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Anguish, art and action: the work of Käthe Kollwitz at UConn

What does suffering look like? Is it a facial expression or a gesture, a moment or a condition?

German artist Käthe Kollwitz saw it in all its manifestations as a basic part of the human experience. It sparked her creative urge while her country lost two world wars, visiting her as heartache for mankind and grief closer to home.

A somber exhibition of her work by the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs puts suffering front and center. It also explores how she translated her compassion into action.

"Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art" is less about politics than its title implies. Though human misery is often political, the core of the show is not the posters and leaflets she made for progressive causes but universal scenes untethered to specific events.

Kollwitz (1867-1945) worked in printmaking, producing etchings and lithographs, but some of her best work is in the unusual form of woodcut, in which she carved images into blocks of wood, which were then printed. She was also a sculptor.

Her work is monochromatic, with shades of gray in the lithographs, and nothing but inky black and white in the woodcuts. The lack of color strips away extraneous elements, leaving her subject matter fundamental, raw and powerful.

In a 1923 woodcut called "Hunger," for example, a figure so emaciated that ribs are visible stands with mouth agape. The hands cover the face with the elbows sticking out like wings. A smaller figure, possibly a child, is seen in profile, staring impassively, possibly no longer able to feel. More information about the scene is unnecessary. The viewer feels the subjects' anguish, and that is everything.

A similar scene plays out in "Brot!" ("Bread!"), a lithograph from the following year. Two small children desperate for food plead with their mother, who seems trapped both by them and by fate. Her head bowed, she faces away from the viewer as one child confronts her while the other pulls at an arm behind her back. She can't even move, much less feed them.

The woodcut "Erwerbslos" ("Unemployed"), from the same period, is a grim family portrait. A girl with sunken eyes and haunted face is in the foreground, her face lit perhaps by a desperate hope that things will improve. Behind her, mother and father are almost completely enveloped in shadow, the open-mouthed man with his hand on his throat. Maybe they know better than to hope.

The society that produced all this agony was Germany in the wake of its collapse after World War I. Though the country flowered anew in the Weimar period before descending into even greater horror, not all were swept along with the resurgent prosperity of the mid-1920s.

The central element of the exhibition is "Krieg" ("War"), a cycle of seven woodcuts that reflect the experience of the conflict, mostly on the home front. Their spare depiction of the horrors of 1914-18 strike at the heart as deeply as a ghastly photo from the trenches or a withering verse from one of the war's soldier-poets.

In "Die Eltern" ("The Parents"), an older couple are wrapped in a grief-stricken embrace, having fallen to their knees, presumably upon receiving grim news from the front. "Die Witwe II" ("The Widow II") finds a woman prostrate on the floor, too overcome to tend to the baby lying atop her as one hand barely touches the child's back. In both scenes, as in many of Kollwitz's others, no faces are visible. Tortured body language tells the whole story.

The only print in the series that evokes the military is "Die Freiwilligen" ("The Volunteers"), in which Death, beating a drum, leads a line of young men to their doom on the battlefield. The faces of some are turned almost reverently skyward, while one cries out in fear, perhaps more keenly aware of what awaits.

Kollwitz's political art is also well-represented. Her sympathies clearly lay with the far left, but despite her regular contributions for socialist and communist causes, she never joined a party. Her purpose-made art, while fascinating, is less compelling.

The power of "Nie Wieder Krieg" ("Never Again War"), for example, lies largely in its circumstances. A poster created for Central German Youth Day, it shows a person with hand raised in a gesture of taking a vow. The image was used in an antiwar demonstration on Aug. 3, 1924, the 10th anniversary of Germany's entry into World War I. The vow, of course, was tragically unfulfilled.

A 1920 woodcut commemorates the death of revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, who was arrested for leading a communist uprising in Berlin and murdered in police custody. The scene depicts workers grieving over his lifeless body.

Curiously out of place is a lithograph Kollwitz produced for a Berlin temperance event in 1922. Most of the sheet consists of writing, but two faces are included. They bear familiar expressions of anguish to illustrate the evils of drink, but they feel almost produced on demand.

Kollwitz was aware that the relationship between art and politics was open to question:

"Let people say a thousand times that art with a purpose is not pure art," she wrote. "I, for my part, want to be affective with my art, for as long as I am able to work."

The Benton is fortunate to have in its collection all five of Kollwitz's print cycles in their entirety. They were a gift from Walter Landauer, a German expatriate who spent 40 years at UConn as a professor of animal sciences. Upon his retirement in 1964, he donated more than 100 works, which he had been acquiring for years.

The exhibition includes some of his papers, including a 1968 story from the Hartford Times about UConn's first display of the collection. In it, Landauer notes that he had met Kollwitz in Germany and corresponded with her.

"She was not a pessimist, a cynic about life," he said. "Actually, she had a sense of humor, but she was deeply involved with the human condition."

Kollwitz confirms as much with a quote featured in the show's introduction: "It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high. This is my task, but it is not an easy one."

It may have been more fate than task, as one work uncannily suggests. A 1903 etching called "Frau mit toten Kind" ("Woman with Dead Child") shows the subject grieving over the body of her son. A friend of the artist, shocked by the image's power, described it thus:

"A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-colored corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks ... to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb."

Kollwitz used her son Peter, then 7, as a model for the dead child. Eleven years later, he was killed in World War I.

Somehow, the artist portrayed her own grief a decade in the future.

j.ruddy@theday.com

If you go

What: "Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art"

Where: The William Benton Museum of Art, 245 Glenbrook Road, Storrs

When: Through April 10

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free

Information: https://benton.uconn.edu. Note pandemic restrictions.

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