Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the "War" and "Death" Portfolios

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jennifer Cox

Published on April 07, 2013 , Modified on April 08, 2013

  • Description:

    As I wove myself through the massive building that holds the Brooklyn Museum’s collections and exhibitions, I finally found myself on the 4th floor in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I knew previously that the Kathe Kollwitz exhibit was small, so as I searched through the Workt by Hand quilt exhibit and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, I kept my hopeful eye out for an intimate gallery, dimly lit off in a nook. Being long familiar with the intense subject matter and emotional connections Kathe Kollwitz projects in her art, I expected to stumble upon a space that advocated the artworks’ reflective mood, where I could observe and contemplate.

    Instead, after asking a gallery attendant for help in finding the exhibit, I came across a single, long, white wall containing the thirteen prints in the exhibition. The exhibition begins with a self-portrait of Kollwitz, along with the introduction signage. According to the wall text, the exhibition aims to pull prints from Kollwitz’s “war” and “death” portfolios to exhibit “images of loss and grief”. These images stem from Kollwitz’s personal experience with the hardships and losses during war in her country of Germany. The prints on view were created between WWI, where Kollwitz lost her own son in battle, and WWII, where the Nazi party began to rise and oppress herself and other citizens. According to the Brooklyn Museum, “These images of familial tenderness, highlighting the daily struggles of the poor and working classes, and the degree to which they bear the burden of war, are the primary focus of Kollwitz’s canon”.

    After reading the initial signage of the exhibition, one can slowly make their way right, down the long white wall. The lithographs and woodcuts show intimate glimpses into Kollwitz’s feelings toward losing her son, the destruction war brings to families, and the fear and acceptance one must eventually face with death. The beautiful simplicity of the stark black and whites in the “war” woodcuts flow aesthetically into the soft black and gray tones of the lithographs of the “death” series. One can almost become emotionally lost in the subjects’ expressive faces and bold gestures. However, when viewing this exhibition, emotional intimacy is difficult to achieve due to the poor gallery space and ongoing noise in the accompanying room.

    In the gallery, opposite the Kollwitz exhibition wall, is an even longer informational panel correlating with Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Most visitors in the gallery seem to be coming in to view the information panel, with the Kollwitz exhibit being something they view by chance as they make their way from Workt by Hand to The Dinner Party.

    As I read the wall signage for the Kollwitz exhibit and attempted to absorb the universal messages Kollwitz was sending out to her viewers, I was continuously distracted by the audio from the adjoining room’s informational video on Chicago’s The Dinner Party. To me, the intensity of Kollwitz’s messages in her work was not being respected by the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition choices. I feel that Kollwitz’s intimate exhibition of thirteen pieces should have been postponed until appropriate gallery space was available. A museum’s gallery space and the intention of an artist’s work should work hand-in-hand to create a successful viewer experience.

    In regards to Kollwitz’s exhibition being displayed within the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, I felt pleased that Kollwitz should be recognized for her strong role as a woman revolutionary. Kollwitz was an activist for her war-torn community and served as a voice for the poor and working class. Kollwitz’s profound images of mothers protecting, mourning over, and celebrating their children spoke to women on a universal level. However, this feminist exhibition should have been exhibited as a stand-alone entity, whereas it felt more like a quiet invasion upon the large scale projection of The Dinner Party.

    Before visiting Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the “War” and “Death” Portfolios at the Brooklyn Museum, I recommend to those who are unfamiliar with her work to first do bit of your own research on her wonderful life story, hardships, and accomplishments before visiting the exhibition. Use this background information to guide your journey through Kollwitz’s portrayals of war and death in order to seek your own personal connections to her work. Although the gallery space for this exhibition is far from ideal for the intimacy of Kollwitz’s work, it is still worth the visit to see, in person, the simple and powerful imagery created by this revolutionary woman and artist.

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