WELLESLEY — Pain is cruelly isolating. No one but the sufferer can truly understand it. But certain people — and of course, they are always the people who have been through it themselves — have a genius for communicating to others the import, the meaning, and the meaninglessness of suffering.
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), one of the great German artists of the 20th century, was one of them. Her series of woodcuts, the “Krieg Cycle” (“krieg” in German means “war”), is on show at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. It is one of those small, elemental shows that, given just a few minutes of focused attention, can rearrange your insides, returning you to the world with a new and salutary (although frankly unwanted) capacity for comprehending desolation.
The “Krieg Cycle” differs from other well-known printmakers’ responses to war — one thinks, of course, of Goya’s “Disasters of War” but also of Otto Dix’s “Der Krieg” — in several instructive ways.
Even if you didn’t know who made those other series, you would understand immediately that they were made by men. Goya and Dix make a point of showing us violence and depravity as it happens, or at least in its immediate aftermath. Appalled by what they’ve seen, they wanted to rub our noses in the act itself, and in whatever about its outcomes was visible.
Kollwitz wants to show us precisely what is invisible. She is interested (although “interested” doesn’t convey the tragic urgency of her connection to the subject) in the emotional and psychological consequences of war. Her subject is the incommunicability of grief, the paralysis of trauma.
What’s also noticeable about Kollwitz is that she eschews virtuosity of the kind both Goya and Dix display in spades, in favor of a pared-back simplicity. The very restraint of her images, their appearance almost of artlessness, went on to have a great impact on the aesthetics, and ethics, of war memorials throughout the 20th century.
And of course, the medium itself — woodblock printing, with its associations of primitive wood-gouging; nothing fancy, nothing meretricious — makes for a telling contrast with the sophisticated subtleties of etching, the medium used by Dix and Goya.
Kollwitz was born in 1867 in what was, at the time, Konigsberg, Prussia, and is now Kalingrad, Russia. She was the daughter of a radical social democrat, and the granddaughter of a Lutheran pastor who was expelled from the official state church and went on to preach to his own independent congregation. She inherited from both men a feeling for social justice, and also, it would seem, a special admixture of fellow-feeling and ferocity.
“I was powerfully moved,” she would later write, “by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life.” But even as she said this, she wanted to emphasize that “compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful.”
She married a medical student at the age of 17, and had two sons, Hans and Peter, in 1892 and 1896, respectively.
Peter died on the battlefield in October 1914, two months after the outbreak of World War I. Kollwitz had already lost a beloved younger brother while she was a child. Peter’s death plunged her into a lasting depression.
The carnage, of course, continued for another four years. Kollwitz didn’t start on the “Krieg Cycle” until 1922.
The Davis show begins with two self-portraits. One, made in 1915, is a lithograph. It conveys raw grief not as wailing and despair, but rather as a dazed effect akin to the aftermath of battery — the constant psychological pummeling of loss. The second is a woodcut on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts. It was made in 1922-23 — the same period in which Kollwitz was working on the “Krieg Cycle.” It has something sharper and more specific about it when compared to the earlier portrait, but seven years have not diminished the sense of damage.
Kollwitz was already thinking about, and making drawings for, the “Krieg Cycle” in 1918, but she had not yet decided to execute her ideas in the woodcut medium. Instead, she explored motifs such as a widow in mourning and “Killed in Action” — which shows not a soldier but his wife, surrounded by children, receiving the terrible news — in lithographs and etchings.
The “Krieg Cycle” itself begins with “The Sacrifice,” although this was actually the second to last print Kollwitz completed in the series. It is a primal image showing a naked woman holding up her infant child — unwillingly — for sacrifice.
Despite its title, the second image, “The Volunteers,” similarly casts doubt on the very idea of volition. Who, except the truly insane, would want any of this? “The Volunteers” is the only image in the series showing actual combatants (Kollwitz’s son Peter is at the center of it), and the expression on each man’s face is haunted — transfixed by an apprehension of certain death, in the throes of agony, or already reduced to a dark-socketed skull.
Plate 3, “The Parents,” is perhaps the most distilled and elemental image of suffering in 20th-century art. It shows two kneeling figures, one huddled into the other. Both parents’ faces are invisible. The black, curving, flattened forms of the tableau are crisscrossed by white lines as raw and stark as scars.
Four more images follow, each one focused on mothers, each preceded in the display by studies or sketches that help us understand the evolution of the image, which was always, for Kollwitz, a process of distillation.
Related lithographs, charcoal drawings, and sculptures round out the show. But the heart of it is very much the “Krieg Cycle.” And so it is worth ending with the words of Kollwitz herself, in a letter to the French novelist Roman Rolland in 1922, shortly after the cycle’s completion. It is a passage that speaks of suffering, but also endurance, and its tone echoes the scarred but solid, enduring forms of Kollwitz’s art:
“These sheets should travel throughout the entire world and should tell all human beings comprehensively — we have all endured all this throughout these unspeakably difficult years.”
The Krieg Cycle :
Kathe Kollwitz and World War I
At: Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College, Wellesley, through Dec. 13. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.