The work of German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz is perhaps one of the best modern examples of the way in which art can speak for communities of the oppressed.
Kollwitz’s oeuvre communicates a belief that art should influence social change. Most of her works explore the injustices of society and question social location as an adequate determiner of identity.
In particular, she exposed society’s treatment of the poor and of women, using her art to reflect on the difficulties of those groups when faced with oppressive forms of power. This was a theme she pursued throughout her career; it even found expression in her use of relatively accessible and affordable printmaking and drawing mediums (Prelinger 1992: 120).
Kollwitz’s The Downtrodden can be aligned with the message of the prophet Amos, who was a protester against social injustice and a communicator of divine pathos. The prophet reveals God’s anger over ill-treatment of the downtrodden, speaking to those who:
trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, … [those] who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:11,12)
Kollwitz places viewers into a conversation with those trampled poor, those who—in her own context—have been pushed aside at the gate. The words of Amos ring true more now than ever, as does the divine response to society’s evils. The woman in this image gently holds the head of her dead or sickly child, and the man standing beside them is turned aside in anguish. He cannot bear to look on the reality before him.
But God will not look away, and only those who hate evil and love the good (v.15) will, according to Amos, be recipients of God’s mercy. All of Kollwitz’s works are imbued with an emotional power that invites the viewers’ response to such weighty subjects. The characteristic black and white of her prints here only intensifies our sense of the emotional distress of the downtrodden family.
The prophet Amos warns of divine justice to come, while Kollwitz powerfully asserts the injustice that remains present today.
Prelinger, Elizabeth. 1992. Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press)
5 Hear this word which I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
2“Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up.”
3For thus says the Lord God:
“The city that went forth a thousand
shall have a hundred left,
and that which went forth a hundred
shall have ten left
to the house of Israel.”
4For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live;
5but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beer-sheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nought.”
6Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
7O you who turn justice to wormwood,
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
8He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
9who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
10They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
11Therefore because you trample upon the poor
and take from him exactions of wheat,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
13Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
14Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning
and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
17and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,”
says the Lord.
18Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light;
19as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.