On ViewGalerie St. Etienne
October 26, 2017 – March 3, 2018
A woman, face blemished with grime, sleeps in a half-sitting position, her head propped in one hand. Her body curls protectively against those of two small children. One appears to be only an infant, and the other is wound into a thin blanket fast asleep, shadows encircling her eyes and mouth agape in an expression of utter exhaustion. Her mother’s face echoes the fatigue. Rendered in thick, smudgy lines and tender crosshatching, Municipal Shelter (1926), a lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), depicts the plight of the little family with acute, almost painful sensitivity. The early 20th-century master German draughtswoman staked her career on exposing the horrors and injustices of modern life as she saw them: poverty, the ravages of war, and the disenfranchisement of women.
Kollwitz had preternatural talent that became evident at an early age. By 12 she was taking private art lessons at the behest of her father, but was prohibited, at age 17, from entering the Berlin Academy of Arts because she was female. Instead, she attended women’s art schools in Munich and Berlin, where she realized her proclivity for drawing over painting. As a daughter from a lineage of committed and politically principled dissidents (her father and brother were founding members of the German Social Democratic Party, while her maternal grandfather was a rebel pastor who rejected any state control over his congregation, according to a text that accompanies the show) Kollwitz also understood the gravity of laying bare inequalities.
“All Good Art is Political,” the current exhibition at Galerie St. Etienne pairs works by Kollwitz alongside those by Sue Coe, the contemporary British illustrator. The show frames Coe’s work as a direct descendant of Kollwitz’s. Coe, born in 1951 and raised in working class town in Northern England came of age at a time when it was expected that young women of her background would go straight into factory work, the secretarial pool, or motherhood upon finishing high school. Instead, Coe was awarded a scholarship to the Chelsea School of Art in London. Intensely aware of the class divisions that partition England, Coe—like Kollwitz before her—is keenly attuned to discrimination in its numerous forms. Since the 1980s, she has expressed polemical stances on topics ranging from apartheid to the AIDS crisis to animal cruelty. Meat Flies (1991) is a representative work. In stark black and white Coe illustrates a slaughterhouse floor. Alongside the left vertical, two animal carcasses are suspended from ceiling hooks, workers slicing flesh from their bodies. To the right, another swabs muck from the floor as a line of cattle queue up behind him, waiting their turn for death. A cascade of flies swirls across the page, while at the center sits a blind-eyed cow, staring out at the viewer. Red blood trickles from the animal’s head wound (the only element of color on the page) and milk from her udders, oozing onto the ground, and sluicing through a floor drain. Formally, the work displays Coe’s sure hand but the image it represents is ghastly. Like Kollwitz, Coe pulls no punches with her political commentary, but the two diverge in their personal approach to injustice. Whereas Kollwitz’s work is suffused with empathy for her subjects, Coe often appears motivated by anger. Like that of William Gropper, Aaron Douglas, and Ben Shahn, their work belongs to the lineage of Social Realism but what unites Kollwitz and Coe is a commitment to raw invective from a female—and feminist—perspective.
Most recently Coe (who now lives in the United States) has commented, through her work, on the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. A linocut work Unpresidented (2017) portrays a monstrous caricature of Trump accosting Lady Liberty from behind, one hand covering her mouth and the other grabbing her “by the pussy.” At St. Etienne, it hangs cattycorner to an early etching by Kollwitz, Raped (1907-08), which shows only the bare legs and feet of a body protruding from tangled brush, a piece of cloth haphazardly draped across what should be the torso. Assault of the female body is a crime old as humanity, Kollwitz and Coe seem to say, whether it is directed at an individual body, or the body politic.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who is the ArTonic Section Editor, and contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.