Joseph McVeigh lectures on Käthe Kollwitz’s life, loss

Emily Zhou ’10
Contributing Writer

The Smith Art Museum’s exhibition on the works of Käthe Kollwitz has brought the entire community together to remember the works of this great artist. Kollwitz’s portrayal of the suffering and adversity of humanity throughout both World Wars is a reminder to all of us of the tragedies we can never forget — not just the deaths on the battlefront, but also the wretched anguish of the common people.

Yet, at the same time, we must not ignore Kollwitz herself and the sources from which she drew her creativity and beliefs. On March 22, Joseph McVeigh, a professor of German Studies at Smith, delivered a powerful and enlightening lecture on the journals of this remarkable woman who created the pieces we see today.

In her journals, Kollwitz wrote of her fascination with the working class, which she claimed, humorously, was more “aesthetic” than the middle class. Our closer examination of Kollwitz in the lecture began with the death of her son Peter. The transformation in Kollwitz was paramount. She wrote, “The monster which is war, stole [Peter] away.” From then on, Kollwitz would spend her life pondering how it was that her son would die for an idea: Germany.

McVeigh pointed out that Kollwitz’s journal entries after the death of her son contained a high degree of conflict as Kollwitz tried to come to terms with the relationship between her inside mind, the outside reality and her desires versus her capabilities. In her speculations, she referenced the German philosophers, Freidrick Nietzsche and Angelus Silesius, more commonly known as the “Silesian Angel.”

From her studies of Nietzsche, she pondered what she wanted in both art and life and how to fulfill both. From Silesius, Kollwitz contemplated the steps of how “man [would] become the essential.” All the quotes and anecdotes that McVeigh read could be summed up by Kollwitz declaration, “My true self is not me as a Christian, but me, Käthe Kollwitz.”

Kollwitz’s greatest fear as an artist was the inability to create new art which would hold onto people’s attention. She committed her duty to the honest portrayal of wartime victims and dedicated her works to her own son.
Peter’s death was a propelling factor in Kollwitz’s art. The loss of a child clung onto Kollwitz’s art and words for the rest of her life. She would lament about her desire to return to the old days of being a mother. Kollwitz’s heart burned with the desire to create the one face that could encompass all the suffering of the world.

Her answer came in the famous sculpture of “Mother and her Dead Son,” created in 1939 to the likeness of the Pietà. The Pietà is Michelangelo’s sculpture depicting the sorrowful Virgin Mary holding the dead body of her son, Jesus. Throughout history, artists have invoked this image to express various messages of human suffering.

Regarding the creation of her sculpture, Kollwitz wrote, “There is no longer pain — only reflection.” Kollwitz drew upon her own pain from losing her son, paralleling it with the Virgin Mary and Jesus to create a universal message of sorrow and loss for the world.

Käthe Kollwitz successfully found her essential and instilled the universal elements of love, compassion, community into her beliefs and art. Whilst living and depicting the silenced, oppressed and anguished, Kollwitz believed, despite all she saw and experienced, that there is good in this world, and that humanity will move forward despite the setbacks of the wars.

In her journal entry, she expressed her worries of how future generations that have never endured or seen the atrocities of the World Wars may not be able to empathize with her artwork.

For further interest: The exhibition by the Smith College Art Museum, Käthe Kollwitz: Mothers in Arms will continue until May 29th. Käthe Kollwitz’s diaries and letters are published in the book Diary and Letters of Käthe,Kollwitz, which was edited by her second son, Hans.

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