by Helen Engelhardt
From the Autumn, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents
THIS WOMAN has a strong face, a square jaw, a mouth that does not smile, a wide wrist. There is no seductiveness or sensuality in her self-portrait. She is Käthe Kollwitz, a German graphic artist and sculptor (1867-1945) whose work focused almost exclusively on the struggles, privations, sorrows and joys of working-class men, women and children. When I first saw it at the age of 11, her self-portrait simultaneously attracted and repelled me. By the time I began buying art in my early twenties, I was seeking reproductions of her prints. They have inspired and kept me company in every place I’ve lived. I used to hang her self-portrait on the wall behind my desk to remind me to attend to my tasks, to persevere in my writing.
Kollwitz used herself as a model throughout her life; the Selbtsbildnis series (self-portraits, of which there are over a hundred) is a unique visual autobiography of a woman’s life. “Even in youth, the artist looks… prematurely old,” writes a curator of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York. “Kollwitz’s self portraits depict a constant, unwavering state of inquiry: a searching rather than a finding; a questioning, not an answering.”
Kollwitz spoke to me across time and space. I knew almost nothing about the circumstances of her life in my early encounters with her art, but in the mid-1950s I bought her Diary and Letters, edited by her eldest son Hans and translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. I learned that she had been raised within Prussia’s first free religious community, founded by her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, in defiance of the Kaiser’s state-approved Lutheranism.
THE FRIENDS OF LIGHT, aka the Free Congregation, attempted to live like early Christians, sharing communal property and using the familiar (Du) form of greeting. Her grandfather’s Sunday morning services were lengthy, erudite, and intimidating to Käthe, but his unwavering commitment to social duty became her lifelong guiding principle. “Man is not here to be happy, but to do his duty,” she quotes the epitaph of Julius Rupp in her Diary, continuing: “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of humankind, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain high. This is my task, but it is not an easy one to fulfill.”
Socialism was her family’s other religion. Her father, Karl Schmidt, embraced Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, and joined the German Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SPD), which he served with religious fervor. Herr Schmidt could have practiced law, but refused to serve the rightwing Prussian state and instead became a stonemason. He and his wife educated their three daughters and one son at home (two other boys died in early childhood). Manual work was honored and respected as much as literature, and their children were as free to explore the literary treasures in their home library as to wander the streets and docks of Koenigsberg. The two youngest daughters, gifted in drawing, were encouraged to pursue their artistic ambitions.
Käthe’s brother Konrad, a journalist, economist and enthusiastic member of the SPD, introduced her to his friend, Karl Kollwitz, a socialist medical student. They became engaged when she was 17 and he was 21. Her father, who believed that a woman could not be a serious artist while fulfilling her duties as a wife and mother, sent her first to Berlin’s and then to Munich’s Women’s Art Schools (the only schools open to women), hoping that her engagement would not survive seven years of separation. Defying her father, she married Karl at 24 and went to live in a working-class district in North, now East, Berlin — on a street now named Kollwitzstrasse — among Karl’s patients. For the next fifty years, his medical office was across the hall from the small room Käthe established as her studio. She would often sketch the women and their children while they waited. After the birth of their first son, Hans, Karl hired a live-in housekeeper, Lina, who enabled Käthe to continue her vocation as an artist.
During the following five years, she gave birth to her second son, Peter, and created her first series, “Ein Weberaufstand” (“A Revolt of Weavers”), inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s radical, banned play. She entered “The Weavers” in the Great Berlin Exhibit of 1898, where it was nominated for the Gold Medal. Kaiser Wilhelm ll vetoed this example of “gutter art” created by a woman. One year later, however, the King of Saxony agreed to award the medal in Dresden. Kollwitz was now recognized as one of the foremost artists in her country.
MANY PEOPLE have mistakenly assumed that Kollwitz was Jewish because of her reputation as a “socialist” artist. As influenced as she was by her family’s political principles, however, her real motive for choosing her subjects “almost exclusively from the life of the workers,” she wrote, “was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Koenigsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish Jimkes on their grain ships had beauty… the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty.”
Her second series, the “Bauernkrieg” (Peasants’ War) confirmed her critical reputation among both modern artists and working people. She continued to portray revolutionary uprisings and protests until World War I, when her inner life was pierced to the core and everything she believed was fundamentally challenged. German youth were consumed with a desire to serve in the military, and the Kaiser embraced all political diversity as Germany united to defeat its enemies. Socialists were quickly disabused of their naive confidence that the proletariat would resist imperialistic nationalism, and even the Kollwitzes were flying the German flag out their window. Both her sons were eager to volunteer for “the Fatherland,” but Peter, at age 18, required his parent’s permission. Käthe supported his enlistment. He was then killed in action on the Western Front, six weeks after Germany invaded Belgium. It was a tragic loss from which Kollwitz never fully recovered. She became a passionate pacifist, and a major theme of her artwork became the maternal protection of sons, in defiance of the military juggernaut.
“Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it,” she would write on February 21st, 1944, a year before she died. “Every war is answered by a new war, until everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness and why my only hope is in world socialism.”
People also mistakenly believe that her work was included in the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Nazi exhibit of 1937. This exhibit expressed the Nazi view that art’s tasks were to illustrate ideals of National Socialism, glorify the State, and demonstrate artistic mastery through realism. Hitler, who had twice been rejected when he submitted his realistic paintings to the Vienna Academy of Art, loathed modern art as a sickness, an attack by the Jews against the German spirit. Hitler established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) in September, 1933, only months after his ascent to power. Under Joseph Goebbels, it oversaw the confiscation of 16,000 works of art from over a hundred museums, which were purged of works by Expressionist and Abstract artists, those of Jewish descent, and any depicting social criticism.
“Degenerate Art” was conceived as a counterpoint to the “Great German Art Exhibition,” which opened in July, 1937 in Munich across the avenue in the new House of German Art. Although awkwardly hung and attacked by accompanying slogans and graffiti, “Degenerate Art” drew one million viewers in its first six weeks (three times more than the show across the avenue). It was not, however, an exhibition but a funeral: Although some came to see the artists they admired and loved (Barlach, Beckmann, Chagall, Dix, Ernst, Grosz, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Marc, Mondrian) before they disappeared out of sight, many came to gawk and jeer. Those artists who had not yet been arrested fled from Germany.
Kollwitz, although banned from all German museums and exhibitions by then, was not included among the 112 “degenerates” (only six of whom were Jewish). She occupied a unique position in Germany as both an artist and an influential individual. She was not a “modern” artist, not one of the Expressionists who used color and line to express personal emotions — as a printmaker she barely used color — and chose her medium not only because it suited her natural abilities but because prints were affordable to the working people she portrayed. Just as her husband often treated his patients for free, as her reputation and the value of her work increased, she would sometimes not sign her prints in order to keep them affordable.
Her work was realistic and familiar, beloved by the German people. Many young men who joined the Nazi party had grown up with Kollwitz prints on their walls. Indeed, the Nazis appropriated posters she had made in the 1920s and reused them for their propaganda, deleting her name or replacing it with another. “Brot!” (“Bread!”), a poster she made in 1924 for the Central German Youth Day, was used by the Nazis to illustrate a poem against the Loyalists in Spain in 1936.
THE FIRST WOMAN ever elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts (in 1920), Kollwitz was forced to resign from that body for the crime of organizing and signing a public manifesto calling for socialists and communists to unite to defeat the Nazis in the March, 1933 election. The manifesto had come too late: In February, Hitler, as Chancellor, suspended the constitution after the Reichstag was set on fire. Kollwitz was condemned to internal exile, denied even the use of studio space. “I want to and must be among those who have been slapped down,” she wrote in her diary at the time. “… Thousands are going through the same experience. It is nothing to complain about.”
On September 14th, 1935, a judgment was rendered against Kollwitz by the Reichskulturkammer: “Since the National Socialist assumption of power, Volksgenossin K has not endeavored in any way… to accommodate National Socialist interests. She seems so influenced by communist ideas that a sincere conversion is out of the question.” Yet “Kollwitz’s art is worth preserving for the German people in spite of her error — her passionate efforts on behalf of Communism.”
In fact, Kollwitz’s own journal reveals a far less ideologically committed person. “I have been through a revolution and I am convinced that I am no revolutionist,” she wrote on June 28th, 1921. “My childhood dreams of dying on the barricades will hardly be fulfilled, because I should hardly mount a barricade now that I know what they were 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…. 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.”
She continued to accept private commissions, and in 1936 began carving a gravestone for the Levy Family in Cologne. On December 15th, 1938, one month after the nationwide Kristallnacht pogroms, she wrote to Mrs. Levy, “I have been thinking continually about you, Frau Levy… Believe me, we feel pain and shame. And the strongest indignation…. What do you think you will do now? What will become of your children?”
At the same time, Jewish collectors and curators who had emigrated from Germany in the 1930s were introducing her work to America, among them Walter Landauer, a geneticist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs; Lester Rosenwald, chair of Sears & Roebuck, who lent his private collection to the National Gallery of Art in 1943 and then bequeathed it upon his death; Otto Kallir, founder of the Neue Galerie in Vienna, who fled Austria after the Anschluss and established Galerie St. Etienne in Paris, then recreated it in Manhattan in 1939. (The Galerie, dedicated to German and Austrian art, today remains the primary place where Käthe Kollwitz’s graphic work and sculptures are regularly exhibited and available for purchase.) Erich Cohn, a successful New York businessman, tried to secure safe passage to the United States for her and her husband, but Kollwitz refused to leave, fearing Nazi reprisals against her family.
Ernst Toller, a Jewish playwright whom Goebbels considered Nazi Germany’s number one political enemy, spoke about Kollwitz from his exile in Los Angeles in 1937: “We all know that today Käthe Kollwitz is living in Berlin in penury and amid great privations… The artists who sold themselves to Hitler avoid her. But the people love her still, as they have always loved her. She is silent, but her silence is eloquent.” That silence included her refusal to name names of communists when she was investigated by the Gestapo.
Kollwitz’s sister, Lise, was married to a German Jew, George Stern, who died before the Holocaust. Until I began doing intensive research on her, I believed the only other Jewish connections in Kollwitz’s life had been with colleagues, clients and friends. Then, unexpectedly, I discovered the Sehreta, ten “secret” erotic drawings celebrating the love affair she had with Hugo Heller, a Jewish Viennese book store owner and publisher, during the early 1900s, when they were both in their late thirties.
Heller was a dynamic individual who founded a bookstore, publishing house, art gallery, reception hall, and concert agency in 1905 and became a central figure of Viennese cultural life. He was one of the small circle of intellectuals who established the Wednesday Society, dedicated to presentations and discussions of modern thought and art, especially psychoanalysis; Sigmund Freud gave his first public lectures to the Society, and Heller eventually became Freud’s official publisher. In the auditorium of his bookshop, Heller offered concerts, literary soirees, scholarly lectures, and exhibitions including the work of Kollwitz.
By the time she began her diary, she had essentially ended their relationship. His name, when mentioned, surfaces in dreams, recollections, and quotations. Heller always stands for spontaneity and an emotional, self-realized life. When Heller’s wife died in 1909, he asked Kollwitz to marry him, or at least to live with him in Vienna. She could not leave Karl, with whom she shared a deep and abiding attachment. “Yesterday was the anniversary of our engagement,” she wrote in 1910. “Twenty-six years ago… Karl said he never regretted [that]… we made this tie, only during the time with Heller he sometimes thought it would have been better if it had not come to that…. I wish that I will die after Karl. I can bear life better alone… But if I die first, Karl will be unbearably alone.” Heller died in 1923; she learned about it through mutual friends. Her husband Karl died in 1940, and she died two weeks before World War II ended in Europe in April,1945.
During her lifetime, she hid the Sehreta and would not allow them to be seen by anyone. “I do not know what ought to be done with them after I die,” she wrote in her journal. The works were saved by her son Hans and his children, but all references to Heller in her diary and letters were edited out, and the drawings were hidden in a locked drawer in the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Koln. Kollwitz’s unexpurgated journal, however, which led me to learn about Heller, was published in German, with photographs and bibliographic materials, by her granddaughter, Jutta Bohne Kollwitz, in 1999.
When I visited the museum in Koln and requested to be shown the original Sehreta series, the curator sighed, even though I arrived with personal letters attesting to my serious intentions.
These ten erotic drawings still have the power to startle us — not so much for their explicit portrayal, by a woman, of both female and male desire, but by the fact that this serious, sober woman, who had dedicated most of her artistic output to portraying the suffering and modest lives of working men and women — their uprisings and defeats, their harsh working and living conditions — this married woman and mother of two sons had once permitted herself to be swept away into the arms of a passionate lover.
Helen Engelhardt is the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103 (2013). The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010. She is a poet, writer, storyteller, and independent audio producer, and serves on our magazine’s board of directors. Her article on Ezra Jack Keats appeared in our Summer 2011 issue.