ONE of the most beautiful works in the new Kathe Kollwitz exhibition at the National Gallery of Art is a surprising departure from the social themes that have made this German artist famous. It is "Female Nude with Green Shawl," a lush study of the long back of a brunette woman, surrounded by a pool of jade-green cloth, her face obscured, light falling on her upswept hair and slightly hunched-over shoulders. There is no message but loveliness here in this l903 combination of etching and lithography, with
the subtle color Kollwitz later turned away from.
"You can expect a very big surprise when you walk into this exhibition," says Elizabeth Prelinger, assistant professor of fine arts at Georgetown University who was the curator of the exhibition in consultation with Judith Brodie. Ms. Brodie is assistant curator in the department of prints and drawings at the National Gallery. "We have tried to present a group of works that reveal a side of this artist which is less well known to all of her devoted following, and I think I can say, virtually in this coun try.
"In this exhibition you're going to meet the private Kollwitz, Kollwitz as working artist and master craftsman. For this reason I want to emphasize that this is not a retrospective of Kollwitz's work, this is a selection of master works that reveal her as a major artist, a working artist."
Kathe Kollwitz's life and art spanned close to a century, from her birth in l867 in Konigsberg, a port in East Prussia where she grew up surrounded by social democrats: a father, brother, and later her husband, medical student Karl Kollwitz; to her death just before the end of World War II when she was forbidden to teach at the Prussian Academy of Art and banned from exhibiting as marginally "degenerate" under the Third Reich.
But she was by then already beloved for the empathy for human suffering she expressed in her art. "The government evidently did not dare to persecute her, presumably because she was a symbol of compassion and humanitarianism to virtually an entire generation of Germans," says Hildegard Bachert in the catalog for the exhibition.
Although she began at 14 as a painter and engraver studying with local teachers in Konigsberg, by 17 she had enrolled at the Women Artists' School, a government-run academy in Berlin. By 1890, under the influence of artist Max Klinger, she decided to give up painting in place of graphics. She had sworn to dedicate her art to the working class; as the wife of a doctor for a health insurance group that cared for tailors and their families, she knew their lives firsthand.
Among the works she created in etching and lithography was a powerful 1897 series based on Gerhart Hauptmann's play, "The Weavers' Rebellion," about the 1844 protest of handloom workers in Silesia. It took four years. Then came the "Peasants' War" series in 190l, a seven-cycle series about a 16th-century German peasant uprising that was seen as a symbol for contemporary troubles.
From this vision of national grief came her own evocation of personal grief: the cauterizing loss of "Woman with Dead Child," in l903, a series so full of pain it is difficult to view. As Ms. Prelinger describes it: "In 1903 she creates what may be her strongest image ... where you see a nude woman almost ferociously cradling a dead child, such a moving and such a grief-stricken image....
"And then finally with war, (World War I in which she lost her son, Peter) revolution, and death, Kathe Kollwitz became convinced that her art had to have a purpose. In l922 she wrote in her diary: `Actually my art is still art.... I want to have an effect upon this era, in which human beings are so much at a loss and so in need of help.' "
The Kollwitz exhibition, which includes more than 100 drawings, prints, and sculptures will be on view at the National Gallery through Aug. 16. It is part of the Tribute to Germany which has been taking place at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"The Kollwitz exhibit is something of a first, the first international Kollwitz show we've been able to locate in which the great American holdings and of course the fabulous German, English, and other collections were brought together," says gallery director J. Carter Brown.
"It traces Kathe Kollwitz's artistic development as one of the best-loved artists of recent years, an artist of enormous sensitivity, of compassion, and great visual articulateness. For the first time we're bringing different aspects, including some of her use of color which like all of her art is very subtle, but gains in power from the subtlety," he says.