Lookinglass: A Study Inspired by Käthe Kollwitz’s Death Grabbing at a Group of Children
Charcoal on paper
And I think art impacts culture by defying culture, by simply handing culture a mirror.
The following is adapted from an essay I wrote for the final of MoMA’s Coursera MOOC (Massive Online Open Courseware) Modern Art & Ideas. We were tasked to correlate an artwork to the class’s themes and with what time and resources I had, I dove into Käthe Kollwitz’s piece Death Grabbing at a Group of Children. Yet when I was finished, I knew that my searching had just begun. Here I have furthered my exploration.
German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) created work that reflects parts of the world we may not choose to see: the almost mundane, yet no less palpable, grief, sorrow, darkness. The loose, purposeful lines and large hands of her subjects ground the stories Kollwitz illuminates, making the act of looking away from her work nearly impossible.
I chose to focus on her piece Death Grabbing at a Group of Children, a lithograph, because I could not look away. The piece reflects Kollwitz’s inner turmoil, a turmoil caused by that of the culture around her.
Despite Kollwitz’s supportive family, one that would rather see her attend art school then marry, she was followed by a darkness. This darkness courted her as she created a family, it found traction as she navigated two world wars, it came to fruition in her grief, but this darkness was only expressed within her artwork.
The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, edited by her son Hans, touches on some of the artist’s carefully secluded interior life. In the book’s introduction, Hans Kollwitz reflects on how his mother rarely talked about herself, yet her writing implies that she was able to express herself through other people’s stories by way of her artwork.
Diving into her history, I don’t think Kollowitz’s art could have its potency without her relationship to death itself. Her son Peter was killed in the First World War on October 22, 1914, an experience that shifted Kollwitz’s perspective. Her diary entries after her son’s death turn from simple recounting to exploring the existential, in a diary entry from December 1915 she writes,
“The idea of eternity and immortality doesn’t mean anything to me at present. The spirit of Peter goes on living. True enough—but what does this spirit mean to him? The great world spirit which entered into him and which goes on working after its dwelling is shattered—that is something not conceivable […] That is why for me there is no consolation at all in the thought of immortality.
Death Grabbing at a Group of Children’s dark, unclear lines coupled with the faceless Death illustrate grief’s personal, roiling emptiness. Looking at it through the lens of history, I wonder if the piece is perhaps a herald to the future: in September of 1942 her grandson, perhaps fatefully named after his late uncle Peter, would die fighting in the Second World War. Then her longtime partner and husband would then die; Kollwitz herself passed away only 16 days before the war’s end.
Kollwitz’s story and grief, her darkness and expression, coupled with that of the people and culture around her made art that hurts just as it heals. Her work shows that art can express the future through the urgencies of the present, because no matter how much culture changes, much stays the same. And art has the uncanny power to capture that sameness and translate it through our differences.
Kollwitz had the ability to translate and express the existential, the personal, the cultural through her artwork. And with every piece of art I come across, the intrinsic relationship between art, culture, and our individuality becomes clearer.
Art can be beautiful or unsettling when we observe it through our own perspective. Art becomes meaningful to us when we learn of its origins, symbolism, connection, isolation. And I think art impacts culture by defying culture, by simply handing culture a mirror. Perhaps we should give ourselves mirrors, so that we can learn to translate ourselves, and then, the world and people around us.
I first fell in love with Kollwitz’s work when I watched this video from The Art Assignment