I was glad the lights were off in the small classroom when the Kathe Kollwitz Woman with Dead Child image was projected. I could feel my throat tighten and tears begin to well up. I really wish I had Kleenex. I didn’t dare sniffle or dab my eyes to draw attention to myself. I was sure the reflected light from the screen was magnified in my direction. The thought that was going through my mind was: Why do I like to sit so close to the front?!
It was my first semester returning to school as a mature student. I had just gone through a very painful divorce. My situation still fresh and tender. Feeling broken and beyond repair seemed to make my capacity for empathy limitless. Seeing that raw image of a woman cleaving to her child in a type of desperation few people experience seized upon me in familiarity. I was her and she was me.
The strength of those feelings surprised me. Did I now have to be cautious and guarded during every survey art history lecture? No, I hope to experience that again, but hopefully next time with the feeling of peace or excitement.
I took a studio course where the instructor’s area of interest was traditional Middle Eastern art. He noted that in Islamic culture, beauty was truth and all truth comes from God; therefore, art was God given. That idea resonated in me and I began to look at art differently. The questions that I needed to explore were; what is truth? What can one believe? And while in that small classroom, what was true about the Kollwitz drawing that seemed to penetrate my being?
It seemed to me that truth is instantly recognizable, steady and unchanging. Truth has a life that expands when more information is revealed. The opposite of truth then introduces feelings of doubt, insecurity, confusion and even fear. I tend to be left with more questions than answers when I’m presented with a non-truth. Woman with Dead Child was a true image. The woman portrayed universal feelings that transcend time, location and gender. I recognized the truth in the artist’s rendering of the subject and it moved me. While viewing the subject, I began to apply these principles, bringing to it my own limited experience, but how the work made me feel was the gauge by which I assessed the piece.
My approach to subject needed to explore artistic devices and how these devices expressed meaning. Kollwitz used dark strokes and harsh, imperfect lines. The mother’s face is dark and distorted; in contrast, the face of the child is so light, innocent and peaceful. No amount of strength in the woman’s generous hands could help the situation. Hopelessness, grief, loss and agony were feelings the Kollwitz encapsulated into her subject. Her deliberate offering was expert.
There are many devices in the presentation of subject: materials, the application of medium, colour, light, subject placement, body language, to name a few. One even has to consider not only what is included, but what is missing. Artists have an unlimited combination of tools to exploit their subject and many artists have made their career perfecting the subtle craft of deception. Advances in technology have made digital media the perfect platform for subject manipulation; a photographer would not dare give their client an image that hasn’t been processed through Photoshop or Lightroom. Photo enhancing is common practice and countless applications have made it possible to alter an image before showing it off to the world. Kollwitz was able to use these same tools to enhance the etching to better expose the contrasting dark and light tones of the subject.
I argue that instinctually, we are drawn to beauty; and like Kollwitz’s Woman with Dead Child, beauty comes in many forms. Each person’s beauty is different; to me, it came in the grieving dark shadows of an etching. Kollwitz made no attempt to hide her process and the course emotion of the subject changed me. When we view an image, a feeling comes over us that we then try to translate in comprehendible forms. That is not always possible. We need to trust our own process of seeing, and then we may ask ourselves questions. The answers to those questions can begin to unravel the meaning of personal impressions. Subject is idiosyncratic but we can develop a process of examination to breakdown our perspective of its purpose.