‘Käthe Kollwitz: Germany’s Artist of The Masses’ by Agnes Smedley from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 3 No. 5. September, 1925.
Whose Art Is A Sword Carving a Way For The Working Class
“Every Talent Carries with it a Social Duty”
In the never-ending tide of our human history ride the laboring masses, toiling, struggling, dreaming; enslaved by their own ignorance and disunity; occasionally becoming conscious enough to revolt; and now and then throwing up personalities to show the world the wealth of suppressed beauty and genius, which lies buried in the depths— genius that the human race can ill afford to do without.
One of such personalities is Kathe Kollwitz, of Germany, a woman artist of world renown who is a convinced, unbitter and earnest champion of working class emancipation. She stands among those artists who, during the past half century, have demonstrated the intimate connection between social forces and creative art. For, just as aristocratic, feudal and bourgeois society each in turn are mirrored in the art of those periods, so has society produced and continues to produce today — with historic naturalness — artists who picture the struggles of the working class. The first of such artists was the Frenchman Millet; then Delacroix, Daumier, Courbet, and the master sculptor Rodin; the Belgian Meunier, creator of the Statue of Labor; the Hollander Joseph Israel; and the Germans, Klinger, Liebermann, Fritz von Uhde, Heinrich Zille and Kathe Kollwitz.
The only woman among these artists of the period is Kathe Kollwitz. She is of special interest to us for of all these she is the most conscious, convinced pleader for the working class; added thereto, she is a person of great simplicity, sympathy and richness of character; and not only is she one of the greatest living artists, but she is a clear product and expression of the present historical epoch. Her father was a master mason who fought in the Revolution of 1848 in Germany, and it is undoubtedly to his influence that she owes her philosophy. For he aroused in her the consciousness of social duty and always held before her the words of her grandfather that “every talent carries with it a social duty.” “The Song of the Shirt,” by Hood, was the first poem he taught her, and from this earliest childhood impression has sprung one of her well-known etchings, showing a miserable, poor home worker,— a mother sitting by a cradle and sewing shirts far into the night until she falls into exhausted sleep on the table.
It is not without significance that, in days when women were supposed to be capable of nothing more than housework and of caring for a dozen children, Kathe Kollwitz’s father arranged for her training in drawing and painting in Konigsberg, then later in Berlin and Munich. In her early twenties she married Dr. Kollwitz, a young physician and socialist who, upon graduating from Berlin University, went into the workers’ section of North Berlin and, from that date 35 years ago until today, has remained the patient, often unpaid physician of the working class. The young wife not only nursed her husband’s patients, but she reared two sons, and she turned her little flat into a studio.
Motherhood did not prevent her from working with great intensity at her art. Her first work was “The Song of the Shirt.” Her second brought her before the art world of Europe. It was a series of etchings entitled “The Weavers’ Revolt,” planned after having witnessed the first production of Gerhard Hauptmann’s drama, “The Weavers,” in 1893. The drama was subsequently suppressed by the government, but the misery of the weavers of Silesia as therein depicted had swept over the soul of the young artist; it gave her the impetus to labor for four years on six etchings which, when exhibited in the Great Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1898, won not only the medal for graphic art, but caused one of the most noted art critics of the day to write that her creations revealed “visions wrung out of a frightful reality by a steady, strong, healthy hand; unfanatical, humanly-clear drawings, with simple, almost chaste lines.”
“War of the Peasants”
The work which placed her on the pedestal of fame was her “War of the Peasants,” inspired by a history of the War of the German Peasants in the 16th Century. This cycle of seven great etchings covers the following themes: (1) peasants, instead of horses, drawing ploughs; (2) the body of a peasant woman, raped and left dead in a marsh — these first two themes showing conditions which led up to the war; (3) a peasant woman sharpening a scythe in preparation for the coming conflict, her face sinister with hatred; (5) the “Outbreak,” showing in the foreground the great figure of a peasant woman leader, her body tense with passion and inspiration, her arms upraised as she calls to the oncoming tide of peasants who, like the waves of an angry sea, sweep onward with mad cries. The words of Edwin Markham in “The Man with the Hoe” are recalled —
“O masters, lords and rulers of all lands, How will the future reckon with this man? How answer his brute questions in that hour When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
“How will it be with kingdoms and with kings— With those who shaped him to the thing he is — When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world, After the silence of the centuries?”
The sixth drawing of the cycle shows the imprisoned peasants, bound and corralled like wild beasts: great shoulders, upturned faces of defiant hate, crushed but not defeated; the bound, drooping body of a little boy who, with the others, had “done his bit.” And, lastly, the field of slaughter at night, — the black horizon, the heaped, brute-like forms in the darkness, the bent body of a peasant mother with a lantern stealthily turning over the dead in search of her son — the ghastly face of a dead man cast in relief in the light of the lantern. This cycle of work, as well as “The Weavers’ Revolt,” hangs in the National Art Gallery in Berlin.
Kollwitz a Revolutionary
Only a strange kind of Jesuitical reasoning can force a person to say, after gazing at this cycle, “Kathe Kollwitz is not a revolutionary — she is above all that!” as some do say as they sit in evening dress about drawing rooms discussing great personalities. Yet to those who are close to life — who have touched bedrock as it were — on the pencil of this woman artist rides an emotional conviction as deep as life, compelling them to rise with the peasants or weavers, fight with them, and lie with them on the field of battle with their dead.
Her well-known drawing entitled “The Carmagnole” pictures bloodthirsty women dancing about the guillotine of the French Revolution as members of the aristocracy were given to the knife. A wan, half-grown boy, in rags, stands in the foreground and beats a drum, his face mad with blood-lust; a stream of blood runs from under the guillotine through the cobblestone pavement; and the mad women dance and sing “The Carmagnole,” one of the songs of the French Revolution.
Kathe Kollwitz is sometimes referred to as the artist of social misery. But she is more than that, although it is true that the dark side of life of the poor has occupied her more than the joyous. One of her etchings bears the inscription “Aus vielen Wunden blutest du, O Volk” — “You bleed from many wounds, O People.” And in that phrase is summed up her life-work, for she has indeed shown the wounds of “das Volk” to the world; she has pleaded, she has warned, and she has stormed the gates of heaven with them. In the first twenty years of her artistic activity her themes dealt chiefly with revolt, with uprisings and revolutions. We can follow this thread that runs through her life in all her famous works, the source of which were, as we have seen, literary.
New Concepts Born in War Period
With the beginning of the world war, however, new motives crept into her work. Life itself becomes more overwhelming, more commanding than literature or history, and thenceforth her themes deal with poverty, famine, hunger, illness, death; the motif of deep human love, especially between mother and child, is predominant; the motif of death recurs endlessly. And since her art is an intimate part of her own life’s experience, we must know that her youngest son, a youth of 18, was one of the first volunteers in the war. She was deeply opposed to his enlisting. He was among the first soldiers to fall, and this tragedy in her own life may be studied in her war posters — in the misery of mothers waiting in death-like calm for news, in the posters of death; in crouching, animal-like forms expressing the grief of mothers over the dead bodies of their children. During the war she produced a series of seven woodcuts entitled “War,” all expressing the deepest human tragedy. One is entitled “The Volunteers” — faces of young men, insanely intoxicated, their eyes closed, following Death beating a drum; another entitled “The Mother,” picturing a woman, her face turned in fear in one direction as her outstretched arms enclose and try to protect many, many men, youth and boys; the last is “Das Volk” — in the foreground the form of “das Volk” — a face of calmness — unearthly calmness — surrounded by mad, fierce faces shrieking at it; and yet it remains calm.
Apart from many of her concrete drawings picturing death, the best-known of her works on this theme is entitled “Tod und Frau” (Death and Woman), showing death and a little child struggling for the body of the woman — a creation of deepest subjective origin. Such art critics as Kaemmerer state that this work can be classed with any of the masterpieces of the immortal Michael Angelo. But to class it with the symbolic masterpieces of Rodin seems more appropriate. Certainly it is majestic: the beautiful, strong, nude body of the mother struggling against the grip of death from the back, while the tender hands of a little child cling to her from the front. The work, like other deeply human symbolic creations, is capable of many interpretations: we may say it is life struggling against death; we may say it is life and death struggling for the mother; we may say it is the working class struggling for emancipation; we may say it is subjected peoples struggling against oppression.
By this one drawing alone — not to mention others — we see that the creations of this artist of the oppressed are not only historical, not only social, but that they touch also the eternal, elemental, primeval instinct of Life, as old as the first amoeba, — to picture which gives immortality to any work. Added thereto is her techinque, for — apart from her pen and pencil drawings, her woodcuts, and the sculpture on which she privately works — she is classed as one of the greatest living masters of the art of etching. Her technique can be understood by the simplest and most unlettered of us, and it is typical of her that she did not choose a form of expression which could be understood only by the initiated, the learned, in art. Her technique, on the contrary, is as close to our understanding as are her themes to our hearts. It is a simplification of the idea of the forces driving the masses — forces as primitive and elemental as the sea or the storm: fear, hatred, rebellion against injustice; and the hunger for love, for happiness, for freedom that is the right of all that exists. In a few lines only she will picture her idea — suppressing detail. With the exception of a few of her creations, the details of the body concern her little, and throughout it is the expression in the face and hands at which she aims. The sophisticated might laugh when told that she has made innumerable etchings of the worn, character-full faces of working women, as well as numberless sketches of the hands of working men, — large, rough, strong hands which to see is to love for their beauty and strength.
Moving With the Battle of Life added to her other works of art, we find countless studies taken from the working class of today — the theme of the mother and child predominating. And there are many other productions, such as her “Gretchen” drawings, inspired by the immortal Goethe, of whom we, in America, unfortunately and to our loss, know practically nothing. One of her drawings is of a hired woman, soon to become a mother, her head bowed in pain, as she stands in the act of knocking on the door of her elegant mistress. Perhaps the most gripping of her posters is the one entitled “Bread.” Another poster is “Nachgeboren” — meaning the children born after the war; half-starved, stunted children gaze dumbly upon the war-torn world into which they have been brought. Still another poster of note is a crude outline of a miserable old woman, her arms upraised in hopeless questioning, as if she has come to the end and merely awaits the hand of destiny.
In later creations the artist has thrown her whole soul into forms of pathos and solicitude. We see sick mothers gazing into the faces of hungry, questioning children; a working mother laughing in the joy of her baby: “Unemployed” — a man sitting and gazing into space, his thin chin sunk on one hand, while his wife lies with one tender baby in her arms, two other children sleeping in exhaustion on her sick bed.
Her Greatness Recognized By the World Today the world brings honors to the door of this artist of the masses; The National Art Gallery in Berlin, the famous Art Gallery in Dresden as well as other museums of art throughout Germany consider it an honor to own and keep her originals on exhibition; valuable medals have been presented to her; the Ministry of Education of the German government has conferred upon her the title of Professor — and in Germany “Professor” is an official academic title of the highest order. Lengthy, learned books, such as Kaemmerer’s book already mentioned, as well as others* have been written on her life and work, and all parties try to explain just how it is that she is, or is not, a revolutionary, and therefore a follower of their programs. But she belongs to no political party, nor is she interested in them. She is now 58 years of age, and remains unimpressed by attentions, medals, books, or professorships. Her ceaseless physical activity would lead one to believe she is no more than 40. Her life is as simple as that of an ordinary working woman, and she still lives in the Workers’ Section in North Berlin. Her gaze is direct and her voice startlingly strong and she sees far beyond those who bring her superficial, external tributes or who try to use her for their own propaganda purposes. She is a silent person, but when she speaks it is with great directness, without trimmings to suit the prejudices of her hearers. Many people, before meeting her, expect to see a bitter woman. But they see, instead, a kind — very kind — woman to whom love — strong love, however — is the rule of life. And in speaking with her one always has the impression that truth alone is of value to her.
“A Product of the Working Class”
She could have wrung a fortune from her art, for she is famous throughout Continental Europe; but she considers that she is a product of the working class and that her talent belongs to the masses. “Every talent carries with it a social duty” is written large upon her soul. Her countless posters, which may be seen throughout Europe, have been drawn for all kinds of relief committees, for labor organizations, for famine committees, for exhibitions of the work of home workers, and many of them have been done without cost. She has not, as have many artists, considered her talent as her personal property; she is a product of certain social forces, to which her talent is due.
“What has been the purpose of your life’s work — what have you tried to achieve?” the writer of these lines once asked Kathe Kollwitz.
“I have tried to arouse and awaken mankind,” she replied.
“And why have you devoted yourself to the working class instead of to the upper class, like many other artists?”
“Why? Why — the working class has beauty and strength and purpose in life. I have never been able to see beauty in the upper class, educated person; he’s superficial; he’s not natural nor true; he’s not honest, and he’s not a human being in every sense of the word.”
The work of this woman artist shows us that the working class is not only as she says, but that it has all the human weaknesses, pettiness and often anti-social passions, as well a real human strength, greatness and social purpose. Yet, whatever may be the immediate effect of the work of Kathe Kollwitz, two things are clear to us: when the present historical period has passed into time, her art will stand as a record of the struggle of the working class to build a new world; and, on the other hand, it will endure, as do the dramas of the ancient Greeks, because it has, with strong, simple technique, brought to conscious expression certain deeply-human and psychological problems and truths which are common to all men through all time.
The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.
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