We have had the opportunity to travel to Cologne on several occasions, usually in late November or early December, to visit the impressive selection of traditional Christmas markets, , when it can sometimes be cold enough to pinch you raw through your layers, or surprisingly warm enough to sit pondering the vistas over the Rhine with a blanket on your knees and a glass of Kolsch. Generally, though, it seems to hover around the lower single digits celsius, and you find you can only tolerate the weather with hand (and torso) thawing Glugwien, the occasional wurst and a touch of childlike glee at the sheer beauty and charm. The focal point of the city itself is the astonishing Kloner Dom Catholic Cathedral, a gothic edifice of such imposing spectacle that it almost swallows you whole unnoticed, and when you consider its age, a seemingly impossible building. Sitting next to the cathedral is the impressive Ludwig modern art museum, swollen with classics of modern art, in many ways as overwhelming as the cathedral in its range of content. The visitor could almost swoon in one of its many rooms.
It was on one visit, a not-too-cold spell easing our days, we passed through the various markets, heading in from the area around the Chocolate Museum (everything that you could imagine it should be) with the intention of ending up at the Ludwig, but we were unexpectedly, though ultimately quite thoroughly, sidetracked. Spotting a small and rather simple street sign directing visitors discretely to the Kathe Kolwitz museum, a casual discovery, but, as one who had initially discovered Kollwitz as a curious teenage, a direction too enthralling to avoid. Following the small signs, almost missable in their discretion, our trail finally brought us to what basically felt like a 5 storey shopping mall, in which you took the lift up to the top and into the museum.
This encounter, notwithstanding the patently mundane approach route, was one of absolute and profound emotion. And, in some ways, the very mundanity of the location seemed to amplify this emotional response, as if you bend to examine a flower for the basic purity of its beauty and discover it to be a bejewelled brooch. To finally be standing in front of the grim simplicity and visceral power of these drawings, an experience which was like a firm hand on your shoulder, compelling you to sit down, whilst also reassuring you that you are in a safe place, with ample time to contemplate. The museum itself was remarkable quiet, calm, and sparsely visited on that particular day, a perfect storm of happenstance.
The collection itself comprised of hundreds of drawings and prints and also some sculptures. It feels comprehensive, it is expansive and fully rounded, it is brutal and beautiful. Again, I found myself drawn to the simplicity, the seemingly basic forms, the almost crude depictions, with a deceptive technique, grinding out the pure humanity from grades of black and the neutral base of the surface.
But the basic purity of technique she employs seems to be what allows the space for the juggernaut sized emotional punch to blast through. It is a strange experience, an odd sensation, to witness a collection of strokes on paper manifest themselves into a deep soul-wrenching blast of emotion. Some of the images come at you like a storm, others press you back, gently, but with an unrelenting force, until you feel yourself sink into the wall behind you, like soft clay.
It will always seem that Kollwitz is the arch documentarian of that time, location and circumstance, that coal dust poverty, grim, black fingered, squat and hunched, suffering the cold and poor winter daylight. You envisage peasants in fields, struggling to keep dry, ankle deep in mud, fearful for the hunger and disease, the tuberculosis and coal smoke, dragged down in grey raindrops. Poorly lit homes, with small damp children, coughing and grubby, struggling to grow and thrive, and all rendered in the tacky smears of ink and charcoal, the artists hands and clothes in union with the artwork, the artwork in union with the subject, as if the medium of expression itself takes its look from the very subject. Her work feels like a body, like a collected history, not individual works but flowing back and forth, between the images, like pages, like hieroglyph, pictograms, a gathered history, a museum of human anguish. And all of this, in many ways filtered through her own lens of depression, loss and anguish, the infinite pain of the loss of her son Peter early in World War 1, a weeping wound that no parent can recover from, bleeding out ink onto the page, eaten up by the cold loss, lit by dim candles. Her treatment of light and shadow, the way she dresses her subject, carved and scraped woodcuts, full of hard angles and stark contrasts, it is as if every element of their execution are in themselves the image, the story being scratched out. And all of this maelstrom of emotion perched on the higher floor of a nondescript building in Cologne, calmly waiting to be stumbled upon by someone who just might fall into the deep black pools of art and remember, always, to hold onto the history of an ugly time that demands recall. These works should stand as warnings, a parent created these, losing her son in a war, and then her grandson, his namesake, in the next war, one that so many who had lived through the first never believed would happen. Her work, such a strong social critique that the National Socialists were uncomfortable and afraid of it. But she has produced this bleak and powerful body of work, an ink monument to the suffering of countless millions, the potential for the triumph of the spirit, the defiance in the face of grim reality.
We didn’t make it to the Ludwig that day, it really didn’t seem necessary to see anything else at that moment.
I realised at a certain point on certain works that I was looking at the painting from the wrong perspective… thinking, realising…. there is a goal,, that’s to see when a painting Is finished, gather than looking finished… and that, oddly, when you consider it should be obvious, was a wee bit of a revelation. So now, I’m reviewing, re-viewing, reconsidering what I am looking at at any given moment and hoping that this new clarity will lead me somewhere interesting……
New work in 2017, thinking about people’s ideas for the future.. the monsters have pulled off their masks and are walking openly amongst us, there is new ugliness of heart and spirit…. the future is in danger of being fucked…. they will leave you with nothing… Your Children Will Witness This.
I don’t know a lot of painter techniques, nor the tricks of the trade.. I don’t have that style of education, so I’ve often found myself inventing them myself, whilst secretly acknowledging that I’m probably going over previously trodden ground… but I enjoy often finding, by accident, something that works for me…
Lately I’ve found myself not cleaning a brush fully between colour changes, so as to let the original colour interrupt and interfere. This delivers equal measures of fun and frustration, but overall it’s interesting.
I suppose all this lark has been done, from sfumato to action painting, but sure fuck it, it brings me joy, and is all part of the journey… it may not be exacting, but at the end of the process it brings me results that I feel I set put to achieve. it’s just like taking different routes for the same journey, just for the sheer avoidance of routine…..