Making Modernism review – the genius of Käthe Kollwitz stands out like an open wound

Käthe Kollwitz’s eyes, dark and hopeless, stare at you like messengers of death from a lithograph the German artist made of herself in 1934. You don’t need much knowledge of modern history to guess why socialist Kollwitz was desperate, one year after Hitler became chancellor of Germany. But is she really “in the process of doing modernism”, as the title of this exhibition affirms, in this confession of intimate anguish and political shock? Kollwitz’s self-portrait in his sixties is as timeless as Rembrandt’s as a broken old man.

Kollwitz is by far the greatest artist in this survey of seven female artists who worked in early 20th century Germany. And she has almost nothing in common with her so-called peers. Some arts jump out at you out of time. The other art remains in a lost place and time, fascinating as a story, important as a document – ​​but it does not grab us. This is true for many works here. Gabriele Münter portrays Munich’s equivalent of Britain’s Bloomsbury in paintings that capture avant-garde middle-class life. She depicts her lover, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, in shorts and sandals in his 1909-10 painting Kandinsky and Erma Bossi at the Table, chatting with Bossi who is also in this exhibit. Meanwhile, in her 1903 etching Woman with a Dead Child, Kollwitz depicts a naked body swollen with pain, bent over the infant’s corpse which she holds against her as if trying to shake it back to life. life.

I would be less frustrated with this show if it had a more specific title. Making Modernism suggests a more ambitious project than this turns out to be. Since all artists are women, this even implies a revolutionary feminist rewriting of art history. In reality, it’s a collection of quite interesting figures from pre-WW1 Germany, plus one genius, Kollwitz, who stands out like a raw wound.

Münter makes a poor feminist because she seems captivated by the male artists she has worked alongside, not just Kandinsky. His 1913 painting Man in an Armchair (Paul Klee) is a study of the artist who would develop his own primitive cartoon language. It’s anything but revolutionary: Klee sits stiffly in an interior whose intense hues and semi-abstract forms would have seemed quite calm even in 1913. It was, after all the year of Picasso’s Cubist collages, the Duchamp’s first ready-made and Epstein’s Rock Drill were taking modernism over a radical new precipice.

The movement to which most of these artists belong, German Expressionism, itself occupies a delicate place in the history of modernism. In 1916, young Germans rebelled against this pictorial style saturated with echoes of Van Gogh and Matisse, repudiating its aestheticism by creating brutal Dadaist collages. If you really want to brag about women in German modern art, shouldn’t you include the great Dadaist Hannah Höch?

By confining itself to a modern movement that already looked like an old hat before the start of the Great War and whose horrors have rendered insignificant, this exhibition makes its own argument tasteless. Far from rejecting male perspectives, the artists here cite the “masters” of modernism with such enthusiasm that they raise fascinating questions about how knowing an artist’s gender alters our perception of an image. . Female nudity preoccupies Modersohn-Becker and gives her a disturbing power.

Indeed, it is hardly modernist at all. Modersohn-Becker’s very honest nudes have a German eye for the reality of life that dates back to the Reformation artist Cranach and was carried in this century by Berlin-born Lucian Freud. In fact, Freud painted a painting of his breastfeeding daughter Esther that is the spitting image of Modersohn-Becker’s beautiful work, Baby Breastfeeding.

German modern art – and its British émigré offspring in the work of Freud and Frank Auerbach – is great precisely because it never cared too much about being modernist or brilliant. Expressionism, Dada and later movements have come and gone, but for all experience artists have kept their eyes on the dull old themes of bodily existence, spiritual yearnings, life and death. .

Of no artist here is as true as Kollwitz. His images are timeless in their pain. She drives human suffering down your throat with her engraver’s chisel and her sculptor’s chisel. In an austere woodcut made in 1929 as German history squeezed its dead end street, she depicts a sleeping mother and child, hugging each other for warmth and protection in the dark.

This exhibition ignores how women artists have been excluded from the canon. The patriarchy of art never said that women couldn’t be artists, but that they couldn’t be great artists. This show accidentally perpetuates that by treating Kollwitz, a true great, as just a member of a mob.

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