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The art of experience

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Kaethe Kollwitz deserves to be called great. Not for being an artist of great genius or profound originality -- for she was neither -- but because she committed her entire being to furthering the cause of humanity through her art.

She looked life squarely in the eye and took it as it was. Unlike almost every other major artist of our century, Kollwitz accepted life in the raw. She created in order to ease the pain of living, to reconcile individual tragedy with universal human suffering, to grant dignity to grief. She never ran away, never pretended, never told a lie in her art. She said only, "This is the way it is. What shall we do about it?"

That question remains alive and pertinent in the exhibition of Kollwitz prints and drawings currently on view here at the Galerie St. Etienne. Carefully selected to indicate the breadth and depth of her art, these 52 etchings, lithographs, and preparatory studies sereve as an ideal introduction to her work for those not familiar with it and as a profound reminder of her importance for those who are.

A Kollwitz show is always an event. At least it should be considering the quality and dimensions of her art, although some prefer that art remain a veil herld elegantly between what we know and what we wish. Or to be a handsome symbol of a better and higher existence.

We want art to stand surrogate for life, to be drained of everything which reminds us of our vulnerability. We want art to place us at the center of the universe and thus relieve us of our nagging sense of incompleteness.

But Kollwitz will have none of that. She will not let us off the hook. She confronts and unsettles us, reminds us of our human interdependence, and forces us to see art within a moral framework. Rather than placing us at the center of the universe away from human crisis, she puts us smack in the center of the battle for human survival.

Some of us cannot forgive her for that and insist she has no place in the formal and transcendent realm of art.

The truth of the matter is that she doesn't really belong in the mainstream of 20th-century art. She is too direct, too uncompromising, too compassionate. But that exclusion is our fault, not hers, and reflects discredit upon our values, not upon hers.

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