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  • Meirion Harries

DAY TWO: Käthe Kollwitz

The Käthe Kollwitz Museum is in a very elegant part of Berlin - just south of the Kurfürstendamm - and is itself an elegant 19th century house. Before we go in though - lunch in the house next door - the Berlin Writers Club - which happily is open to members of English PEN. The Route Marshal and I are going to have Bratwurst und Kartoffel Salat (made with bacon, onion, a little lemon, sugar, mustard, some chicken stock and perhaps a potato or two).

With lunch over, we are going to be introduced to the world of Kathe Kollwitz by Britain's leading etcher - Marcus Rees Roberts. His Study for a Stabat Mater I is above.


Marcus says: "Kathe Köllwitz (1867 – 1945) lived and worked in Berlin for most of her adult life. Born in Konigsberg, into a large family of Left-leaning parents, she married a doctor who practised in an impoverished, working class area of Berlin. His patients and the people she saw in her district were those she represented in her drawings and prints. (It was not until she was forty that she went to Florence to learn sculpture).


Her technically superb series of early etchings, which clearly show the influence of the great German etcher Max Klinger, portrayed the mid 19th century weavers’ strike, and the medieval peasants’ revolt in southern Germany. These depictions of historic, tragic working class struggles gave way to something more personal. Her work became more autobiographical. In her youth, brothers had died from illness; a son had been killed in the early days of the First World War; her commitment to pacifism and Socialism grew. In both subject and in the intensely expressive content of her work, her later work has an almost unbearable emotional power.


Kathe Köllwitz left Berlin in 1943 and soon afterwards her house was destroyed by a bomb. Even though her work was not approved of by the Third Reich, there are formal similarities between her work and that approved of by the Nazis. Both share a simplified realism, exalting the dignity of humanity; both even use dramatic, almost theatrical lighting. But whereas the monumental models of Nazi art are strong, healthy and athletic, those of Köllwitz are broken and underprivileged, their hands swollen by hard work and arthritis; whereas the models of Nazi art are dramatically lit by the warm sunshine of a new dawn, those of Köllwitz are lit by the dim light of dusk and guttering candles.


Köllwitz is often described as a German Expressionist; sometimes as an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. Neither description is accurate. Not only did she never belong, even loosely, to any of the German Expressionist groups, but aesthetically her work is far removed from that movement. Essentially, she is a 19th century realist artist. Experiments in representation, composition, colour, scale, the relation between image and ground - the things that one associates with Modernism in general and German Expressionism in particular – are not the drivers of Köllwitz’s work.


As for Neue Sachlichkeit, her work has none of the post-war anger, bitterness, acid of George Grosz and Ottox Dix in their depictions of disabled beggars, prostitutes and bloated magnates; nor is there any of the decadent uneasiness of Christian Schad. Her work is about dignity and suffering, portrayed in self-portraits and the images of the working class women she knew in her district of Berlin. To distort them, to caricature them, to impose aesthetic experiments on them would be to debase them.


Hers is an aesthetic which endows 19th century genre painting with an extraordinary emotional power; it avoids sentimentality because it borrows from Modernism an emphasis on the materiality of the image: the viewer always aware that they are looking at a woodcut, etching or drawing as well as the depicted scene. Her work transcends movements, and even centuries."

To see the incredible work of Marcus Rees Roberts, go to www.http://www.prattcontemporaryart.co.uk/artists/marcus-rees-roberts/


On now for the daily hour of cycling, heading - at the request of the Route Marshal - towards the south west (wrong direction for Trafalgar Square) and Potsdam. "Sans souci", says the Route Marshal - but she isn't doing the pedalling.

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