Go See: Kathe Kollwitz at the British Museum, London

Designer Paul Cardwell recommends visiting the Kathe Kollwitz exhibition currently on show at the British Museum in London, and notes the frightening relevance of her artworks today

How honest are you with your clients? Do you give them what they want – something pretty and ‘cool’ – or do you insist that they face the real issues that concern their customers: sustainability and the responsibility to leave this planet a fit place for the next generations to live?

The British Museum is showing the work of an artist who never let her clients off the hook. Kathe Kollwitz built, and then lost, a great reputation in the first half of the 20th Century.

Top: Plate 5 from Krieg (War): The Widow II, 1922; Above: Plate 7 from Krieg (War): The People, 1922; All images: © The Trustees of the British Museum
Plate 8 from Tod (Death): Ruf des Todes (Call of death), probably 1937

She was a printmaker and sculptor, world famous in both media before the Nazis destroyed her reputation. When they took power, she was already famous. The first woman to be elected a Member of the Prussian Academy, she was Head of the Master Studio for Graphic Arts until she they forced her to resign.

Born in Germany, her subject, perhaps inevitably, was the price that women bear for the decisions of men. She knew whereof she spoke; she lost her son in the First World War, her grandson in the second. Her husband died in 1940 and in 1943 her home was destroyed, along with most of her life’s work. She died days before the end of WW2.

Plate 3 from Krieg (War): The Parents, 1921–22
Woman with Dead Child, 1903

She understood all too well the pride of men, and the terrible cost that comes with it. Germany was a nation built on pride. In 1914 her youngest son, Peter, was eager to serve. On his first day in uniform he strode proudly out onto the field in his bright new colours, the brass buttons sparkling and the gold braid gleaming across his chest. A hundred yards away a wily old sniper, his face smeared in soot and clothes caked in mud, lay silent under a hedge. He picked the boy off like a bird on a branch. He had been in uniform for less than two hours.

Men love the idea of war. The equipment, the potential for violence. They march off smiling, but they come back changed, if they come back at all. Kollwitz knew this. She never speaks of glory, only of damage.

Even before the war, Kollwitz had compelled her patrons to face the aftermath of violence. A graphite drawing from 1907 shows a cottage garden. But look closer. A rape victim had been discarded in the shadows. Her daughter peers over the broken fence. “It is an adducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, whilst her child, who has run away, looks over the fence.”

Plate 5 from Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak), 1902–3
Plate 2 from Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt):Tod (Death), 1893–97

She is one of the great artists of the 20th century, but fashion has passed her by. Her chosen subjects – poverty, hunger, motherhood, death, or bereavement – do not play well in the auction houses.

Her final great lithograph is her last howl of protest. In 1943 the Nazi government launched a drive to get the very old and the very young into uniform. A death march. Kollwitz drew a mother, desperately trying to shield her three children with her own arms. The title: Seed Corn Shall Not Be Ground.

Go and visit Kathe Kollwitz. She will show you images that you will never forget. They are, tragically, as relevant now as the day she made them.

Self-portrait with hand against cheek, before July 1906

Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz is at the British Museum in London until January 12; britishmuseum.org; Paul Cardwell is co-founder of new studio, Saboteur. His Go See column for Creative Review recommends art and cultural projects of interest to creative teams and designers

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