Heroism in defeat

From workers' uprisings to the bloody horrors of the battlefield, Kathe Kollwitz's prints depict the struggles, defeats and suffering of 'The People'. Tom Lubbock is moved by a touring exhibition of her work
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The Independent Culture
Visually, as in other ways, the general election campaign hasn't been gripping. Sure, some sharp-eyed observers have noticed that in Labour's "two-faced John Major" poster, the doubled lock of side-hair makes a shape a bit like a vagina, a device too rude to be meant. And others have remarked that the Conservatives' recent "Tony Blair on Helmut Kohl's knee" uses photomontage ironically, usually a left-wing technique.

As to that, though nowadays almost everything is some sort of photomontage, it's true that juxtaposing a big body with a little body does recall those John Heartfield montages where Hitler is shown as the puppet of capitalists. But there's probably an equally strong, equally irrelevant visual echo of the First World War recruitment poster, "Daddy, What Did You Do in the Great War?" (child on knee of armchaired father) - and indeed of a primitive "Madonna and Child", where the baby often looks more like a little man. I think the picture is rather sweet.

But the main hopes, so far, have been pinned on straight typography, with Labour's "Britain Deserves Better" using learner-alphabet lettering to suggest honest truth and simple good sense, while the Conservative's "Britain is Booming. Don't Let Labour Blow It" is hammered out in bold, disaster-movie print, to cause alarm.

The point I wanted to make was that, poster-wise at least, there's one sort of image that's been signally lacking in this campaign: images of "the people". Historically this has been a staple of electioneering. "The people", whether depicted en masse or by a single symbolic figure, is shown as suffering or contented or troubled or hopeful, but always as honest and decent. Since universal suffrage, this has been thought strong and obvious propaganda by both left and right, the message being: this is you, and we're on your side.

All right, not entirely lacking: if you go back some months, one of the Tory "red tears" posters had a nuclear family presented in grainy social- realist gloom, weeping red under Labour tax rises. But it only showed the problem. For who were these people? Who was meant to identify with them? The picture redoubled its message confusingly. The photo-style made the family look as though they were already charity cases, even before the tears / tax rises hit them - not a self-image that the Tories, or any party now, would wish to invoke.

Perhaps there is a general problem here. While the phrase "the British people" still trips off everyone's tongue, credible and persuasive images of them aren't easy to come by. Perhaps there always was a problem.

Kathe Kollwitz - Artist of the People is one of those Hayward Gallery Touring Exhibitions that go on for ages. It's already been doing the rounds of Britain's galleries for over two years, and will probably continue for at least as long again. This is a small show of 20 pictures by the German printmaker, all but one from between 1890 and 1912. It's currently at the Gateway Arts Centre in Shrewsbury. Next month it opens in Newcastle. But this seemed the moment to catch up with it.

Not that, nowadays, these images are likely to swing any votes. Kollwitz was certainly an artist of the left, she certainly had genius, and her images are in one sense timeless - they seldom specifically refer to contemporary causes and events. But in another sense they're evidently historic. They offer and partly created an idea of "the people" which we've all but lost. They embody this idea very powerfully, with all its appeal and all its weaknesses.

"From Many Wounds You Bleed, O People" are the now almost unsayable words that caption one of the earlier, allegorical pictures here. It shows a gaunt and supine naked man (clearly alluding to a dead Christ), with a stooping figure reverently fingering one of his wounds; the scene is flanked by two nude women tied to columns. The problem is not the caption as such: socialist oratory really could be that purple, and wasn't thought ridiculous. The problem is that, captionless, it looks like some Symbolist spiritual- erotic tableau.

Kollwitz was usually keen not to be arty, neither in her imagery nor her manner. She resisted the influences of modern art to keep a popular audience. She took social-realist and workerist themes. She produced in this period two quasi-narrative sequences - "The Weavers' Revolt" and "The Peasants' War" - both dealing with class struggles, but also non- topical. Both subjects are historical, and inspired by literary sources. And both, of course, tell of defeats.

That, you might say, was the heart of Kollwitz's art, and its flaw too. The heroism that moves her and she makes move us is the heroism of defeat. It's an abiding difficulty of all workerist art to depict at once the down-pressed and the uprising, to sustain both sympathy and optimism. It's clear which way Kollwitz is drawn. Her human actions always have an aspect of helplessness. You can see this clearly in another early image, a grieving woman - her great subject - "At the Church Wall".

The woman holds her face with a forearm that is vertical and rigid - not straining rigid but gone stock-stiff, described by two straight and parallel lines. Its expressiveness comes from its inexpressiveness. Her grief is inflexible, mechanical. It's like that famous stage moment when Brecht's Mother Courage, played by Helene Weigel, having been shown her son's corpse, reacts with no emotion, then yanks open her mouth wide in a voiceless scream, then clamps it shut.

In a picture like "Uprising", inflexible suffering becomes also inflexible resistance. The raised arms of the men marching behind the red flag turn to wood as they go up. They advance involuntarily. And Kollwitz's anatomies generally deploy the signs of diminished consciousness. The heads are never raised, but bowed, hunched, very low on the shoulders. The legs are planted in the feet like handles in a broom. The faces are dumb, using standard "low" physiognomy, the narrow brow and projecting jaw, but saddened too.

These compacted, under-articulated bodies are both sturdy and sorry, brutish and cute. Their endurance and resolve is blind. And this is, in a way, a modernist trick. From Gauguin on, there is a big tendency towards the instinctual body, the body that knows no strain or trying, that performs with inevitability. In Gauguin this inevitability is mostly serene; in Kollwitz, a function of duress or crisis.

Battlefield makes a magnificent set-piece of this morality. The whole scene is blind: the night after battle, a dark field of hardly distinguishable corpses, and among them a peasant women, bent over, picking her way among the dead, seeking her son. She's like a figure out of Wordsworth, driven by need beyond self-reflection; her stooped body becomes a lump, figuring the dumbness of her sorrow and the doggedness of her search. There's a single patch of light, where her lamp shines, close-up, on to a boy's face and picks out a suddenly very specific detail, the gnarled back of her hand. But you see that this hand too is rigid, like a hand on a stick.

In treating maternal bereavement, Kollwitz both reflected and anticipated her own griefs. One of her sons nearly died of diphtheria in 1903. Another was killed in the First World War. But by then she'd already established the subject in several joltingly impassioned images of mothers holding dead sons or fighting with Death for their sons. These use a different anatomy of helplessness. The musculature is different - not stiff, it's drawn out and it flows. It's like when you take a piece of gum or Blue- Tack and pull it apart and its resistance suddenly fails into a much looser elasticity. These bodies alternately strain and give.

In a picture like "Death and Woman Struggling for the Child", you see that flesh is for Kollwitz what stretch-jersey was for the choreographer Martha Graham, a taut but fluid swathe, something the body - dislocated in lamentation - hugs around itself. These extremely direct images are sometimes called sentimental, and there's no doubt that Kollwitz can revel in pitiability. Her figures are just made for it, super-flexible grief- organisms.

And the people? Kollwitz's central insight is that the human being is noble when, under duress, it becomes almost an automaton: going rigid or giving completely. The converse, of course, is that these figures are not people who would naturally take control of their own lives. Kollwitz finds power only in helplessness. Self-determination is not in her repertoire. Whatever they do, each of these bodies is already unanimous. You can't imagine them deciding.

'Kathe Kollwitz - Artist of the People', a national touring exhibition from the Hayward Gallery, is at the Gateway Galleries, Shrewsbury (01743 361120) to 30 April, then continues at University Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (0191-227 4424) from 15 May to 7 June