Authentic artists engage with their subject matter with intensity and none more so than Kathe Kollwitz and Emil Nolde. Both these artists have museums dedicated to their work in Berlin. In a city with numerous art galleries ranging from the sublime Pergamonmuseum to the mostly banal contemporary offerings of the Hamburger Bahnhof, the galleries devoted to the work of Kollwitz and that of Emil Nolde stand out.
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) is the poet of the downtrodden and destitute. She empathised with the suffering in the world and through her graphic skills reveals a world of poverty and social destitution. The devastating effect of both World Wars on the working classes of Berlin is reflected in her art. She concentrates on the predicament of the homeless and the struggling poor and on the absurdities and atrocities of war. The theme of the Mother and child is a major aspect if her work. This is art made out of anguish, suffering and a relentless depiction of the condition of the poor, only relieved by the power of her artistic sensibility. At a time when women were not encouraged to train as professional artists she was determined to pursue art as a career. Having married a doctor who had a practise in a poor working class district of Berlin and with two children to bring up, she decided to concentrate her talent on drawing and printmaking rather than painting. The overwhelming seriousness in her voice is then revealed through the graphic media of drawing, lithography, etching and woodcut. When all around her Modernists trends were reforming the art world and questioning conventions, she retained her realist position, viewing the work of the newly formed ‘Die Brucke’ painters as elitist: …‘in our century the figurative Arts have degenerated to the wretchedness of art Galleries’. Her political position and Socialist sympathies were evident in her art and these in turn, were anathema to the Nazis, who labelled her work ‘degenerate’. Her art was banned from public art galleries and she lost much work when her studio was bombed in the last year of the World War 11.
Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was another ‘degenerate’ artist. Although an early supporter of the burgeoning National Socialist Party, this did not prevent the Nazis from banning him from painting and also showing his work in the infamous ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) Exhibition of 1937. Back in his country house at Seebull, in North Friesland he continued to work, producing a great number of small watercolours which he called the ‘Unpainted Pictures’. Like Kollwitz he now has a Berlin Museum dedicated to his work. His career as an artist started when he illustrated a series of mountain postcards of the Swiss Alps which became a commercial success. They sold 100,00 copies which gave him the opportunity to become a freelance artist. “I knew I would become an artist – and not a bad one”, he was reported to have said. At a time when newer forms of art were appearing, he joined the Expressionist group ‘Die Brucke’ (The Bridge). He was also a member of the breakaway Berlin Secession group who reacted to the conservative tastes of the time. He also exhibited with the equally avant- garde ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (The Blue Rider) group in 1912, soon becoming a leading exponent of Expressionist painting in Germany. His relationship with and love of the Swiss Alps however continued and can be seen in a current temporary exhibition ‘Mountain Calls, Emil Nolde and Switzerland’ at the Emil Nolde Museum, Berlin.
The mountain watercolours on show are refreshing in their direct approach, the blue and white of the winter Alpine scene predominating. In addition there is some early work done while an art instructor in industrial and ornamental drawing and portraits, which show his considerable graphic skills. Some later sea paintings are also included but overall the exhibition shows his considerable talent as a colourist and as an expressionist painter fully in control of his medium. At a time when public galleries do not have the space and resources to show examples of every major artist’s work, these museums are worth searching out.