Marianne Werefkin, Twins, 1909

Women on the edge

A feminist frame that doesn’t fit

Artillery Row On Art

It’s now or never. Braving the underground at Christmas to see some bloody art is nothing short of heroic, but The Royal Academy show Making Modernism is almost halfway through its run. Is it worth the schlep to Piccadilly? 

The blurb boasts that it celebrates hitherto obscure “trailblazing women” whilst exploring “themes of identity”, but that’s probably true of most exhibitions in Western Europe this month. The four women in question are a motley squad of German Expressionists, all obscure bar one: Käthe Kollwitz, everyone’s favourite Prussian grandmother. I won’t bother listing the others so you won’t have to pretend that you’ve heard of them. 

Why is a rockstar like Käthe Kollwitz sharing the spotlight with back-up singers? It can’t be simply that they all lived on one side of the Rhine at the same time. There must be more to it. Well, you’ll never guess, but apparently that damn patriarchy has been at it again, writing female talent out of history. The RA is here to right that wrong and help a gormless public discover artists “hidden from the history of 20th-century Modernism”. 

Any exhibition that has masterpieces like the 1903 etching Woman with Dead Child is worth seeing, but this faux-feminist framing suggests that Kollwitz languished in oblivion until our age of Enlightenment. That is — how shall I put it? A stretch? Slightly inaccurate? Pure balls? 

Yes, that’s the one. 

Kollwitz’s exhibitions were events in Imperial and Weimar Germany. She had a retrospective at fifty. When she turned seventy, bags of telegrams came in from art-world grandees. Naturally, she encountered chauvinists, the prize pig being Kaiser Wilhelm II. He derided her Weaver lithographs as the “art of the gutter”. Their socialist themes annoyed him almost as much as plans to honour her at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1898. “I beg you gentlemen, a medal for a woman, that would really be going too far … ” Every age has its boors, and the Kaiser’s days were numbered. The year after he abdicated, Kollwitz was the first woman to be appointed professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts. 

Her biography is a series of obituaries and tombstones

Her talent shines now. It shined then. That didn’t mean she ever had it easy. Her biography is a series of obituaries and tombstones. Born in 1867, when Bismarck was stitching Germany together, she died in 1945 as it was ripped apart. With stoic resignation she stares out from old photographs as if to say, “Now what?” She had the sturdy build of a stonemason’s daughter. It’s impossible to imagine her smiling. Her features are sadly simian, like an orangutan who comes home to find the rainforest logged. Her head looks like someone began carving it from wood with blunt chisels and forgot to finish the job. It’s the type of head that went out of fashion when the world electrified. She vibes Old Testament. Don’t take my word for it — her series of self-portraits are savagely unsparing, bearing comparison with Rembrandt’s. 

To be sure, some talents universally lauded today went unrecognised a while after their deaths. Vermeer is one. Van Gogh is another. That is simply not the case here. In the years since Kollwitz’s death, her stature has only grown. It helps of course that she was a woman who was a bit Red, a bit lesbian — that and a unibrow is all that Frida Kahlo has going for her, and look how well she’s done. The difference here is that there’s nothing naïve about Kollwitz’s work. It requires no well-meaning affirmative action to be recognised. Then as now, her lines do the talking. And the rest? Is it true that the show’s other women are “hidden from the history of 20th-century Modernism”? Yes, in much the same way that Liz Truss will be hidden from the history of 21st century statecraft. 

The curator who put this girl band together is Dorothy Price, Professor of Critical Race Art History (gee, sounds fun) at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She perceives “strong affinities” between the artists. Of course she does. Joining dots that don’t exist is why God invented curators. For all the talk of respecting women’s individuality, this affinity comes down to — spoiler alert — the triple threat of Kinder, Küche und Kirche (Children, Kitchen and Church) getting in the way of the Kunst.

The idea of some common project beyond that, of “Making Modernism” even, is still more suspect. Art historians have a habit of retrospectively enlisting painters into wars they never fought. It’s made modernism a term so elastic that it practically bounces. Modernism, if it still means anything, means a break with the past — which here would be the methods and standards of 19th century academicism. 

Do we find any such rejection in Kollwitz? “Genius,” she said, “can probably run on ahead and seek out new ways. But good artists who follow after genius — and I count myself among these — have to restore the lost connection once more.” The humility, the reverence for past masters, these are not the sounds Modernists make. 

The Russian abstract painter Kandinsky, who was working in Germany for much of this era, better fits the bill. Almost an exact contemporary, he died a year before her. By then art’s centre of gravity was making its way across the Atlantic. Jackson Pollock had already signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim and was, in critic Clement Greenberg’s opinion, “the greatest painter this country [USA] had produced”. Pollock’s mid-century rise to prominence (with a little help from the CIA) slots neatly into modernism’s canonical chronology. 

Kollwitz does not. 

She’s out of place, like one of those Japanese soldiers in the jungle who hasn’t heard the war is over. Kandinsky to Pollock to Rothko to whoever’s in the Tate Modern this month is a lineage that fits the evolutionary theory of art. It’s something the dimmest arts undergraduate can memorise and regurgitate. You’ll find it in most cultural histories of the last century, often with a strained analogy to the contemporaneous revolution in physics. Schrödinger often gets a mention. This account sees the demise of representational art as the inescapable result of a series of logical progressions. 

You can buy this bill of goods, if you like, but it won’t help you understand Kollwitz. Her work is more Dürer than Dada. It belongs to a different world than the hot-blooded Parisian milieu of Picasso, Miro et al. Indeed, it belongs to a different epoch. Her art combines Goya’s anger and Velasquez’s insight, the empathy of a saint with the economy of a printmaker. Above all Kollwitz is a virtuoso draughtsman, one of the few to hold a candle to her German-speaking contemporary, Egon Schiele.

After the wars, draughtsmanship standards fell into the abyss

Certainly it would be hard to find two personalities less similar — Schiele was an arch-egoist; she said she worked, “the way a cow grazes”. Yet both married superb academic training with a graphic sensibility suited to the age of mass communication. Picasso and Miro are modern like jazz and aeroplanes; Kollwitz and Schiele are modern like barbed wire and trench mortars. The north star of these expressionist masters was drawing — always drawing. In Kollwitz’s case, it was not a choice so much as a compulsion. As disease and wars took her siblings, sons and grandsons, she said it was “the only thing that makes my life bearable”. 

In truth, this is the only strong affinity that Kollwitz had with the painters she’s been bundled with in the RA. All of these women were on the edge of a cultural breakdown. They were the last generation of artists for whom drawing was a prerequisite. Between the wars, standards of draughtsmanship declined precipitously. Thereafter, they fell into the abyss. 

The decades of sterility that follow are modernism’s dreary legacy. In other spheres — certainly in literature — modernism was an enlivening disruption, a dramatic expansion of the repertoire that swept aside tired ideas for objectively better ones. In the visual arts, it was poison — like Agent Orange, it maimed one generation and left those who followed crippled, blind and brain-damaged. It’s made contemporary art history a just-so story labouring to explain why Rothko isn’t an overpriced interior decorator. This casuistry requires dubious genealogies, ideological crowbars and historical interventions. 

No, Käthe Kollwitz doesn’t need rescuing. We do. 

Making Modernism at the Royal Academy, London, ends 12 February.

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