Art on the Road: Kollwitz in L.A.

At the Fortress on the Hill that is the Getty, an expansive overview exhibit gets to the grit of the great German modernist's life and work


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


Husband: “You really are drawn to dark art, aren’t you? Who is she?”
Me: “What do you mean? We have a print of hers hanging on your side of the bed.”
Husband: “Print? What print? ”

Thus I offer you a slice of typical conversation overheard in our household, while dragging my beloved to a striking exhibition of works by Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), one of the icons of German modern art, at The Getty in Los Angeles.

Entry to the Exhibition with an enlarged excerpt from Charge (between 1902 and 1903).

While he was muttering about the absence of visual memory, my brain was frantically searching for a translation of an untranslatable German term that is often – and mistakenly, oh so mistakenly – cited in connection with Kollwitz’ art: Betroffenheitskitsch. Betroffenheit can be translated as shock, dismay, consternation, sadness. But in this context it is probably meant to describe too much empathy verging into kitschiness.

Self-Portrait in Profile Toward the Right, ca. 1938. Chalk transfer lithograph, printed in black ink on buff paper State III of III; printed in 1946.

It was the kind of condemnation you heard from a younger generation of German artists, Martin Kippenberger among them, after overexposure to the works of this celebrated artist who was claimed, for one, by the left (Communists, Socialists, feminists, you name it) for her anti-war stance and her artistic exploration of themes of social justice. Yury and Sonya Winterberg, authors of a Kollwitz biography (2015), speculate that Kollwitz’ emotional response to proletarian misery and the consequences of war was incompatible with the ironic if not sarcastic self-image that many more recent German artists have come to identify with.

The biography shines new light on her life and work. New to me, anyhow. Painstaking archival work and interviews with three of her surviving grandchildren reveal a complex story. On the one hand, she was preoccupied with death, growing up in a household that saw three of her siblings perish young. On the other hand, she possessed an extraordinary life force, was sensual, and openly acknowledged her bisexuality. The love for her children, it is hinted in the narrative, was overbearing, and bordering on abuse when it came to interacting with her sons in sexualized situations. Her self-assuredness made her a center of her social circles, and many a famous artist, including Ernst Barlach and Berthold Brecht, adored her. Her membership in diverse women’ organizations can be counted as early feminist engagement.

Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Etching, drypoint, sandpaper, and soft ground with the imprint of laid paper and Ziegler’s transfer paper, printed in black ink on copperplate paper. (A warning: I tried my best to match my photographs with the given iteration of a print during the evolution to the final version – I might have messed up on occasion. All the more reason to go and see the exhibit for yourself: There the annotation is flawless!)

Germany has not one but three museums dedicated to her: the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne, which has a marvelous collection of her works; the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin, where she lived for much of her life; and the Käthe Kollwitz Haus in Moritzburg, where she rented two small rooms at the estate of friends after having been bombed out in Berlin in 1944, and where she died a year later.

Kollwitz was also hailed by the right as a safe bet of someone who had been unfazed by Nazi condemnation and offered sufficient pathos in her sculptures to serve as memorials for those killed in war and by Nazi persecution, needed when Berlin emerged as the German capital again. (None other than Chancellor Helmut Kohl ordered her work for the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship a few years after the wall came down.)

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SO WHO WAS THIS WOMAN? Someone who blazed a path into the Berlin academy at a time when males almost exclusively dominated, who won prizes, who was a sufficient threat to the Nazis to be banned from showing her work – and who simply observed everyday life, refining her skills in perpetuity to depict human suffering of the working class, the poor, and those sent to die for national ideals and imperialistic strivings. She lost a son in WW I, a grandson in WWII; she saw close friends murdered by paramilitary forces after the short-lived November revolution and the Spartacist uprising in January of 1919.

She observed, she depicted. She bore witness.

Various iterations of Woman with Dead Child, 1903.

She also made it very clear that she resented being co-opted by any kind of political movement, across decades of diligent diary entries stating that she was not a political artist. She wanted to address political and social issues with her art, but from a humanist perspective, one that did not shy away from the sadness, futility, and misery that surrounded her.

Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children! January 1920. Crayon transfer lithograph, printed in black ink on light-brown machine-made paper, State I of II

Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics is allowing us a hard look at what she really accomplished. The exhibition features etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts, from every phase of the artist’s career, alongside related preparatory drawings, proofs, and rejected versions of prints. It is a terrific learning experience, beautifully curated to showcase the evolution of some of her print cycles. Early etchings are delicate; later woodcuts become darker, more streamlined, expressionistic, although she never joined the expressionist movement per se. The viewer is expertly guided through multiple iterations of one image with explanatory pointers to what was changed and why by the artist.

The Ploughmen, ca. 1906. Preparatory drawing for The Ploughmen. Charcoal, graphite, and white chalk on blue-gray laid paper.

This includes one of her most famous print cycles, Peasants’ War, produced across six years until completed in 1908Its seven prints are eerily prescient of the tragedy about to unfold in 1914, repeating the human suffering that happened during the Bauernkrieg in 1524, a year-long revolt by poor farmers that was ruthlessly crushed by the aristocracy, with over 100,000 farmers slaughtered. It was the largest and most devastating, futile uprising before the French Revolution.

Ploughmen and Woman, before June 1902. Rejected second version of sheet 1 of Peasants’ War. Crayon and brush lithograph with spatter and scraping on the drawing stone, printed in dark-brown ink, with a tone stone in orange-brown ink, on light-brown paper, State I of II.
Charge, between 1902 and 1903, Sheet 5 of Peasants’ War. (I unfortunately did not record which version of the many on offer.)

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FROM THE CATALOGUE: According to exhibition co-curator Louis Marchesano, “Kollwitz is known for her powerful social commentary but what people often don’t fully appreciate is that the immediacy and expressive clarity of her images belie the efforts behind the works, which are products of a deliberate and measured artistic process.”

Exposure to process aside, one of the most moving contents for me was the depiction of mourners around the murdered friend and revolutionary Karl Liebknecht lying in state. As these things sometimes happen serendipitously, the very next day I came across a tattered copy of Alfred Döblin’s novel Karl and Rosa: November 1918, A German Revolution, a book I had read some 40 years ago. The novel, by the same author as of Berlin Alexanderplatz, describes the fragmentary revolution and the bloody terror that Kollwitz observed as well, so shortly after the horrors of the Great War had ended. Here is a terrific review of the book that goes beyond the fates of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were considered responsible for the revolt, to sketch a crucial part of German history.

In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, before October 1919. Rejected first version. Etching, aquatint, sandpaper, lift ground, and soft ground with the imprint of laid paper, printed in black ink on copperplate paper. State II of VI.I

The novel was for sale as a fundraiser at the Southern California Library in L.A. The library’s archive has an extensive collection of pamphlets and political ephemera from social justice causes. Among its substantial holdings are hallmarks of local activism, such as primary documents of the Black Panther Party and the Los Angeles Protection of the Foreign Born, which were saved by local residents during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. I happened to come by when local organizers wrote postcards for prisoners for the holidays.

The community garden attached to the library is open and welcoming to the many homeless along Vermont Avenue. The murals outside depict the history of women in the labor movement, among others.

Kollwitz would have felt right at home.

She was strong, demanding, ahead of her times, and probably hard to live with. Her artwork is extraordinary (over 100 self-portraits alone) and what is shown (and how it is shown) at The Getty provides much insight into her artistic prowess and her humanistic passions.

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Fortress on the hill: the view over the city.

ONE OF THE THINGS KNOWN and indeed striking about L.A. is its sheer size. The land area of Los Angeles County is over 4,000 (!) square miles and the population is over 10 million (over 4 million for the city proper), with individuals from around 140 nations and 224 specific languages. (I didn’t even know that so many vernaculars existed…)

We’re talking BIG, and The Getty is the largest art complex I visited. I said complex, but am tempted to say compound: The many buildings housing the Getty Foundation, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the J.Paul Getty Museum sit on top of the hills above L.A., occupying it like a fort.

The choice to build a major cultural institution on 240 acres of virgin land in the Brentwood neighborhood had its defenders and critics (including those who worry about environmental disasters, like the recent fires coming quite close, and the fact that access is quite limited for fire trucks).

“Moving to the heights of Brentwood was brilliant, because the setting allows every visitor to rise above the heat, noise and traffic of the city and to concentrate on great art. It is, as museum director John Walsh puts it, ‘a democratic villa.’ “Or as another architect put it: “The Getty serves fundamentally as an oasis from the city which is increasingly congested. It’s a place in the middle of the city where you can get away from the city. That is something that occurs in other great cities.”

Alternatively ….

Skelley, Jack. “Is it really ‘Your’ Getty?: Architects and planners chide new aloof acropolis,” Downtown News (15 Dec. 1997): The most outspoken review condemning the decision of the Getty trustees to locate on the Brentwood hilltop instead of in downtown Los Angeles. A local architectural critic is quoted as saying, “I find the temple-on-the-hill-thing pompous, preposterous and pretentious beyond all belief. The desperately over-reaching ambition in this obscenely overpriced, over-designed and over-hyped project suggests a kind of arriviste insecurity in this adolescent institution.” More thoughtfully, a local architect writes: “A lot of us were deeply disappointed the Getty chose to place themselves as this remote acropolis separated from the city. We all believed the Getty could have infused an extraordinary energy into Downtown L.A. by making an alternative choice.”

One might think of it in terms of who has the likely resources in this multi-ethnic city, including time, to visit. You have to drive out there (steep parking fees), then take a little funicular (after bag search and waiting in line due to limited capacity of the tram) to the top, where the complex unfolds. Entrance to the private museum is free, but the possibility of accessing art as someone who might skip lunch to see it is zero. It is for the privileged, who might not feel uncomfortable in what was called “the command post of a multinational conglomerate.”

Stone and style: elegant curves inside the rotunda.

That said, honestly it is the most beautiful corporate headquarter you can imagine. It weaves buildings and public open spaces seamlessly together and makes them look good even when they were required for pragmatic rather than architectural considerations (the size of the entrance plaza, for example, was defined by the requirement for said fire trucks to be able to turn around).

The modernist entrance rotunda is serene, and the enclosed courtyard a lively place with fountains. The views of the city and the surrounding mountains from within the buildings and from the outside gardens are gorgeous. The various parts of the whole are united in the use of similar materials, most prominently a yellowish travertine stone (brought in from Italy) that catches and reflects light even on grey, rainy days like the one when I visited.

Richard Meier, the main architect of the Getty, is known for his use of the color white. L.A. passed legislation shortly after he had got the commission that prohibits white for some reason. The yellowish, light travertine was his alternative path. Here he is in an interview talking about the ten-year process of building the complex, the way he aligned the buildings with the highways as a nod to L.A. car culture, and footage of the construction process. We will not go into the fact that he has been accused of multiple sexual harassments, had to step down from his architectural firm (although they lost NO clients after the news of settlements with alleged victims, etc.) and now works as a “consultant.”

Most important of all, the galleries really serve the art well, with superb natural lighting and placement (which you cannot say for the only other Richard Meier museum I know, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt).

The fortress on the hill: the view to the mountains.

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  • Friderike Heuer’s essay and photographs were first published at YDP – Your Daily Picture in two pieces: on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, under the title SoCal Adventures, and on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, under the title Art on the Road: Kãthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics. The combined essay is reprinted here with permission.

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