completed her last major cycle of lithographs, Death, and was facing persecution by the Nazi regime. She died on 22 April 1945. Four museums - in Berlin, Cologne and Moritzburg, and the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Koekelare - are dedicated solely to her work. The Käthe Kollwitz Prize, established in 1960, is named for her. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum, The Art Story or Spartacus

Kollwitz kept a diary intermittently throughout the latter part of her life, from 1909. Extracts from these diaries were first edited by her son, Hans Kollwitz, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, and published in 1955 as Diaries and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz by Henery Regnery Company. It was subsequently reissued by Northwestern University Press in 1988 as 
The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz - a digital copy of this can be borrowed freely from Internet Archive (with log-in). Hans Kollwitz says in his introduction: ‘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 that she was making progress in her work and mastering her task. She suffered terribly during these spells of emptiness.’

Here are several extracts from the diaries, including one in which Kollwitz reflects on her past entries, observing that she wrote mostly about obstacles and trouble and seldom about being happy.

1 December 1914
‘Conceived the plan for a memorial for Peter tonight, but abandoned it again because it seemed to me impossible of execution. In the morning I suddenly thought of having Reike ask the city to give me a place for the memorial. There would have to be a collection taken for it. It must stand on the heights of Schildhorn, looking out over the Havel. To be finished and dedicated on a glorious summer day. Schoolchildren of the community singing, “On the way to pray.” The monument would have Peter’s form, lying stretched out, the father at the head, the mother at the feet. It would be to commemorate the sacrifice of all the young volunteers.

It is a wonderful goal, and no one has more right than I to make this memorial.’

22 August 1916
‘Stagnation in my work.

When I feel so parched, I almost long for the sorrow again. And then when it comes back I feel it stripping me physically of all the strength I need for work.

Made a drawing: the mother letting her dead son slide into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him. As if I had to find him in the work. And yet everything I can do is so childishly feeble and inadequate. I feel obscurely that I could throw off this inadequacy, that Peter is somewhere in the work and I might find him. And at the same time I have the feeling that I can no longer do it. I am too shattered, weakened, drained by tears. I am like the writer in Thomas Mann: he can only write, but he has not sufficient strength to live what is written. It is the other way round with me. I no longer have the strength to form what has been lived. A genius and a Mann could do it. I probably cannot.

For work, one must be hard and thrust outside oneself what one has lived through. As soon as I begin to do that, I again feel myself a mother who will not give up her sorrow. Sometimes it all becomes so terribly difficult.

Hoyer has answered my letter. His reply is very kind. He too calls me Mother. But that doesn’t bother me. Now all three of them call me that, Hans Koch, Noll and Hoyer. At first I felt alarm, then happiness, and now diffidence -wondering what I can give them. I can really be a mother only to my own.

I suppose it is conceivable to broaden out so that one can feel great love for other children than one’s own, but again it is the same as in my work: I feel that I cannot. I am not broad enough for that. My strength is insufficient.’

28 June 1921
‘Went to the theater with Karl; saw The Weavers at the Grosse Schauspielhaus. The inflammatory effect of the mass scenes. “Let Jaeger come out, let Jaeger come out! Let Hoelz come out!”

I was overcome by something of the same feeling I had when I saw The Weavers for the first few times. Of the feeling that animates the weavers, the desire for eye for eye, tooth for tooth, the feeling I had when I did the weavers. My weavers.

In the meantime I have been through a revolution, and I am convinced that I am no revolutionist. My childhood dream of dying on the barricades will hardly be fulfilled, because I should hardly mount a barricade now that I know what they are like in reality. And so I know now what an illusion I lived in for so many years. I thought I was a revolutionary - and was only an evolutionary. Yes, sometimes I do not know whether I am a socialist at all, whether I am not rather a democrat instead. How good it is when reality tests you to the guts and pins you relentlessly to the very position you always thought, so long as you clung to your illusion, was unspeakably wrong. I think something of the sort has happened to Konrad. Yes, he - and I too - would probably have been capable of acting in a revolutionary manner if the real revolution had had the aspect we expected. But since its reality was highly un-ideal and full of earthly dross - as probably every revolution must be - we have had enough of it. But when an artist like Hauptmann comes along and shows us revolution transfigured by art, we again feel ourselves revolutionaries, again fall for the old deception.’

31 December 1925
‘Recently I began reading my old diaries. Back to before the war. Gradually I became very depressed. The reason for that is probably that I wrote only when there were obstacles and halts to the flow of life, seldom when everything was smooth and even. So there were at most brief notes when things went well with Hans, but long pages when he lost his balance. And I wrote nothing when Karl and I felt that we belonged intimately to one another and made each other happy; but long pages when we did not harmonize. As I read I distinctly felt what a half-truth a diary presents. Certainly there was truth behind what I wrote; but I set down only one side of life, its hitches and harassments. I put the diaries away with a feeling of relief that I am safely out of those times. Yet they were times which I always think of as the best in my life, the decade from my mid-thirties to my mid-forties. A great many things were very confused in those days. Then came the war and turned everything topsy-turvy. Knocked one down flat on the ground. Half alive and half dead, one crawled in silence, living a humble life drenched with suffering. One rose to one’s feet very slowly indeed. New happiness came with Hans, Ottilie, the babies. Karl was always at my side. And that is a happiness that I have fully realized only in these last years - that he and I are together. Now we are wonderfully fond of one another. He is no longer the same man he once was, as I am no longer the same woman. He has left many things behind him, has grown out of and above them. What has remained is his “innocence,” as Sophie Wolff calls it. He has a really innocent heart, and from that comes his wonderful inward joyousness.’

May 1943 [The last diary entry.]
‘Hans has reached the age of 51. Air-raid alarm the night of May 14. It was the loveliest of May nights. Hans and Ottilie did not go to sleep until very late. They sat in the garden and listened to a nightingale.

After work Hans came, then Ottilie and finally Lise. The four of us sat together. On his birthday table, below the grave relief, I had placed the lithograph Death Calls, the print of which I worked over. Then there was a drawing I had made of Karl one time when he was reading aloud to me. We were sitting around the living room table at the time. This drawing is a favorite of Hans’. And there was also the small etching. Greeting, which is closely connected with his birthday.

We lit Josef Faasen’s large candle.

Early next morning, Hans came again and brought a great bouquet of lilies from the garden. What happiness it is for me that I still have my boy whom I love so deeply and who is so fond of me.

Goethe to Lavater, 1779: “But let us stop worrying our particular religions like a dog its bone. I have gone beyond purely sensual truth.” ’

No comments: