Perspective | An artist’s primal scream shows how grief can make monsters of us all

What, if you were a bereavement counselor, what would you tell this woman?

I would venture: Nothing. Because there is nothing. There are no words. What has happened — the death of a child — is too primal, too animalistic, too fundamentally incommunicable for notions like “consolation” to apply.

Making a picture of it — as the great German graphic artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) did in 1903 — is already, perhaps, infringing. But there has to be some way of representing an experience that has happened throughout human history to innumerable women.

Kollwitz, who made this work when she was in her mid-30s, has had the tact not to be tactful. She doesn’t fuss around with color and oil paint and backgrounds and back stories. She gives it to us straight: an etching, scratched out of copper, dunked in acid, inked up and squeezed forcibly against paper. Nothing but the figures themselves. No explanation. Nothing redundant.

This is art as primal scream. Notice the shine on the mother’s bare knees, how it matches the shine on her child’s forehead. Three bony, spherical forms catching the light, two of them dumband ugly (but living), the other so fine, so intricate, so beloved and serene (but dead).

The fourth form catching the light is the child’s shoulder, thrust up at an awful angle by the force of the mother’s embrace. Here, things get very elemental. Kollwitz conveys the mother’s desperate desire to make herself and her dead child one again. The forms in the picture, shown in three-quarters profile, are powerfully rounded, as if striving for a unity they cannot regain. One body, the mother’s, presses into the body that was once part of hers, trying to impart its warmth. But the child’s body remains separate and now — because it is lifeless — profoundly alien.

The futility of the mother’s embrace makes her almost monstrous. Against the child’s shoulder, her hand is dark and gnarly. Her whole upper body is in shadow. Her face is a smear, and it presses itself into the child’s chest as if wanting to devour it. Indeed, the closest image to Kollwitz’s in Western art may be Peter Paul Rubens’s “Saturn Devouring a Son” in the Prado, in Madrid. It’s a disturbing connection, but intentional, I think. We become monstrous when we are isolated, beyond reach. And nothing is more isolating, more incommunicable, than the grief of a parent who has been unable to save their child’s life. Kollwitz is showing us that grief can make monsters of us all.

There is another art historical type — this one Asian — that Kollwitz’s etching resembles: the “Weeping Buddha,” often known as the “Shy Man.” These wooden carvings, which you can purchase in tourist markets throughout Southeast Asia, at every scale, from tiny to giant, are said to be auspicious: If you touch one, they say, your sorrows pass on to the Buddha.

Unfortunately, Kollwitz’s etching (which I saw recently at the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Mass., but which is owned by many museums) proved inauspicious. Having lost a beloved younger brother when she was still a child (the memory surely informed “Woman With Dead Child”), she went on to lose one of her two sons on the battlefield, two months after the outbreak of World War I. Kollwitz worked for years trying to memorialize him in sculpture.

Empathy and time are the only (imperfect) answers to grief. Kollwitz’s entire oeuvre vibrates with deep fellow feeling, and the cycle of woodcuts she made in the 1920s, known as the “Krieg Cycle,” a response to war as powerful as works by Goya or Otto Dix but grounded in empathy and emotion rather than horror, stands as one of the most powerful in the history of art.

[Pandemic highlights the staying power of two 20th-century masterpieces]

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