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Works Of Kathe Kollwitz And Alice Neel English Literature Essay

In the two images both artists are portraying pregnant women, however the style, composition and materials used to create the work contrast one another. The sitters in both pieces are facing forward, looking directly at the artist or viewer. Neither is confrontational, however the centralised position and direct stare from both women shows that the pieces are focused on the personal representation of the woman in the image. Although living and working at different times, Kollwitz and Neel shared a passion in their feminist and socialist views, and their work depicts an honesty of real people in real situations, particularly women.

During Kollwitz artistic career her work reflected on the social conditions of her time and featured themes of poverty, war and the working class. Her work particularly orientated around working class women, maternity and motherhood. As she was from a middle class, religious and political family herself, traditionally it would not have been easy for her to succeed as a successful artist. In Germany in the late 19th century women were not allowed to attend art school, however she had the support from her father who encouraged her to study art in Berlin.

Early on in her artistic development Kollwitz realised that although she was a straight woman, she was also attracted to people of her own sex. Not being a topic that many would understand during this time, she did not discuss it with anyone and married a man who was a family friend. Her engagement was initially frowned upon by her feminist female contemporaries who believed when a woman married, her art would be sacrificed to ensure she was properly tending to her husband. Kollwitz did not disagree with these views and had often considered whether she would be able to be an artist and a housewife simultaneously; however she was determined to try and be both. Her interest in women was spiritual rather than sexual and is apparent in many of her artworks. The women in Kollwitz’ work were usually shown as strong, capable characters often in maternal settings, as in ‘pregnant woman’, rather than objects to be viewed or looked at. Kollwitz has stated herself that she feels her artwork would have lacked something without her bisexual nature.

Although my leaning toward the male sex was dominant, I also felt frequently drawn toward my own sex – an inclination which I could not correctly interpret until much later on. As a matter of fact I believe that bisexuality is almost a necessary factor in artistic production; at any rate, the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work.

The woman, whom Kollwitz has not named, in ‘Pregnant Woman’ is clothed in a shawl which covers her body entirely. Her pregnant shape is still clearly visible and her attire suggests she is from a working class background. Working-class women appealed to Kollwitz’ aesthetic and her work show’s an appreciation of them as whole beings.

The working class woman shows me, through her appearance and being, much more than the ladies who are totally limited by conventional behaviour. The working-class woman shows me her hands, her feet and her hair. She lets me see the shape and form of her body through her clothes. She presents herself and the expression of her feelings openly, without guises.

‘Pregnant Woman’ is one of many of Kollwitz work to feature the theme of maternity. Maternity represents a unique female experience in which the way that the female body is viewed changes from a stereotypical ideology to a biological tool for child bearing. The way in which Kollwitz has presented this pregnant woman and other women from many of her artworks fig. 3 helps to distinguish her art from the sexual objectification of women which was present in so many works of art prior to her career.

‘Pregnant woman’ is an etching which was a preferred medium for Kollwitz. As a growing artist she felt pressured into developing her drawings and etchings into paintings, however despite several attempts to master her painterly technique, she was constantly lacking a feel and inspiration from colour.

Kollwitz was introduced to the work, and words, of Max Klinger fig. 4 during the years she spent as an art student. Despite only meeting him once, after studying his work and reading notes by the artist she realised that she was not a painter and did not need to be. She took courage from the fact that another artist before her had stayed with his own ideas of what he wanted his art to be.

..it gives fantasy wider play to imaginatively colour and enhance the thing represented. The draftsman looks perpetually at the unfilled holes, the yearned-for and barely attainable. The painter bodies forth optimism, but the draftsman cannot escape his more negative vision, beyond appearance.

Kollwitz settled with the idea that her own artwork was more intense in its original forms than it ever would be if made into paintings and from this point she continued to perfect her skills in etching. The etchings and the graphite and charcoal drawings are sympathetic to Kollwitz’s subject matter as they are less extravagant mediums for working with, a painting would almost contradict the poverty that is portrayed in her work.

In this respect Kollwitz’ pregnant woman differs from the pregnant woman in Alice Neel’s painting. Neel’s use of colour is a trend she adopted in many of her paintings particularly throughout the last decade of her artistic career. She usually started her paintings with a blue outline as can be seen in Margaret Evans. This outline is visible in her finished paintings and her use of colour is just one of the techniques she uses to catch the character of her sitters. Neel’s portraits are not always aesthetically perfect. She emphasises imperfections in people to show truth. Similarly however to Kollwitz, Neel avoided traditional constraints of portraiture, as neither artist was producing commissioned work for the sitters themselves, they were free to portray reality and truth in their work.

Something is always amiss in a Neel painting. She disdained idealized representation, preferring to use her canvases to document the disturbances, distortions and sorrows of the human psyche. Earthy and raw, her portraiture is rooted in extreme realism and the messy beauty of daily living.

This observation can be seen in Margaret Evans, her posture is upright, arms by her side and her hands grip the chair in which she sits. Neither her expression nor her position suggests that she is relaxed, instead she appears apprehensive, perhaps representative of how she feels as the sitter for the painting or possibly that as an expecting mother of twins she has deeper anxiety’s which are being considered by Neel.

Margaret Evans is totally naked. Unlike Kollwitz’s ‘pregnant woman’, Neel often chose to paint her sitters in this way as it removes any kind of stereotype or disguise which can be enhanced with clothing. Kollwitz used a shawl in her image to show the distinction of class, seemingly representing women from this particular background collectively. However Neel’s interest lied in the individual and this is re-enforced by the fact that her sitter has been named in the title of the work. In Neel’s painting all we see is a very pregnant woman, even the chair does not have a prominence within the composition. Aside to the sitter and the chair there is also a mirror situated behind the woman which reflects her image in profile. Historically mirrors have been used in paintings of women to show additional or conflicting information to that conveyed by the sitter. Here, although Evans is not looking directly into the mirror which would normally be the case, we see her reflection in the form of an older woman. Perhaps Neel is alluding to Evans’ mother or possibly the mother that she will soon become.

Similarly to Kollwitz, Alice Neel was a mother herself, her first daughter died before the age of one from diphtheria and her second, Isabetta, was taken away from her by her first husband. She then raised two boys, from different fathers, who saw many partners come and go in and out of all their lives. Some of her own children featured in Neel’s work, most famously a portrait of IsabettaFig.5. Many people disapproved of this portrait as the child featured in it is naked, another attempt by Neel to remove guises or stereotypes from the work. She was not interested in portraying children, or women, as beautiful adorable objects. She was more concerned in the strength of the authenticity she could capture. With this in mind it is likely that Neel was aware of the work by American Artist Robert Henri. Henri painted children from different cultures, portraying ethnic and class diversity. Fig 6. He was interested in showing them as proud and strong beings to show his passion in their dignity. Henri was part of the Ashcan school which was founded in the early 20th Century and was most commonly recognised for portraying the daily life of poorer neighbourhoods in New York. Note the similarity here between Henri and Kollwitz. Kollwitz was simultaneously focussing on a very similar subject in Berlin to what Henri was painting in America.

Henri admired the work of Thomas Eakins. Eakins was an also an American Artist who painted portraits, usually of people close to him such as family and friends. As can be seen in this portrait of his wife Fig.7 Eakins captures the authenticity in the expression of his subjects. His ability to recognise the emotions in his sitters and portray these expressions in his paintings is a trait that can also be seen in the work of Alice Neel.

Neel painted her portraits in her own home. Until the 1970’s she had no gallery or museum recognition, one of the many difficulties often experienced by women artists. Neel herself coped with poverty whilst raising children as a single parent which therefore links her to the women featured in many of Kollwitz’s work.

Kollwitz and Neel both successfully detached themselves from the objectification of women in art. Their feminist tendencies meant that they did not portray their female subjects in the traditional way as passive objects of beauty. Both artists were mothers, and both lost children at some stage in their lives. Their own personal influences and experiences including the psychological elements of motherhood can be seen in both artists work, particularly in the two images being discussed.

By comparing the lives and works of Kollwitz and Neel it becomes clear that although they shared similar experiences throughout their lives they made certain contrasting decisions about what they wanted their art to be. Kollwitz’ work exemplifies her political influences and the differences between social classes. Neel’s most prominent interest lied in individual personality and character, often capturing the moments or glances that one assumes have gone unnoticed.


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