‘Despair is the damp of hell’ (Donne) / Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life

“It is said that scattered through Despair’s domain are a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void. Each window looks out onto a different scene, being, in our world, a mirror. Sometimes you will look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon you, feel her hook catch and snag on your heart. Despair says little, and is patient.” (Gaiman)

“It seems exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain in an art gallery.” (Sontag)

Several years ago – was it that long? That in itself is an indictment of the situation to which it alludes – Ai Weiwei (whom may bear the burden of being the most significant contemporary artist of our time) shared / created / ‘authored’ an image described as a ‘posthumous appropriation’ of Alan Kurdi, the migrant boy who drowned seeking asylum with his family. Prone, still and alone on the sand, the image has been elevated into that sphere of photographs that don’t simply record history, but define it. There was, however, an intense debate at the time, as to whether this bordered on exploitation. The display of the body of a child whose death was fully preventable, a testament to the ongoing cruelty and depravity of the world we not only live in but aid and abet is vile, to many. Perhaps it’s vile for the impolite reminder. Perhaps it’s vile for casting a light on something sooner – easier – forgotten.  After all, “[t]he human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.” (Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon)

But that this image played a role in the last Canadian federal election is undeniable: and that it resonates now, years later, is a testimony to its power.

There is, in many ways, a crisis of authenticity in the wider – but definitely manifest in the Canadian – art world. One of my critical brethren observed recently that she’d not seen more than she could count on one hand (with fingers to spare) good artwork ‘about’ Donald Trump. This is, frankly, unsurprising: the art world – in its variant forms and cabals – already has an ‘echo chamber’ problem to those of us who straddle those diverse spaces, and it’s especially cast in relief for those of us whom occupy contested spaces of culture and community.

On a recent trip to the AGO, I was focused upon the sample of works by Joseph Beuys there, for an article I was writing: unsurprisingly, I found that the true gem of that visit wasn’t Beuys but Käthe Kollwitz. The gallery was in the midst of a sampling, presented through several past exhibitions, of a bequest of her work. From the writing around it, at the gallery site, I expected a small room and a few iconic pieces. Instead, several rooms highlighted this amazing artist’s works in print and sculpture, and this made the visit worthwhile.

Many of the walls are painted darker colours, and Kollwitz’ palette is the restrained monochromatic of her intaglio and lithographic prints: many images entrance by the quality – the formal brilliance – of her execution of this medium, and this only further entrances the viewer when you step back and are ‘gut punched’ by the scenes of misery, suffering and the manner in which Kollwitz has capture the faces of her people. I use that term instead of subjects, as the works overflow with empathy and emotion.

A small sculptural work is where we’ll begin: the glut of figures in this Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye (conceived 1937 / 38, cast in 1938) are like a piece of emotional detritus that Kollwitz has cast in bronze. These women know their men are going to their deaths: this is not so much sending off their husbands (and fathers, as two small children huddle, almost burrowing into the dresses of a woman in the front of the assembly) as a funeral gathering.

Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye, 1938

The way in which the many become one, the individual becomes universal evokes the admonition that ‘the poor will be with us always.’ Pensive Woman (1893), where the pale, bloodless woman’s face is again obscured by a raised hand, is clearly a wailing wife, daughter – or mother, if we return to Allan Kurdi.

In the midst of Kollwitz, I hear this not as a dismissal, as a boon to apathy, but as a condemnation of us, of our failure as a species, as our inability to be human or humane. But ‘at the end of the day you’re another day older / and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor / it’s a struggle, it’s a war / and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving / one more day standing about, what is it for? one day less to be living…’

Municipal Shelter, 1926

Kollwitz’s aesthetic was a refreshing panacea, a reminder, of what art can and should be: both executed with a technical acumen and with an emotional quality that will find you examining one small print from over a century ago, enthralled by her delicate cross hatching and engulfing voids, and then lost in the faces of her figures. Titles are almost irrelevant: her works take on an historical, documentary demeanour, and whether you’re looking at her recording or interpretation of suffering in her time and place or whether these could as easily be people suffering right now, here or around the world is what makes her work matter. She resonates across history: dwell on the past, lose an eye, but forget the past and lose both (Solzhenitsen).

The Downtrodden: Poor Family, 1900

The Downtrodden: Poor Family (1900), with the husband hiding his face with shame behind his lax hand, the mother attending the child, all waxen and waning. Their poverty and want lifts off the ink, just as with Municipal Shelter (1926): this work is more minimal, less dark and dense, and though the children cradled by their mother’s body may be sleeping, her closed eyes and mussed hair suggest a failed attempt to momentarily forget their sparse and starving reality. Death (1893 – 1897) returns us to a dank, dark – almost suffocating in its cramped shabbiness – room, with a skull lurking behind a distraught child, and a man who seems to have abandoned life, having long since lost hope. Need (1893 – 1897) again shows a woman with hands cast up to her head, imploring, perhaps, to the voids of inky black that dominate so many of Kollwitz’s works, and receiving no answer, no mercy (‘at the end of the day you’re another day colder / and the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill / and the righteous hurry past / they don’t hear the little ones crying / and the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill / one day nearer to dying’)…..

Need, 1893 – 1897

The works Death and Need also remind me of that classic line – only remembered, and only as saccharine holiday nostalgia, not as a spur to social action – that these children are named Want and Ignorance, and beware them greatly, the Ghost of Christmas Present warned. But shush, never mind, how many shopping days until X Mas, hmmm?

Death, 1893 – 1897

Simultaneous to Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life (this is the last of three parts of what the AGO was presenting) is a selection of images and diaries from Betty Goodwin. Both were very popular, when I visited. Goodwin turned internal and personal pain and suffering into artworks that the viewer can see themselves within, that inspire an empathy with their audience. Kollwitz, on the other hand, seemed to look at the suffering around her and was able to ensconce that in her prints and sculptures, so that a visitor with her people feels their pain, and is moved by their distress and despair.

The header image is Woman with Dead Child, 1903, by Kollwitz. This last installment of Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life was on view at the AGO until the end of July, 2019.