In Käthe Kollwitz’s prints, the devastation of war becomes uncomfortably familiar. As opposed to male contemporaries like Otto Dix or George Grosz, who portrayed the savagery of the World Wars’ trench fighting, Kollwitz trained her eye on the domestic front, creating devastating prints and sculptures based on the tragedy and desperation she witnessed daily in Berlin—and occasionally experienced herself. (Her youngest son, Peter, died on the battlefield in Flanders in 1914.) For Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the “War” and “Death” Portfolios (through November 10), the Brooklyn Museum is showing its complete holdings of the seven Krieg (or “War”) woodblock prints from 1922-23 for the first time, alongside its five lithograph prints from the later Tod (“Death”) series from 1934-35, and a 1927 self-portrait. Though she’s best known for the earlier stylized woodblock pieces, with their virtuoso use of negative space to trace features and forms shrouded in darkness, the “Death” prints, with their softer and more naturalistic lines and surreal, demonic figures, prove to be this tight and terrifying show’s strongest works.
The figure of Death had been haunting Kollwitz’s works for decades by the eve of WWII, when the Nazi party branded her a “Degenerate Artist,” stripped her of her professorship, and banned her from exhibiting. The subjects of her superb “War” series stare out from group huddles and tight, desperate hugs at some unseen, threatening force—notice the wide-eyed stares of the freaked out kids in “The People” and “The Mother” (both 1922-23). By the time of the “Death” prints, Kollwitz’s haggard figures have embraced the fiend.
In the latter series, Death isn’t the cloaked character from popular culture, but something closer to the vampires portrayed by Edvard Munch: a primordial evil preying on modernism’s castoffs. What’s most disturbing in the “Death” prints is the victims’ intimacy with this haunting figure. In “Death Recognized as a Friend” (1934-35), the jagged features, crazed eyes and pained expression belong to the doomed person who’s peering intensely over Death’s shoulder at the viewer with a nightmarish look mingling terror and relief. “Girl in the Lap of Death” (1934) finds a depleted woman breathing a final sigh of comfort and thanks as she finds respite in Death’s embrace.
These works’ soft lines and sharp details make them all the more affecting. Kollwitz, an outspoken pacifist throughout her life, was an expert at appealing to viewers’ emotions, and somehow the “War” prints’ formal daring partially undercuts their expressiveness, while the “Death” prints are absolutely haunting. In both series, especially the latter, she portrays the unsettlingly familiar terror of a culture in which death and destitution are not anomalies but daily companions.
Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945). The Mothers (Die Mütter), 1922-1923. Woodcut on heavy Japan paper, Image: 13 3/8 x 15 13/16 in. (34 x 40.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum