Mama Dentata, Kollwitz-Style
Reflecting on maternal love, labour, and loss with the art of Käthe Kollwitz.
A few weeks ago, I was meandering around the internet (as one does), when I stumbled upon an image. A drawing, black and white. Depicting a cluster of small children, with bony arms upraised, holding empty bowls. Their huge, sad eyes all gaze up at some unseen figure, waiting, hoping. The only clothing depicted, in the close up of this huddle, is stripy.
My mind automatically jumps to the main imagery of pale-faced starvation American kids are raised on; the Holocaust.
However, the date on the sketch is 1923. Two decades too early to be the kids in those camps.
Then I find the title of the image: “Deutschlands Kinder hungern!”
Ah. So not only is it not the kids in those camps, but it’s the kids who, if they don’t starve to death, may grow up to put said kids in camps. Not that it in any way diminishes the pathos of the subjects of this drawing, or my sorrow at seeing them. They are simply innocent children, caught up in an outlandishly terrible situation - the hyperinflation of 1921-23 made the German currency essentially worthless. According to Wikipedia, “A loaf of bread in Berlin that cost around 160 Marks at the end of 1922 cost 200,000,000,000 Marks by late 1923.” I mean, fuck. How do you manage with that?
At the time of encountering this image, I too am in Germany, and it is the end of 2022. Exactly one century later, and inflation is back back back. Consumer food prices here are up about twenty percent; every time I go to buy groceries, the cost of at least one staple is notably higher than the week before. Energy prices have leapt up even more aggressively, pushing up our rent as well, so you can bet I am wearing a jumper and shawl at my desk each day, rather than cranking up the heat. And though this inflation is not anything so bananas as what was seen here a century ago, the phenomenon is being shared globally this time. And there is a real feeling that things are going to get much harder, for most folks, in most places, before they get better. Every person on every podcast I listen to in the kitchen is worried about what - in terms of economics, and warfare - lies ahead. And so am I. I am in the kitchen because my husband and I can keep buying these costlier groceries, and I am glad, as I know a lot of folks are struggling to do as much. But we can’t afford to do a whole lot more than that, and trying to plan much more than meals seems foolish for the foreseeable future.
Some of this food I serve my family comes from a weekend market on Kollwitzstraße, which runs along Kollwitzplatz. Their namesake was the artist, Käthe Kollwitz, who lived there. And, as it turns out, she is the very artist who made the image of the starving children that has caught my attention. I have been shopping at the Kollwitz market for several years, and my son has been running around the Kollwitzplatz playgrounds for the last two; but I have never made much effort to check out her work, or felt at all compelled to go across town to her museum. But I sure do now. Because it is exactly what I have been looking for.
My own work, here, as you may recall, is called Mama Dentata for many reasons. One of them is an attempt to fortify it against the force in our culture that likes to trivialise mothers and all things motherhood-related. You slap a ‘Mommy’ label on any woman or thing, and it’s understood that whatever else they might otherwise have claimed to be, they’ve been rendered sort of soft, slow, sentimental, and even a little dim. As though the act of caring for infants automatically merits infantilising. As though love is not serious.
But anyone who enjoys nature documentaries, or grew up watching Little Foot’s mother’s throat torn open fighting off a T.Rex in The Land Before Time, should know better about mothers. Should know that the same love that makes our hearts liquify and our breasts leak will also compel us into a kind of vigilance and ferocity that is rarely equaled elsewhere in the animal kingdom. And with good reason; the world is a dangerous place, and our young ones’ safety is never at all guaranteed. It was not so long ago that a full third of our children did not survive to the age of five. Those that did survive the many deadly diseases of childhood were often left with significant damage to their limbs and organs and minds. And it seems that it was pretty standard across most of human history for nearly half our children to perish before they finished puberty. And that was true globally, in all manner of circumstances.
And while these mortality rates have dropped radically over the last two centuries, thanks in large part to innovations like vaccines and soap and sewers, and social welfare schemes, and birth control, the world remains a strange and volatile place, and our children remain vulnerable. We all do. It would be a rare day indeed to find the news free of famine, armed conflict, and genocide. Drug abuse and school shootings are particularly insidious in my homeland. Child poverty and hunger persist even in the richest countries, as do recessions, traffic accidents, and cancer. The world over, there are hazards waiting in the form of contaminated drinking water, air pollution, autoimmune diseases, pesticides, BPA, birth defects, peer pressure, perverts, drunks, drowning, despots, domestic violence, angry mobs, cults, gangs, riots, warmongers, fires, floods… It’s hard sometimes to look out at the world and not just see contamination and lunatics and arseholes from here to the horizon, all out to undo everything we’ve put into these children who are made from our own bodies, and hold our hearts in their own.
I think that merits a pull quote:
It’s hard sometimes to look out at the world and not just see contamination and lunatics and arseholes from here to the horizon, all out to undo everything we’ve put into these children who are made from our own bodies, and hold our hearts in their own.
So while it’s easy to mock and dismiss the levels of anxiety and fussing that can arise from so much worrying, we’re not mad; we’re merely finely-tuned to the very real facts of human frailty. Evolution demands we remember internally what our collective seems to want to forget; it really takes very little for one of our fears to manifest, and become our abiding misery.
Käthe gets it. Käthe’s work captures it better than anything I’ve ever seen, and probably better than I myself ever will, for all my words. Her work is all about mothers. I mean, the overwhelming majority of her work that I’ve seen (in her museum and online) is of women and children. And with the exception of about three sketches, all her subjects are fucking miserable. Or dead.
Many of the images are of groups of mothers, huddled all together, their children clutched in their arms, their faces either turned towards their young or looking fearfully into the distance. Waiting for what’s to come.
Mostly though, the mothers are solitary. Leaning to look at tiny children who are laying in such a way that you quickly check the title card to try to work out whether the kid in question is dead or ill or just deeply asleep. Some of them are called things like “Woman at a Cradle”, so you guess the woman’s hunched-over, worn-out posture is to do with life, not death. But then others are called things like “Woman With Dead Child” and “Mother at the Bed of a Dead Child”, so then it’s clear - yep, the child you’re looking at is dead, and that is why the woman looks so entirely miserable.
On the occasions when there are men in the picture, they look pretty miserable, too. There are men with haggard faces that either stare blankly, or hide in their hands. There’s one called “Drunk”, featuring a woman cowering beside a bed, child clinging to her and wailing, while a man looms over them, fist raised to strike. There are men going off to battle, and lying dead in the fields. And there are men who do not feature in the image at all, but can be inferred from titles like, “The Widow”, and “Raped”.
And you might think, “Why would anyone want to make art like that?” But think of the span of Käthe’ life. She was born in the middle of Germany’s industrial revolution, and saw the squalor of the new proletariate class it was creating. Again, this was back when children of any class routinely died in infancy, and three out of Käthe’s six siblings died before they were grown. The elder of her two sons nearly died of diphtheria as a teen. That he survived was perhaps in part because his father (her husband) was a doctor, who spent decades treating the working class families of Berlin (it was his patients who acted as Käthe’s models for many of her works). Her younger son did die as a teenager, in the early days of the first World War. She then witnessed the hunger and chaos of the interwar years, and the rise of the Nazis, who condemned her work, and raided her studio - which was then bombed by Allies. Her husband and brother and grandson died during WWII. Her final years were spent avoiding falling bombs, until she died, four months before the war ended. And you think, What a shame that she didn’t live to see the war’s end. But then you remember what atrocities the Russian soldiers inflicted on the surviving German women, and think, Perhaps surviving all that violence, only to be confronted with all that raping, would not be such a great thing.
So you think about these times, and the waves of upheaval and struggle and trauma and hunger and brutality that just kept washing over her world one after the other, and you realise the correct question isn’t, “Why would anyone want to make art like that?”, but, “Why weren’t more people?”
The answer, in part, lies also in history. Amongst the many terrible things feeding into the ongoing changes in her lifetime, there were some great things, too. One of which was that women in Germany were just starting to be allowed to study art in academies, and show their work, and be taken seriously. And she was. And she was able use the opportunity afforded by her unique moment in history and her profound talent, to portray a range of love and grief that male artists - for all their own love and grief - could not. And perhaps would not even if they could.
In the museum here, there is a print called “Woman With Dead Child.” It’s what it sounds like; a woman holding a dead child. Both are naked. The woman looks to be in a process of rapid devolution, such is the agony consuming her. Coincidentally, two days after my field trip to see this image in person, The Great Women Artists Podcast put up an episode devoted to Kollwitz. (It’s wonderful. Strong recommend.) And the host,, in discussing this print, says: “I genuinely think this is the most emotional work in the history of art.” She says this as someone who is not a mother, and so not viewing the work as a mother, like me; but as someone with an epic love and knowledge of the history of art. And that is how much feeling the picture does convey, it seems, even to someone with expertise entirely different from my own.
But my favourite is another one, hung on the same wall; “Death and Woman Wrestling Over a Child”. Kollwitz has many prints where she personifies Death as a kind of skeleton zombie figure, who comes to fight mothers and snatch away children. It sounds cartoonish, but it’s real creepy. In this one, the mother has her arms wrapped tight around her little boy, and his slack head has fallen back against hers, while Death clutches him from the other side. And it’s horrible. I mean, the little boy in the image is roughly the same size and age as my own; it’s like someone looked inside my heart, found my very greatest fear, engraved it in elaborate detail, and hung it on the wall. I feel a little sick when look at it. But at the same time, it’s beautiful. Because there is so much love in it. So much. Pure, enduring, full-body, absolute love.
It’s the faces. The faces on these mothers, as they hold their children. Whether those children are infants or young men, and whether they are alive or dead. The way they close their eyes when they hold onto them. I know that feeling. I do not compare my struggles to theirs, because that would be absurd. But I do compare my love. Because I can see in their faces the feeling I know viscerally. When you hold your little one, and your eyes fall shut, because you just love them so much, and that feeling in your chest is so strong that it pushes everything else away. It is primal, and preeminent. And when it takes your attention, there is nothing else in the world to be seen or heard or known. Only felt. That vital, vital feeling of their body pressed close to your heart, where they must always belong.
And of course, the feeling is a dual one; of overwhelming gratitude that they are on this earth, and awareness that Death will come to catch them up eventually, no matter how well you do your job to keep the bastard at bay. And it feels unbearable. But it isn’t. Because you do. Because you can’t not. Because they’re your baby; the embodied nexus of your own self and the greater world. And you will love them, even if all that’s left to hold is the bones. Friends and lovers and employers and even powerful rulers will come and go in the course of a person’s life; but their mother is their mother. The needs of the relationship change, but the fact of it does not. That’s why so many dying men, from my own grandfather, to George Floyd, can be heard calling for their mother in their final moments. Other roles come and go; Mama is forever.
And so while I wouldn’t exactly call the hours I spent in Kollwitz’s museum nice, I will say I feel better for it, tears and all. It feels like an inoculation against the current culture’s insistence that we all exist as lone individuals. That is not true for anyone, and it is palpably not true for mothers. I have not been moving through this world, or making decisions, with anything like independence, since 2018. I am not footloose, or free, or living solely for myself; nor do I want to be. Nor do I think most humans want to be, really. The choices I make for myself, and the things I do each day, are acutely enmeshed in the fact that I am a mother, perpetually thinking about what’s best for my son. And life is much better, but harder, more worrying, and much much more tiring, because of it. I assume this is, in varying degrees and ways, the case for most mothers. And our lives, and whatever we succeed or fail at, should be understood in this relational, bonded, weighty context.
We owe so much to the endurance of generations of mothers who came before. And to the ones who carry on with the daily grind of their duties today. I am so grateful to find art that calls attention to this usually hidden and frequently humiliating heroism, and that undermines other ideas being peddled about ‘heroism’ being obtained through violence and profit and narcissism. It’s very gratifying to find that so many others have held Käthe’s work up, and honoured it. I wanted to honour it in turn, and share it with others. Maybe you will, too?
Lastly, I guess I should add that it genuinely did not occur to me when I started this post that I’d end up sharing it on the eve of Thanksgiving. It’s not a thing where I am, and I have no plans to celebrate (that is way too much cooking to bother with when no one else cares). But the year has been an anxious one, and laden with disappointment, and I could do with the reminder to give thanks. And Käthe’s work has certainly been useful for that. There are wars right now, and germs aplenty, and they have had an impact on these early years of my son’s life. But they have not harmed him directly; he is well-fed, hearty, and knows he is dearly loved. And I reckon, whatever else is going wrong, for me, and for the world, that puts my small family decidedly in the ‘fortunate’ category, and merits a truckload of thanks. I hope you fall there, too.