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The Artist as Mother : THE DIARY AND LETTERS OF KAETHE KOLLWITZ edited by Hans Kollwitz; translated by Richard and Clara Winston (Northwestern University Press: $42.95, cloth; $15.95 , paper; 264 pp., illustrated)

June 05, 1988|Robert Gore Rifkind | Rifkind, a Los Angeles corporate attorney, has assembled the world's largest collection of German Expressionist prints and drawings, which now reside at the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, County Museum of Art

Kaethe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was among the most popular of the German Expressionist artists. She was a role model of the energetically engaged artist and political activist while also being a devoted wife and mother.

The "Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz" span 36 years of her life, from 1909 (when she was 42) to six days before her death in April, 1945. During this period, spent mostly in Berlin, she lived through the major events of the first half of our century: World War I, in which she lost her son Peter; the birth and demise of the Weimar Republic; the Great Depression and the establishment of the Socialist and Communist parties in Germany; the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich; and World War II, in which she lost a grandson. In addition, she observed illness and death on a daily basis throughout her 49-year marriage to a doctor in a working-class neighborhood. She would regularly sit in his waiting room and sketch his patients. (Kollwitz was the only artist I know to do an etching entitled "Syphilis"!)

Her art reflects these events in repeated images of sickness, mother and child, hunger, war and death. Her graphics, particularly her woodcuts, are among the most emotionally evocative artworks of the 20th Century.

The "Diary and Letters" (a reprint of the 1955 edition, which has been out of print for almost 30 years) provides an intimate insight into this extraordinary woman. It begins with an introduction by the artist's son, Hans, (who describes his mother's life after 1933 when she was forced into isolation and forbidden to exhibit by the National Socialist government); an account by Kollwitz of her "Early Years," written in about 1922; another essay by her, "In Retrospect, 1941"; extensive excerpts from her diaries beginning in 1909; letters from 1907 to 1945, and reproductions of 52 of her drawings, graphics and sculpture.

The letters are mostly to members of her family and close friends and are fairly pedestrian. The diary entries, on the other hand, give us an exceptional, personal and artistic insight. Kollwitz liked to laugh and drink and joke! (When her son Peter drew from a female nude for the first time, she asked him: "Well, how did she look?" He responded: "Awful--are they all as bad as that?")

Often the entries are poignant. In July, 1917, reflecting on what epithet to put on Peter's gravestone, she contemplated: "Here lies German youth; or: Here lies Germany's finest young men; or: Here lies the youthful dead; or simply: Here lie the young."

Her diaries also give us an extraordinary insight into her development as a graphic artist and sculptor. Between 1891 and 1942, she produced more than 167 graphic works, including 39 self portraits spanning her adult life. Initially, she worked only in the media of etching and lithography. After the death of her son Peter and the murder of her friend Karl Liebknecht, a leading German Communist (Kollwitz was never a Communist), her grief was so great that she felt these media were no longer adequate to express her feelings. In addition, she realized that she was not a printmaker of the first rank. In a 1920 entry, she wrote: "I saw something that knocked me over: Barlach's woodcuts. Today I've looked at my lithographs again and see that almost all of them are no good. Barlach has found his path, and I have not yet found mine. (My) prints lack real quality. What is the reason? Ought I do as Barlach has done and make a fresh start with woodcuts?--Expression is all that I want--will woodcutting do it? If that too fails, then I have proof that the fault lies only within myself."

Subsequently, she did have Ernst Barlach teach her to make woodcuts. It is from this point in her career that she entered into the mainstream of German Expressionism and produced her most important graphic works. Still, she realized her inadequacies as a printmaker and in April, 1921, expressed "a deep sense of envy that Barlach is so much more powerful and profound than I am."

Although Kollwitz is known for her graphics, her diaries reveal a constant preoccupation with her work as a sculptress. In 1920, she wrote: "For years I have been tormenting myself. Not to speak of sculpture." Referring to the monumental "father and mother" sculptures in memory of her son, on which she worked for years, she wrote: "God grant I keep my health until it is all done for Peter and the others." And in April, 1931: "I am exhibiting the two sculptures--father and mother--for years I worked on them in utter silence, showed them to no one--and now I am opening the doors wide so that as many people as possible may see them. A big step which troubles and excites me--I am thinking mainly of the sculpture.--In June I will start the finishing touches. In the fall--Peter,--I shall bring it to you."

From a scholarly point of view, the "Diary and Letters" is sound. A comparison against the original German edition (published by Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1949) found the English translation faithful to the German. The present volume's only flaw appears to be the inferior quality of the reproductions, which are not nearly as sharp as those in the original 1955 edition.

"The Diary and Letters" is a valuable and readable work. It is also one of the few original source books on German Expressionism available in English.

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