The Downtrodden by Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

The Downtrodden, 1900, Etching and aquatint on paper, 30.8 x 24.8 cm, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, Photo: akg-images

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The Needy in the Gate

Commentary by

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.

 

References

Prelinger, Elizabeth. 1992. Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press)