Grieving parents in war--Part I: from Kathe Kollwitz to Cindy Sheehan is a long road
Who is this woman?
The serene young artist, glowing with life:
The worn-out older woman, lines of age etched deeper by profound grief:
She's Kathe Kollwitz, one of the greatest graphic artists of all time, in two of her extraordinary self-portraits. Born in Germany in 1867, she had the sorrowful distinction of living long enough to see her beloved son Peter die at age nineteen in one of the earliest battles of World War I, and her beloved grandson die fighting in WWII. She never got over her grief at either event, but transmuted it--at least partially--into art.
Kollwitz was a socialist and a pacifist. As such, she supported neither war waged by Germany, and so she didn't even have the solace available to those who did.
I first encountered Kollwitz's spare and haunting work about three decades ago, at an exhibit devoted to women artists, and was immediately struck by its power and uncompromising sorrow. Here was a woman who had no need to prettify things. Take a look at some of her graphics, which focus mainly on loss and grieving, particularly in war.
There is little prettiness in her art, but there is much beauty. Although Kollwitz herself had strong political viewpoints, they are a very distant subtext to the main themes of her work, which are universal and human. One cannot read about her life or look at her art without a feeling of deep respect, even if one disagrees with pacifism or socialism itself.
Kollwitz worked for many years on one of her major compositions, a large memorial sculpture in honor of her son Peter. She worked through many prototypes, and in the end decided on two simple but monumental figures of grieving parents, the models for which were Kollwitz herself and her husband Karl. The sculptures are installed permanently at the Vladslo cemetery for German soldiers from World War I at her son's grave, and their restraint and dignity only adds to the intensity of their grief (please click on the link if you'd like to read even more about Kollwitz's reaction to the wars and her losses):
Among the graves [at Vladso, in Belgium] is that of Peter Kollwitz, a student from Berlin who volunteered as soon as the war broke out. Two months later, in October 1914, he was killed, aged nineteen, in one of the war's first major campaigns.
Kathe Kollwitz was informed of her son's death in action on 30 October. 'Your pretty shawl will no longer be able to warm our boy,' was the touching way she broke the news to a close friend. To another friend she admitted, 'There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.'
By December 1914 Kollwitz, one of the foremost artists of her day, had formed the idea of creating a memorial to her son, with his body outstretched, 'the father at the head, the mother at the feet', to commemorate 'the sacrifice of all the young volunteers'. As time went on she attempted various other designs, but was dissatisfied with them all. Kollwitz put the project aside temporarily in 1919, but her commitment to see it through when it was right was unequivocal. 'I will come back, I shall do this work for you, for you and the others,' she noted in her diary in June 1919.
Twelve years later, she kept her word: in April 1931 she was at last able to complete the sculpture. 'In the autumn - Peter, - I shall bring it to you,' she wrote in her diary. Her work was exhibited in the National Gallery in Berlin and then transported to Belgium, where it was placed, as she had promised, adjacent to her son's grave. There it rests to this day.
This entire meditation on Kollwitz's life and work was occasioned by the media circus around Cindy Sheehan, grieving but activist mother of a soldier son killed in Iraq. Whether you think Sheehan is being exploited herself or exploitating others tends to depend on what side of the fence you are on the war, but sympathy for her grief is near-universal.
Grief-striken parents are a tragic given in war. Whether they consider the sacrifice worthwhile or not, the tragedy, as Kollwitz herself said, leaves a wound which will never really heal--nor should it.
But this sort of angry activism on the part of a mourning parent such as Cindy Sheehan seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. What is driving it? Why are we seeing it and hearing about it now, as opposed to previous wars? My attempt to answer these questions will be the subject of Part II. For background reading, though, you would do well to read this excellent post from Varifrank.
(Trackback to Mudville Gazette open post. Also, I've started a new post on the topic of the discussion in the comments section of this thread here.)