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The Great War
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Kathy Kolwitz - Symbol of Letting Go
Jay Winter
"Kathe Kollwitz had a long talk with her son, Peter, when he decided to volunteer in 1914; and she gave him her blessing, and regretted it for the rest of her life.

"It is clear that she felt that he had done this act through idealism, through a spirit of self-sacrifice (which was similar to her own beliefs) – that we didn't live for ourselves alone, but for some higher purpose. But very shortly after he left, she started regretting it. The news of his death came very early in 1914, and of course the devastation of that loss was something that she, as an artist, tried to translate into her art. This took a long, long time.

"She first imagined some kind of sculpture where she and her husband would be leaning together and their son would be in front of them.

"It took her eighteen years to design a war memorial where her son isn't there anymore.

Kollwitz memorial
Kollwitz memorial for
her son
"What she symbolizes is letting go. Bereavement is not something that ends in two weeks, two years, maybe even twenty years. It is this long and slow shadow. It is a long and slow recognition that the shadow that you feel fall over your life is going to be there, and there's nothing you can do about it.

"So the fundamental vision that I think Kathe Kollwitz provides us, is of the impossibility of forgetting and the impossibility of letting go of the guilt; for the responsibility of the old, for the sacrifice of the young. And here again, we have one of the oldest ideas in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The idea was the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham wasn't necessary, and yet in the First World War, as Wilfred Owen put it in his poetry: 'No, no Abrahams went down and slew the sons of Europe one by one.'

"This sense that the old lived on and the young were slaughtered for their beliefs is what she caught.

"In addition, I think what Kathe Kollwitz captured in her art was the sense that the fundamental problems of war and peace were not resolved into victors and vanquished – only into the living and the dead. She captures the view that nobody won the First World War. There were just survivors. And, that universality of message, the simplicity of that message, escapes from political notation.

"Her art isn't German, it's universal.

"I think it would be very different to find similar examples of this work of genius in earlier wars. Because, again, what she captured was the universality of total war. This is not about national boundaries. This is a war of a kind that no one had ever seen before. Mothers had lost sons from the time of the Trojan War on. But the fundamental issue in most of these wars was resolved at the end of it. The conflict was over. One side was defeated, turned into slaves. Carthage was destroyed, but at the end of the First World War, war carried on. And this is part of her message, that in a way, she was mourning a son who had died in a different kind of war, a war that had no end."

 
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