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works by Kathe Kollwitz
German artist Kathe Kollwitz's "Self-portrait" (1934) and "Whetting the Scythe" (1905). (Courtesey of Collection of David and Eva Bradford (left), and Ben Blackwell)

Desperation, rage, and the ravages of war

Kollwitz works focus on political despair

PORTLAND, Maine -- In the German artist Käthe Kollwitz's 1903 print "Outbreak," the revolutionary leader Black Anna waves a motley mob of peasants with pitchforks on to battle in a 14th-century uprising against wealthy landowners. "Käthe once told me that she had portrayed herself in this woman," Otto Nagel wrote in his biography of Kollwitz. "She wanted the signal to attack to come from her."

Kollwitz, one of the great German political artists of the first half of the 20th century, said her father "introduced me to socialism, socialism understood as the much-desired Brotherhood of Man." As a child she imagined herself righteously storming the barricades, leading the revolution. In the Portland Museum of Art's exhibit "Käthe Kollwitz Prints: Defending the Downtrodden," a modest survey of 23 prints, you see her radical devotion to this ideal as well as her despair at the tragedies that befell her and her country during her life (1867-1945).

The destruction of families by poverty and war haunts Kollwitz's scenes. Unemployed fathers sit humiliated and freaked out before their hungry families. Mothers clutch babies to their bosoms, trying to wrestle them away from death. Her prints are filled with rage, exhaustion, desperation, and mourning.

The exhibit centers on etchings she made her name with around the turn of the century, depicting historic German peasant revolts. In these images, men conspire in the dark corner of a tavern, a raped woman lays sprawled on her back in a shadowy vegetable patch, men pull a plow as if they are farm animals, and peasant prisoners stand in a crowd with their hands and arms bound, awaiting likely torture and execution.

Kollwitz often lets her remarkable draftsmanship -- here an illustrative style seemingly combining Rembrandt, Goya, and Howard Pyle -- get the best of her, as if she's unable to resist the urge to stuff her backgrounds with distracting details.

She's at her best when she pares down scenes to their essentials, as in "Whetting the Scythe" (1905), which shows the face of a woman with eerie blank eyes holding the tool's blade close to her lips as she sharpens it. Her strong hand runs a stone over the edge. She's hauntingly lit from below; it looks like the tense moment before something horrible happens in a movie thriller.

In "After the Battle" (1907) , a woman searches for her loved one at night in a battlefield strewn with bodies. She holds her lamp close to the face of one of the corpses. Kollwitz deftly uses light -- everything's dark except for the bit of light in the woman's hand and on the face of the corpse -- to heighten the heartbreaking drama.

Kollwitz soon switched from the fine etching needle to the lithographic crayon, which in her hand effects a looser, sketchier, more expressionist style, though it sometimes feels tossed off.

The outbreak of World War I initially saddened her, but she absorbed the enthusiasm of her gung-ho son Peter. When he was killed in Belgium in 1914, she was wracked with guilt for "inwardly affirming" the conflict, convinced her support had been a fatal betrayal of her son. Her 1919 lithograph "The Parents" shows a couple crippled by grief. Kollwitz apparently intended them to represent her own parents, but the image seems to come out of her studies for a public war memorial inspired by Peter that would ultimately take her 18 years to get erected.

In the aftermath of the war, she made stark woodcuts in a streamlined, roughhewn style filled with raw emotional power. One shows a widow leaning against a wall as if needing its support, her head bent down, her eyes closed in sorrow, her large laborer's hands loosely crossed over her chest. Another shows a widow collapsed on her back dead, with her dead baby slumped upon her chest.

In the 1930s, the Nazis, whom Kollwitz publicly opposed, forced her from her job teaching at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, searched her apartment, ransacked her studio, and prohibited her from exhibiting her art. World War II took the life of a grandson. She was evacuated to the countryside before Allied bombs destroyed her longtime Berlin home. She died in 1945, in the waning days of the war.

In three self-portraits dating from 1921 to '34, Kollwitz looks as if all joy has been pounded out of her. Her eyes -- by turns exhausted, defiant, and unflinching -- have seen it all.


Käthe Kollwitz Prints: Defending the Downtrodden

At: Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, through May 27. 207-775-6148,