When Kathe Kollwitz’ son Peter was killed in the later days of World War I, she thought it an ‘unnecessary death.’ Her artistic career would seem to suggest that every death is indeed necessary and inevitable, and Death himself, as an indispensable agent, is a shape-shifter who can console as well as terrify, comfort as well as cut off. What Kollwitz meant was not philosophic. She was not suggesting that war itself gives a damn about which deaths are required and which might be shunted off till another day. She meant that she and her husband were responsible for introducing Peter to death when Death was not particularly paying attention. The boy was patriotic and wanted to serve. He was too young to enlist on his own say-so. His parents acceded to his wish and signed the necessary paperwork; he enlisted and, shortly afterwards, he was killed.
Kollwitz’ life as an artist did not suddenly change at this point. She had cultivated that dark, curling, serpentine, convoluted embrace Death brings to children, to mothers, to weavers, to the poor even before WWI began.
But when her grandson Peter was killed in the next war—we can only think it a mercy that she did not outlive him for very long.
The Kollwitz museum occupies a lovely 19th century town house a block off the Kurfurstendamm, the main shopping street where I saw a Ferrari and a Lamborghini parked nose to boot while their drivers, taking no notice of each other, darted into Starbuck’s for a takeaway and then sped off leaving the throaty roar these machines are built to produce.
No—there’s no use contrasting that roar with the dark cast of Kollwitz’ work, its essentialism, its sense that life is a state of grace everywhere betrayed. During the Nazi regime, she lost her teaching post and was prohibited from showing her work. She went to France. She won support from the Russians. But then, not so long afterwards, the Russians masterminded the wall that ran through Potsdamer Platz, just down the road from the Kollwitz Museum, and hindered the rebuilding of this part of the city for forty years.
Her work lasts, and (but?) Death still enfolds the next under his arms, his head bowed, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps because he will not look you in the eye.
[The museum, of course, does not allow photography. All but one of these pictures depict the re-building of Potsdamer Platz since the dismantling of the Wall in 1989.]