Outbreak, 1902. Etching, 51.5 x 59.2 cm.

No matter how spotless the gallery’s white walls were, I preferred to imagine Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) standing amid a pile of rubble calling for love, sorrowful and passionate. The strong black and white contrast of her small etchings and woodcuts, the rough lives of the lower classes and overbearing sense of death and oppression can still arouse sympathy, even though the art world today is permeated with le charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

A representative figure of German leftist painting in the first half of the twentieth century, Kollwitz largely owes her renown in China to her endorsement in the 1930s by a famous Chinese leftist: Lu Xun. Works such as Weavers’ Revolt and Uprising greatly influenced the revolutionary creative efforts of young leftist artists at the time. However, Kollwitz made her art as a mother, an independent entity and it is this that has allowed her work an influence beyond the context of her period. The problem with many of the leftist artists who followed Kollwitz is that after their creative style gained the support of the powers that be, it hardened into a sort of unbreakable rule. More energetic and personal ways of working, not to mention any sense of independent critique, lost out to revolutionary dogma.

While twisted forms and tortured faces are not at all rare elements in modern painting, the sustained lyrical power of Kollwitz’s efforts remains deeply affecting, and shockingly so. In transforming political and social topics into conflicted individual forms and emotions, she turned specific people into physical illustrations of social conflict, yet without reducing them to props or tools. Thus for Chinese artists who at the time were attempting to escape the stylized socialist-realist art system, Kollwitz’s independent expression of individual consciousness—along with the expressionist style of the works displayed at her retrospective in Beijing in 1979—had a real visual impact.

The title of this exhibition pointed to this historical relationship. Displayed alongside Kollwitz’s work was that of contemporary Chinese artists such as Tan Ping and Zeng Fanzhi, who to varying degrees in their early periods emulated the rough lines of Kollwitz’s protruding faces and hands. But as this was also a time when all kinds of information about Western modern art began to pour into China, Kollwitz’s influence quickly gave way to more fashionable artistic styles, a dramatic change also reflected in the later work of artists like Zeng and Tan. For this reason, the exhibition’s use of these artists to construct a dialogue between Kollwitz and Chinese contemporary art, while still effective, did come off a tad forced.

Kollwitz’s fading grip on the Chinese imagination of the 1980s and after bespeaks a fundamental tendency of the Modernism that China inherited: the rejection of any direct expression of emotion. Part of this problem can be traced against the grand backdrop of Christian cultural restraints, rationalism and male-centered ideology. Only those groups excluded from the grown-up world—women, children, young people and uneducated workers—are more willing to openly express their feelings, and these happen to be the groups that Kollwitz primarily painted. But her predicament also owes in part to the intellectual culture surrounding modern art, and specifically to the stylistic hierarchies that it propagates. Consciously or unconsciously, this underestimation of the lyrical and dismissal of the emotional creates a barrier to public engagement with high art.      Zhou Wenhan