Death Seizing A Woman (1934)
Lithograph, printed in black 20 x 14½”
Museum of Modern Art, New York
“What makes it great?” That’s what people want to know. “Why this and not this other thing?” It’s the biggest question in the world. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, I’m going to stop painting the mediocre stuff and just stick to the great stuff.” Greatness happens and then we point to it and say, “There you go. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Critics of modern art (by which I mean people who disparage it) like to promote the idea that there is this elite culture which simply declares things and the rest of the world follows along like sheep. These are the people fond of the “My five year old could do that,” argument, and there is little doubt that there exists work out there in the world that prospers based on facetious or ham-headed regard. But for the most part, visual arts endure for the same reason all the other arts endure: they tell us something true about ourselves and our condition. They move us emotionally.
I don’t have a lot to say about this simple little drawing today. It may well have taken less time to draw than I’ve already spent typing about it. It hardly matters. I’ve tried three different times today to turn to a different picture, to talk about something with more pizzazz, but I keep coming back to this because sadly, this is where my heart is right now. If you are a parent, you know exactly where this picture is coming from and you know it is a picture of the single most horrible thing in the world. If you are a father you may well feel diminished just looking at it because you know you are less than the mother of your children, that you would, like Abraham, bow your head and accept. Mothers do not bow their heads. They do not accept. They do not give up. A woman protecting her child would pull a straight-razor on Jesus Christ. No wonder God sends an angel of death to do his dirty work. This woman is terrified, but she does not submit. She is bound by the arms that hold her, the arms that pull and drag at her very womb even as they slowly constrict to strip the child from her. She will not relent, yet she will lose. And when she does her cry of agony will destroy you.
Kollwitz lost her son in World War I and seemed to spend the rest of her life returning to the anguish of that loss. She has lots of work that deals with this theme, but this is the one that tears me up. It is great because it is honest and it is real and it connects with me. And right now that’s just going to have to do.