The art of experience

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Kaethe Kollwitz deserves to be called great. Not for being an artist of great genius or profound originality -- for she was neither -- but because she committed her entire being to furthering the cause of humanity through her art.

She looked life squarely in the eye and took it as it was. Unlike almost every other major artist of our century, Kollwitz accepted life in the raw. She created in order to ease the pain of living, to reconcile individual tragedy with universal human suffering, to grant dignity to grief. She never ran away, never pretended, never told a lie in her art. She said only, "This is the way it is. What shall we do about it?"

That question remains alive and pertinent in the exhibition of Kollwitz prints and drawings currently on view here at the Galerie St. Etienne. Carefully selected to indicate the breadth and depth of her art, these 52 etchings, lithographs, and preparatory studies sereve as an ideal introduction to her work for those not familiar with it and as a profound reminder of her importance for those who are.

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A Kollwitz show is always an event. At least it should be considering the quality and dimensions of her art, although some prefer that art remain a veil herld elegantly between what we know and what we wish. Or to be a handsome symbol of a better and higher existence.

We want art to stand surrogate for life, to be drained of everything which reminds us of our vulnerability. We want art to place us at the center of the universe and thus relieve us of our nagging sense of incompleteness.

But Kollwitz will have none of that. She will not let us off the hook. She confronts and unsettles us, reminds us of our human interdependence, and forces us to see art within a moral framework. Rather than placing us at the center of the universe away from human crisis, she puts us smack in the center of the battle for human survival.

Some of us cannot forgive her for that and insist she has no place in the formal and transcendent realm of art.

The truth of the matter is that she doesn't really belong in the mainstream of 20th-century art. She is too direct, too uncompromising, too compassionate. But that exclusion is our fault, not hers, and reflects discredit upon our values, not upon hers.

She is a direct, unblinking, yet feeling realist in an age when realism in art tended toward the hysteria of expressionism, the clinical detachment of the German new-realists, the Romantic nostalgia of the regionalists, the bitterof the photo-realists, etc. Of them all, she is the only one who grappled with life's conditions rather than tried to avoir them.

There is catharsis in every one of her prints, the releasing of tensions accrued by avoidance of starker realities. While she faced life raw, her art permits us to face it with grace. She transforms the rawness and the joy of living into images which have the power to heal. Nothing is her arts is intended to shock or to create dismay. If she digs deeply it is only to reinforce the truth of what she saw and knew. One goes willingly to her for reaffirmation because one knows her love and compassion, her faith in human dignity and worth, spring from total knowledge and experience of the best and worst of life.

The joy of new motherhood has seldom found such simple and moving expression as in her prints of young mothers with their infants. But she turned her back on nothing human. Everything man experienced was cause for celebration or compassion. There are few images in 20th-century art as powerful as her 1903 print of the squatting mother holding the body of her child, the 1907 etching of the mother searching for her son on the battlefield at night.

She drew beautifully, but one is seldom aware of it, for everything was directed at giving maximum expression to the humanity of her subjects. Her self-portraits are a revelation. The earliest show her as a young woman calmly looking out at the viewer. They are direct studies in which character and technical skoll are equally important. But as she marries, loses her son in World War I, shares her physician-husband's care and concern for the poor of Berlin, lives through Hitler's hatred for her work, endures the death in battle of her grandson, we see her gradually change. Her later self-portraits, drawn as simply and directly as she wrote her name, are among the great human documents of this century.

Kaethe Kollwitz had a great heart and spirit, a powerful talent, and the courage and persistence to fuse them into an art which documented the full range of human existence. By doing so she did honor to the art of our time and to us.

This exhibition will remain on view at the Galerie St. Etienne through May 10 .

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