My students tease me about how often I proclaim that one drawing or another is my very favorite. Apparently I’ve said this dozens of times through the years. There are so many drawings I love and for so many reasons. There are a few that, if pressed, would rise to the top of the list, but there is only one drawing I have ever gotten choked up about while discussing in class: a self portrait by Kathe Kollwitz.
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was a german artist who is known primarily for her harrowing drawings and prints depicting the struggles of the working class. Her work seems to teeter on the edge of representation and expressionism.
The first thing that strikes me about her self portrait is Kathe's depiction of her own face. Here we see the same despondent expression often seen in the faces of her depictions of grieving mothers. The tenderness of the strokes in which she renders the details of her face suggest she is calming and reassuring herself through her mark making. Her hand on the left side of the drawing appears to have been rendered with the same care. The strokes connecting her head and hand is what, to me, make this drawing a masterpiece.
At first glance these jagged marks moving across the page can be mistaken for a simplified depiction of drapery, but looking closer we find that the these marks are at odds with her initial block in of her sleeve.
Instead we find a defiant shoving of the charcoal back and forth that communicate power, rage and an elemental truth about drawing: To draw is to make a visceral connection beginning in the mind, out to the hand, onto the page and into a viewer. We, as viewers, intuitively understand the force and speed that mark was made with and the power and confidence it implies.
With this stroke Kollwitz demonstrates that she understands, and masterfully wields, her drawing tool as a powerful communication device that is both poetic and persuasive and, when needs be, dangerous. I have learned more from simply looking at this drawing than I have from entire drawing classes I’ve taken.