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Straight to the Heart

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German printmaker KŠthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) is often, if unfairly, regarded as a propagandist. Though she lived a middle-class life--a servant helped run her household, freeing her to work--she lived in the poorest district of Berlin, where her physician husband saw his patients. Even as a child she was fascinated by the "native rugged simplicity" of workers' faces; later she said that middle-class people didn't interest her, and that an "upper-class educated person" is "not natural or true...not a human being in every sense of the word." Though she declared she wasn't a communist, in her prints she portrayed workers' present and past struggles, and she consistently protested war.

Kollwitz's social themes are evident in most of the 27 works at Worthington (the exhibit includes a drawing and self-portrait sculpture as well as prints). What makes these works more than propaganda--what brings them to life--is her ability to express emotion through texture and line. The seated figure in the 1920 lithograph Woman Thinking, like most of Kollwitz's lithographed figures, is delineated in rough, broad lines with the look of charcoal. One hand covers the entire right side of the woman's face, curving around her forehead; the woman's self-enclosure, also emphasized by one closed eye, suggests she's constrained by her labors. At the same time the lines forming the figure give her a near-monumental, almost sculptural nobility. Today Kollwitz might be criticized for romanticizing her workers, but her directness is also refreshing in a time when artists often see the human figure as the occasion for ironic jokes.

Kollwitz frequently depicts mothers and children. After she lost a son to World War I, she spent years working on a memorial sculpture for his cemetery; the dozen or so prints of mothers and children here depict a wide range of emotions. Kollwitz organizes the composition of the 1910 etching Mother With Child on Her Arm around a tiny sliver of light on the mother's right cheek as she faces her son, their lips almost touching. The curved lines that shade the mother's face, the curl of the child's hair, the lines on their garments, and the gentle angle of the mother's hand on his back all seem to swirl about this sliver of light. Focusing on the tiny distance between the two faces, Kollwitz transforms it into a depiction of an almost sacred connection.

But the 1919 etching Mothers depicts a nearly dehumanized group of women clutching their children. Arms enclosing and encircling the kids seem to confront and shut out the world as much as protect the children. The group forms a densely packed skein of faces and limbs, an imprisoning thicket of colliding shapes; the children seem a bit afraid. The 1927 lithograph Working Woman With Sleeping Child occupies a more quotidian middle ground: the woman looks both thoughtful and blankly exhausted, while the child seems moderately contented. Kollwitz's final lithograph, the 1942 antiwar Seed Corn Should Not Be Ground, is one of her most moving. A mother, head high, spreads out her solid arms at about the level of her chin, sheltering three children beneath. The broad lines of her figure express proud strength and defiance, though her expression is anxious. While the children in Mothers seem to stare blankly and mechanically forward, each of the three children here is an individual. Protesting the conscription of children, Kollwitz gives this print a sculptural monumentality, forming a solid crown for the children out of the horizontal line of the mother's arms.

Kollwitz first attracted attention with a suite of etchings inspired by a play: Gerhart Hauptmann's 1892 The Weavers, which dramatizes a failed 1840s revolt of Silesian weavers protesting mechanization. The one print from that series here, Weavers' Uprising (1897), has the drama and movement of a theater scene; its central feature--a line of marching workers--could be a theatrical set piece. But little about the scene is triumphant. It's unified by the workers' downward progress from left to right, and as the line moves toward the foreground, more of the heads are bowed and eyes downcast. In addition to prefiguring the failure of the revolt, Kollwitz organizes the crowd's mixture of defiance and defeat into a visually unified progression. It's apparent from this print and from the children's diverse expressions in Seed Corn Should Not Be Ground that Kollwitz doesn't necessarily see unity as a good thing. Perhaps the most unified composition here is The Prisoners, a 1908 etching. The handcuffs on a group of men gather and constrain their impressive energy in space just as a single rope confines their bodies. Many eyes are in shadow, and the whole group has the feel of a single mass, united through imprisonment.

The fact that Kollwitz's works primarily convey or illustrate particular emotions arguably limits her achievement. She herself seemed to agree with this assessment, writing in 1916 that while "genius can probably run on ahead and seek out new ways...the good artists who follow after genius--and I count myself among these--have to restore the lost connection [between art and the public] once more." But though she sometimes doubted her work, she insisted that "only one's inner feelings represent the truth," and she answered the criticism that one of her antiwar posters was not "pure art" by saying that her goal remained "to be effective."

You don't hear many artists talk that way today. Nola Romano in her show at the Contemporary Art Workshop isn't interested in depicting universal emotions. These 24 works, mostly paintings, are private autobiographical fantasies: not for the first time in contemporary art, almost all the figures are versions of the artist herself.

Kollwitz made a number of self-portraits, but she balanced the projection of emotion with a mysterious, resonant inwardness that the viewer can never completely enter, identifying herself with the Old Master tradition. Romano's figures blend high-art painting, children's book illustration, and comic art; in this mixture, too, she's not unique today. Her faces display a remarkably narrow range of emotion; but while the drawing skills of this young artist--just 22, she's a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute--are certainly not up to Kollwitz's, Romano's narrow range may be intentional. She often surrounds her figures with a jumble of fragmentary images borrowed from or inspired by popular culture, suggesting an individual overwhelmed by media glut. I found myself wondering whether a kid subjected to multiple fantasy families on television could ever feel the kind of cuttingly direct emotions Kollwitz depicts without irony.

Romano writes that her pictures are "about the most important scene in a story....based on images and dreams from childhood" and that she tries to make her paintings "silly and sad at the same time." I was intrigued by the way in which their imagery seems at once suggestively private and so over-the-top as to be a little nuts. In Magic Bunny Circus Theatre...Send Them On to the Next Town, multiple Romano figures are accompanied by a few distant cousins (who lack her brown hair), one very different Alice in Wonderland blond, and some clothed bunnies; a modest brick home marked "2020" (Romano's current address) is near the center, and a yellow river at the left center is decorated with a boat and some fish. Reflective gold glitter in the orange background mixes with the scene's bright colors to give the whole a kind of vibrancy, but I couldn't figure out what was going on, and I was a bit scared to ask.

I did ask Romano about Me and the Ghost, a smaller picture with a crying figure on the left, a ghostly outline on the right, and a table in front on which sit black silhouettes of a lone figure crying, a copulating couple, an automobile. The figure's weeping isn't very convincing: her face is barely sad, and her cartoonish tears are ridiculously blue. Romano says the scene is a bit like a drive-in movie, with the figure "looking over situations--the black silhouetted figures--that have happened to me."

The image of a drive-in movie helped me understand the peculiar distance Romano's figures typically have from the events and images that swirl around them; it's almost as if these people weren't really there, were disengaged, a feeling common to media "victims." The cartoonishness of many of Romano's details undercuts any menace they might have conveyed. In The War Between Good and Evil a nude figure in a bathtub is confronted by her forked-tongued double, who stands before her under marionette strings--hardly a threat. A picture hanging on the wall reveals a smaller version of the Romano figure (naturally). There's a mouse hole in the wall, and several drawings on the bathtub are suggestive but enigmatic. A small Romano is perched high up on a snake, dripping water on the bathtub figure.

The most interesting thing about Romano's exhibit is its obsessiveness. Repeating a single figure goes beyond simple narcissism here to give the exhibit a conceptual dimension; like a performance artist in a confessional monologue, Romano mines autobiography to create art. And surely her humorous depictions of her private struggles (she describes her work as "a kind of therapy") will appeal to anyone trying to make sense of his or her private world. But the gap between Romano and Kollwitz is immense: where this contemporary artist seeks to represent her inner self, Kollwitz attempts to understand other women, as well as men and children, of her own and other times.


KŠthe Kollwitz
at Worthington Gallery, through February 28
Nola Romano
at Contemporary Art Workshop, through February 25

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Weavers' Uprising" by Kathe Kollwitz/ "The War Between Good and Evil" by Nola Romano.

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