The stark charcoal work of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) is a haunting memorial of the time before and after the first world war. Looking back in the general media it is easy to think of the past as a time of innocence. Even what was ugly seemed innocent; the propaganda looks more naive, the enemies really were the “bad guys”, the youth seem less rebellious and war was a gentleman’s sport. However, this view is a mistaken one.
In her art Kollwitz agitated for food for the hungry, freedom from fear and war, helping to demonstrate how the most hopeful messages are often couched in the darkest blackness. In her case, charcoal and frightful expressions. Yet there is also the unmistakable aura of melancholy in her less political works, which is of an altogether more personal darkness.
Reading her published diaries, one is presented with a touching human personality, often troubled, regretful, but reflective enough to make something more of her regrets than most of us will ever manage.
Here I’d just like to share a few. About on the war in 1914, she wrote:
“In the heroic stiffness of these times of war, when our feelings are screwed to an unnatural pitch, it is like a touch of heavenly music, like sweet, lamenting murmurs of peace, to read that French soldiers spare and actually help wounded Germans, that in the franc-tireur villages German soldiers write on the walls of houses such notices as: Be considerate! An old woman lives here.- These people were kind to me.- Old people only.– woman in child-bed.”
Reflecting on the loss of her son Peter during the war, in 1916, she made several telling comments that shine light on the intensification of spiritualist thought at the time:
“And in fact I can often feel Peter’s being. He consoles me, he helps me in my work. He is far away when my thoughts are elsewhere; I am aware of him approving or rejecting, glad or sad. My awareness of him is sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. If he is there, not visible, the spiritual part or essence of him, then it must be possible by training my faculties to feel him more strongly. As I write this I do not know whether the whole thing is not, perhaps, an intellectual jest. But I can find out whether it is true. I do not mean the presence of the dead in the figurative, intellectual sense. I mean the possibility of establishing a connection here, in this life of the senses, between the physically live person and the essence of someone physically dead. I don’t care whether that is called theosophy of spiritism or mysticism. No doubt everyone can find out for himself whether it is possible.
Was not Peter affecting Hans the night that Peter died and Hans decided to enter the medical corps, and so was not sent to the front?
Undoubtedly there are reciprocal effects, but I doubt whether I can sense them with my crude antennae. Sometimes I have felt you, my boy– Oh, many, many times. You sent signs. Wasn’t it a sign when on October 13 I visited the place where your memorial is to stand, and there was the same flower that I gave you when you departed?
The theosophists say it is possible to learn gradually to feel one’s way toward that other world. Formerly I said I did not want that at all. And surely sensing the presence of the loved dead doesn’t just depend upon those exercises.”
Most people use their journals as a space of simple record keeping, vanity, or to make themselves sick in spirit brooding on their sorrows. Few are they who can use them as a source of strength that offer some small enlightenment about the often contradictory motions of the self, both for themselves, and for those yet to come.
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