Kollwitz gave modern form to humanity's most essential qualities

If the 20th century has produced one truly great woman artist, it almost certainly is K"athe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Two other artists who had the necessary talent and passion to match her, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924), died, unfortunately, in their early and mid-30s. And Georgia O'Keeffe, for all her virtues and qualities, never quite made it onto Kollwitz's level. Most remarkably, she did it all in black-and-white, in 267 etchings, lithographs and woodcuts, numerous drawings (almost 1,500 of which were listed and illustrated in a 1980 catalog), and in a handful of sculptures.

And, as if that weren't enough, she produced what is probably her greatest print cycle, ``Death,'' shortly after she was publicly humiliated and forced to withdraw from all professional activities by the Nazis.

Even so, her reputation outside print circles has remained somewhat clouded. Critics, curators, and art historians have seldom paid more than passing (if respectful) attention to her, and dealers, by and large, have ignored her in favor of artists whose works were provocatively modern, colorful, and less starkly confrontational.

One gallery that has consistently shown her prints and drawings, however, and in remarkable depth at that, is the Galerie St. Etienne. In its nearly 50 years on West 57th Street here, it has mounted 18 important exhibitions of her work and has served as a central clearinghouse for collectors, students, and scholars of her art.

In celebration of its newly renovated premises, the Galerie St. Etienne has just opened another major overview of Kollwitz's lifelong production, this time with particular emphasis on her use of printmaking as a vehicle to promote social change. The 75 prints and drawings in ``K"athe Kollwitz: The Power of the Print'' include many of her finest individual images, examples from all of her print cycles, rare proofs, rejected graphics, and a few significant preliminary studies.

The overall effect, even for one who has known and admired her work for almost five decades, is overwhelming and deeply moving. From the early ``Self-Portrait at the Table'' and ``Marching Weavers,'' through such passionate denunciations of human indifference and cruelty as ``Storming the Gate,'' ``The Survivors,'' ``The Volunteers,'' and ``The Mothers,'' to such late graphic masterpieces as ``Self-Portrait in Profile Facing Right'' and ``Seeds for Sowing Shall Not Be Milled!'' the viewer is presented with one brilliantly distilled and focused human and expressive document after another.

At her best, Kollwitz seemed capable of compressing all of humanity - or at least one or another significant aspect of it - into a black-and-white image the size of a sheet of typewriter paper - or only slightly larger. Although compassion was her primary response to life, she was also capable of venting her frustration and rage at war, poverty, political murder, and any other form of inhumanity - and without recourse to the highly idiosyncratic or flamboyant distortions used by Otto Dix, George Grosz, or Picasso when they were most angry or passionate.

Kollwitz, in fact, never deviated very far from direct physical description, from taking full advantage of the way people and things actually looked, and then using that information to fashion images that remained profoundly and specifically ``human'' even while serving as powerfully effective moral or social icons.

Her humanism, however, was never simplistic or sentimental, but was grounded in the very worst life had to offer. If anything, the subjects of many of her prints have survived and risen above levels of tragedy most of mankind never have to endure. These individuals' courage, devotion, and sacrifice, their refusal to admit defeat or to fall victim to despair, represent, in fact, the dominant and most recurrent theme of Kollwitz's art. In her world, men and women may suffer, but their spirit, their will, and most especially their dignity remain intact.

In this, Kollwitz comes closer to Rembrandt than any other 20th-century artist. He, too, was interested more in tragedy's effect on the individual than on the group, and he, too, was capable of using the most ordinary of human acts to give form and expression to mankind's deepest, most ennobling, but also occasionally most painful truths and realities.

Confronted by her soul-searing lithographs of the mid-1930s, one cannot help wondering how she would have responded as an artist to the Holocaust, had she known of it. As a passionate enemy of war and cruelty (she lost a son in World War I), an avowed anti-Nazi, and the wife of a physician who devoted his life to the poor, it is highly unlikely that she would have remained silent, had she heard of what was taking place in Buchenwald and Dachau. Of course, she may have heard rumors but couldn't believe them. Or perhaps she simply didn't know how to cope with crimes against humanity on so huge a scale.

But whatever the reason, the fact remains that her art stopped short of that ultimate horror. And that may have been all to the good, since her love, her faith in the essential goodness of mankind, had been sufficiently tested by then.

At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through Jan. 16.

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