In Truth, Beauty: The Art of Kathe Kollwitz
Kathe Kollwitz would have turned 100 this year. But her despairing art is shockingly resonant in 2017.
When a Jewish businessman in Cologne, Germany, named Franz Levy died in 1937, his family commissioned the renowned German artist Kathe Kollwitz to design his gravestone. Kollwitz, who was not Jewish, sculpted pairs of hands reaching in subtle relief from opposite sides of the stone surface, fingers gripping wrists, holding on. It arouses a feeling of desperate but defiant connection across chasms of human loss.
Kollwitz deftly respected a Jewish rule against showing human faces on gravestones, honoring one man who had died of natural causes. But she had a gift for artistic prophecy. Levy’s family fled Germany in 1938, and one can’t look at those hands reaching over his grave today and not see a Cassandra’s lament for the countless families who would be torn apart by the violence that soon swept the globe.
Kollwitz turned 70 the year Levy died. Her drawings, prints and sculptures that often depicted inhabitants of her poor Berlin neighborhood had won her a rare mix of critical acclaim and public affection. From the start, she worked from her drive to run toward extremes of human suffering that most artists avoided. She instinctively applied John Keats’s insight — “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” — to working peoples’ lives and her own.
IN SUBTLE RELIEF: Kollwitz’s gravestone for Franz Levy.