Raw, unembellished and decried in conservative circles as ‘gutter art’, the life of Käthe Kollwitz (1867 –1945) was dominated by a tireless political commitment expressed through the resources of art. ‘I want to exert influence in these times’, she writes in one of her celebrated diary entries. This attitude comes through in many of her graphic series, such as ‘A Weavers’ Revolt’ and the ‘Peasants’ War’, which leave us in no doubt about whom she is speaking for and what side of society she is on.
With key drawings, rare proof prints and sculptures that have long since become canonical, the exhibition covers the full spectrum of her output. Posters reveal the profoundly political dimension of her art: here, more clearly than in other media, we can see Kollwitz’s enthusiasm for works ‘that exert influence’.
Yet at all times – and this is what elevates her work above any fleeting impact – she places human beings at the centre of what she does, capturing their psychological states in times of crisis with an unflinchingly critical gaze. Profoundly empathetic, her art is never merely a reaction to day-to-day political events, but is always a timeless warning against the evils of suffering and oppression as well. It is therefore no surprise that her purist, largely black-and-white works are once again highly topical in our current time of crisis.
Interventions by the artist Mona Hatoum (b. 1952) underscore the enduring validity of Kollwitz’s art. Hatoum, winner of the Käthe Kollwitz Prize in 2010, employs a similarly reduced formal language, uses colour at best pointedly and produces works that revolve around issues of vulnerability, displacement and the experience of conflict.
Ill: Käthe Kollwitz, The Ploughmen. Sheet 1 of the cycle ‘Peasants’ War’, 1907, Kunsthaus Zürich