Our day at the Kathe Kollwitz exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham began with a guided tour by one of the studio staff. Her enthusiasm was infectious and although she may well have been new to the work herself, it was a good grounding and starting point for our own thoughts. I think the students probably got an easier ride than if I had been talking!
We then had lunch and the usual study day chance to discuss broader ideas and studentship as well as time to get to know each other. OCA students are so interesting and it is always enjoyable just to hear how people arrived at the decision to do a degree in the arts and how it fits into their lives.
Having trained as a painter, Kollwitz married a young doctor and turned away from painting to printing processes with the specific intention of enabling wider access to her work. Kathe Kollwitz and her husband came across as people of principle and empathy who both, in their different ways, dedicated their lives to the nurturing and support of the poor in their community.
She combined printing processes and added hand finishing to create finely worked surfaces. I would imagine most OCA fine art students will be aware of Kollwitz. Her monochrome graphic style and focus on portraiture and the figure make her a popular and useful artist to look at when learning about drawing from life. Seeing the work in ‘real life’ was quite moving as the first room was dedicated to self portraits. Each with the sobre unflinching expression that characterises them – we entered a room literally full of Kathe herself staring back at us. Students discussed how they felt about Kollwitz’s gaze and we wondered how far it was simply the unselfconscious look that the face falls into when concentrating on drawing.
The exhibition as a whole enabled us to see a range of work from the strongly contrasting lino cuts to the super fine cobwebbby weave of some of the lithograph work which had been even further smoothed over and refined with sandpaper and crayon.
Some students noticed how the figures were sometimes anatomically distorted to enable a composition or graphic effect. We also discussed how gnarled hands may well have been a natural distortion brought about by hard work. Our guide related an anecdote that Kollwitz had been fond of her grandfather’s massive hard working hands and included them, or versions of them, in her work.
After lunch we went back into the gallery, both to draw, but also to think about the work afresh. I asked the students to consider how Kollwitz’s response to the political and social turmoil of Europe during her lifetime compared to the Dada response which was contemporaneous to it. There was, as is so often the case, no actual answer to that question but some great points were raised.
Looking over the work, I felt that ‘in the flesh’ the horror of the skulls and extended limbs faded for me under a gossamer of woven marks. What remained was a sense not so much of shocking trauma as chronic endurance – death as a friend gratefully welcomed as much as feared. The drawings seemed to stroke the faces of these exhausted women and their hungry babies as if weaving a nurturing cocoon to protect them from what would all too soon start up again once the modelling session was over.
I was very pleased to have students from different disciplines and walks of life on the day – something which had a direct and observable positive effect on our discussions. A photographer noticed the particular quality and direction of light hitting the sitter in some of the portraits – almost lit from behind- and I feel we all benefitted from a photographer’s eye. We also had a GP in the group so in an exhibition where much of the inspiration was sourced in a doctors waiting room, she brought perspective as a contemporary artist and working GP.
I’d like to say thank you to everyone who came and contributed so generously to the day.