In tough times like these, it’s natural to yearn for escape in whatever shape we can find it. Tuning into a rom-com sure seems better than getting lost in some dystopian fantasy. And a romance novel might be a wiser choice than Kafka if you’re feeling on edge. But a steady diet of sweetness and light isn’t for everyone. Some of us crave more substantial fare, and for art lovers willing to brave the less-than-beautiful, The William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut at Storrs offers Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art.
Possessed of a fierce humanitarian streak and unflinching eye, the German artist (1867-1945) took social injustice and war as her themes. Working primarily in etching, lithography and woodcuts, she produced conscience-pricking images that captured the hardships of the working class (her physician husband ran a clinic in a poor area of Berlin), the travails of women, and the radiating impact of armed conflict. Her first major efforts were A Weavers’ Revolt, a series which referenced a milestone in the mid-19th-century labor movement, and Peasants’ War which recalled a violent social upheaval in the 16th century. While these works resonated in the Germany of her own time, it was her War cycle — the centerpiece of the Benton exhibition — that spoke most powerfully to contemporary life. “War is the artist’s response to the First World War and the loss of her son, Peter, in combat in 1914,” says assistant curator Amanda A. Douberley. “It is also her first print cycle in woodcut, a medium that helped her express the raw emotion felt by those affected by war — not just soldiers, but especially those on the home front.”
The bulk of the Benton’s Kollwitz material was donated by Dr. Walter Landauer, a German expatriate and professor of animal sciences who taught at the University of Connecticut from 1924 until his retirement in 1964. Activism Through Art is the museum’s first show devoted exclusively to the artist since 2007. “Like many museums, COVID-19 caused us to shift our exhibition schedule by about one year,” Douberley says. “This provided the museum with an opening to exhibit Kollwitz’s work. The curatorial team felt her prints would resonate with the concerns of our contemporary moment, not just in terms of the emotional toll of the pandemic, but also social justice and the relationship between art and politics.”
Neither documentary nor didactic, the artist’s dark images powerfully mine the toll of senseless conflict. In The Sacrifice, a woman — her visage hardened into an expressionless mask — holds an infant aloft. In The Parents, a couple kneel in an anguished embrace, their faces hidden. “Kollwitz worked and reworked images in the series to make personal experience universal,” Douberley notes.
While the work is specific to events, the sense of tragedy, pain and confusion Kollwitz conjured is, sadly, a timeless reality of the human condition. As such, her art continues to speak boldly and eloquently.
Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art
On exhibit through April 10
The William Benton Museum of Art
245 Glenbrook Road, Storrs