Friday, January 16, 2015

War and the pity of war: Kathe Kollwitz

I've posted before about the German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, so I'll not rehearse all my previous thoughts again: you can read them here. But having acquired a new etching by Kollwitz I felt I wanted to share it with you, partly as my own inadequate response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Initially this picture seems to have nothing to do with war or terror: it is simply a mother caressing her baby in the cradle, the kind of image Mary Cassatt made famous.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau an der Wiege
Etching, 1897
Klipstein 38 IIIc, Knesebeck 40

But look again at that mother. She is not entranced by the happy, healthy presence of her baby; she is traumatised by the anticipation of grief and loss, already holding her head in her hands. When she made this image in 1897, after the birth of her second child, Peter, how could Käthe Kollwitz have known that such sadness lay ahead? But it did. Peter was killed in action in WWI in October 1914, aged just 19. Everyone knows how much it hurts a mother to lose a child. If everyone in the world who is tempted to acts of war or terrorism could just remember, in the moment before they pull the trigger or shed the bomb, that every one of those they kill is a son or a daughter, surely they would think again?


Gerrie said...

Deep thoughts in troubled times over a timeless work of art.
“And remember, you shall suffer all things and again suffer: until you have sufficient sufferance to accept all things.”
Austin Osman Spare.
I think this quote is very appropriate to Käthe's life. The words could have been hers.

Neil said...

You always have the right quote to hand, Gerrie!

Nancy Patton Wilson said...

Thank you for this image and your thoughtful words. The attacks in Paris were dreadful, but arguably not as terrible as the war Kathe Kollwitz lived through, where 40,000 men died the first day in the first battle of the war. I hope we do start figuring out that killing one another doesn't really solve anything. Sadly it seems as if that lesson is not easily learned.

Neil said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nancy. I like Thomas Hardy's sardonic summation of WWI in his poem "Christmas: 1924" - 'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it,/ And pay a million priests to bring it./ After two thousand years of mass/ We've got as far as poison gas.

Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, I think Mary Cassatt's version of motherhood comes from outside the experience itself, being mostly idealized and decorative - not that those are always bad qualities. The seriousness that characterizes Kollwitz's art comes from inside, from experience and deep imaginative sympathy. That last one is something special to admire in her work.

Neil said...

I think you're right, Jane. Much as I love Cassatt's work, there's definitely a sense that she is painting a comfortable world to reassure the people who already inhabit that world.

Ms. Faustus said...

My own perception of images of violence with which we are surrounded has recently collapsed into a similar thought... In every dead body I see a gestation period, bodycounts translate into years of nurture and caregiving so abruptly taken away... And every act of violence is a gesture of deep disrespect for that primary human love between a parent and a child... Surely humans should think again before pulling the trigger... Thank you.

Neil said...

Thank you very much for this thoughtful response, Chris.