Artist's simple lines capture complex grief

April 27, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

In the prints and drawings of Kathe Kollwitz, beleaguered workers revolt, anguished mothers lament, hungry children with hollow eyes reach out for food and death comes as a skeletal, caped figure.

Fans of the German artist and social activist, who lived from 1867 to 1945, say there is sadness, but also beauty and power in her black and white compositions.

"You don't have to know anything about art to be moved by [Kollwitz's work]," said James Adkins, Howard Community College's director of visual arts. "It's direct, powerful statements made with fundamental art-making tools."

More than 50 works by Kollwitz, from the private collection of Ruxton resident Theodore Klitzke and his late wife Margaret Gaughan Klitzke, will be on display in the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery at HCC through May 24.

Kollwitz's work often depicted historic events or drew on political and social issues affecting Germany in the first half of the 20th century. The human toll of poverty, war and injustice were common topics for the artist.

An early series detailed black and white etchings portray weavers revolting against mill owners. A second series, called "The Peasant War," from 1908, is based on social rebellion in 16th-century Germany.

She won several awards, worked in Paris and Florence and in 1919, was the first woman elected to membership in the Prussian Academy of Art in Berlin. Her husband, a physician who cared for the poor in Berlin, is believed to have given her a great deal of support and freedom to pursue her art.

In 1923, she responded to World War I, in which her son died, with a series of woodcuts using thick, simple lines to portray anguished parents, widows and citizens.

When Hitler and the Nazis came to power, she was expelled from the Prussian Academy, where she had become director of the Master Studio for Graphic Art in 1928, and her works were removed from exhibitions. Her Berlin apartment was bombed in 1943, destroying many of her prints and copper plates.

As World War II progressed, she made her last series of drawings, called "Death," reflecting the impact of the war, including the death of her grandson in combat.

Margaret Kiltzke, the daughter of the collectors, said in a gallery talk last week that those later images "of death and how death comes to us in sometimes sudden and unexpected ways" are among the most striking to her father and herself.

"Some people think her work is depressing," Klitzke said. "I personally don't feel that way; I feel that her work is so timely. ... It doesn't lose its powerful impact. In a lot of ways we're still struggling with issues Kathe Kollwitz was struggling with."

Klitzke added in an interview after her talk, "I do think the issue is finding the common thread of humanity in all of us."

She said that humanity spoke to her mother, who was a social worker, a feminist and, like Kollwitz, a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Margaret Gaughan Klitzke and her husband, an art historian who would later become academic dean at the Maryland Institute College of Art, were working as educational advisors to the German military government in 1948 when they began collecting Kollwitz's work.

According to a program prepared by the college, early in their collecting, Margaret Gaughan Klitzke sold her car and said she would hitchhike to work in order to have money for an auction of Kollwitz's work.

That dedication "was really because of Kathe Kollwitz's images, the things Kathe Kollwitz held dear to her," said the younger Margaret Klitzke, " ... people, women, men, children, the things we all experience being human."

Adkins said many artists name Kollwitz as favorite, and often they say she was an early influence who showed how much can be communicated in simple but skilled drawings.

"Her composition is expressive," Adkins said. "It's not what it's a picture of, it's how it's is done."

Adkins said HCC is eager to bring more masterful works to the college's new professional gallery space for the public and for the students who can learn from seeing them.

"We want to start moving things up a notch, and now we have the space to do it justice," he said.

In her gallery talk, Klitzke said Kollwitz "loved being exhibited, especially with other artists," because it enabled her to see the weaknesses and strengths of her work in comparison to others.

One of the panels in the HCC exhibition includes a passage that the artist wrote in 1917: "This show must mean something, for all these prints are the distillation of my life. ... I have always worked with my blood, so to speak. Those who see the things must feel that."

The Kollwitz exhibit is free and open to the public in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on HCC's campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Hours and information: 410-772-4189 or

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