Were she alive now, the great German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz very likely would be documenting the uprisings in the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and protests by the Occupy Wall Street movement. In a career that ran from the 1890s to her death in 1945, Kollwitz responded eloquently to the troubles of her times, all of which are depressingly familiar today. Her people still populate our daily news: unemployed and displaced workers, the discarded body of a rape victim, mourning women, starving children, war dead.
There's nothing easy about her images, which are the unforgettable stars of "Käthe Kollwitz: Making Human," a small but rewarding show at the Weisman Art Museum. Of the 34 images and objects, 14 are etchings, lithographs, woodcuts or drawings by the artist. Powerful and often harrowing, they span her 40-year career and make the show a must-see opportunity. Organized by Corrina Kirsch, a Weisman curatorial fellow, the show is enhanced with images -- primarily etchings and lithographs -- by Kollwitz's contemporaries George Grosz and Otto Dix, and by artists who influenced her, such as Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier. Finally, it is deftly fleshed out with work that has thematic affinities, including photos by Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and Larry Clark, a book of silhouettes by Kara Walker and a pair of etchings by David Hockney.
Throughout, Kollwitz is the show's commanding heart. Most of her pieces come from the Weisman's collection, augmented with loans from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Weisman images are gifts from the museum's founder, Hudson Walker, and his wife, Ione, who in 1937 staged at their New York gallery one of the first Kollwitz exhibits in the United States.
Although made decades earlier, her images of gaunt children crying for "Brot!" (bread) and desperate workers plotting in a dark tavern echoed Depression-era bread lines. The Nazis labeled her work "degenerate" even though it ironically anticipated many of the horrors they were to inflict upon Germany; her skeletal figures are all too similar to the bony, hollow-eyed survivors of the death camps.
Life shaped her art
Kollwitz's concern for the poor, especially women and children, was informed by her husband's work as a doctor in the slums of Berlin. In "Run Over," she depicts a crowd of people through which a couple carries an injured or dead child over whom they bow in grief and resignation. "Out of Work" shows an exhausted man with three children collapsed about him as their gaunt mother watches. Typically, the adults are ambiguous shapes, their features merely hinted at in the graininess of the paper and the sooty ink.
Rather than sexual beings, Kollwitz's people are stooped skeletons akin to the raw humanity that Edvard Munch sketched in "The Scream." She was influenced by Munch, but her own work is much more naturalistic than his febrile expressionism. Hers are real peasants, broken by labor, with lined faces and rough hands, not Munch's nightmare creatures. And yet the plunging perspective, intense expressions and dramatic lighting in her "The Conspiracy" of 1897 are startlingly close to that of his lithograph of "The Scream" two years earlier.
The World War I death of her 18-year-old son Peter, killed within a month after he enlisted, marked her work from then on. Her most powerful piece about war seems to anticipate her grief. Done in 1907, it is a centerpiece of her series "The Peasants' Revolt" about a 1525 uprising. Most of the peasants were killed, of course, and in "The Battlefield," she depicts a mother searching for the body of her child in the darkness, the only light illuminating her gnarled fingers as she lifts the chin of a corpse.
Adding contemporary voices
With their inky blacks and dramatic subjects, Kollwitz's images establish a somber mood that sets a high bar for other artists. The show's best additions are right on topic, among them Lewis Hine's photo of "A Finnish Stowaway Detained at Ellis Island," which counters her downtrodden figures with a working man ennobled by beautiful light and striking features. Jacob Riis' 1890 photo of a dirty scrubwoman reinforces the documentary veracity of Kollwitz's prints. Larry Clark's 1963 photo "Billy With Baby" also advances her story, visually linking her destitute families to Oklahoma's 1960s drug culture. Likewise, Kara Walker's 1997 political pop-up book, "Freedom, a Fable," amplifies her concern with women's exploitation.
Throughout her career, Kollwitz's themes were economic, political and familial but rarely sexual (violence is the leitmotif of the rape scene, not sex). That makes the inclusion of photographer Bruce Bellas' black-male odalisque seem gratuitous because its celebration of male beauty appears to be mostly an aesthetic statement about the absence of such imagery in art history. David Hockney's male-nude etchings from the 1960s, including a couple casually chatting in bed, are a better fit. His medium complements hers, and his normalization of then-taboo behavior was a political gesture as potent in its time as her antiwar imagery had been.
Unfortunately, a few irrelevant pictures confuse the show. An eye-catching Andy Warhol screen print of John Wayne adds nothing but unnecessary glitz, while photos by Minnesotans Tom Arndt (of drag racing fans) and Paul Shambroom (of first-responders in haz-mat suits) merely check the local-angle box on a curatorial list. Even a willing imagination struggles to place them in Kollwitz's territory.
What "Käthe Kollwitz: Making Human" does best is whet the appetite for more of her own work.