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The many masks of modern art - VI; The narrow thread of humanism in modern art

Human dignity and courage have found no greater voice in this century than in the art of Kaethe Kollwitz. If Edward Munch's "the Cry" is the soul- cry of our time, the cry of an age desperate to be born but dreading where that birth might lead, then Kollwitz's images of human vulnerability and grandeur are our silent reminder that all fears must be faced, and that man is responsible for his fate.

Certain works of art in this century have struck bedrock -- and have held fast, permitting us to anchor our perceptions of ourselves and of our time upon the insights transmitted through these works. One thinks of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Braque, Mondrian, and Pollock, each of whom fashioned at least one such work.

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Also central to our time is the art resulting from fishing expeditions into the unknown. This art is created by individuals who cast their sensibilities and skills -- even their identities -- into dark, uncharted waters, and then reel in little hints and clues of what lies hidden in the form of lively and exotic paintings and sculpture. Klee, Miro, Ernst, and Calder spring to mind here.

And then there is the art which puts human emotion and experience before formal concept, dogma, or style, the art designed to gain our complicity in matters of social, spiritual, and political concern.

Although many of these artists tend to be a bit hysterical and two-dimensional, there are a few who care deeply enough of what moves them to seek out and to gain access to the deepest and most mysterious areas of human creativity. And, once there, to learn how to fashion their anguish, rage, concern or evangelical fervor into art of extraordinary clarity and effectiveness. Rouault, Beckmann, and Grosz belong here.

Kaethe Kollwitz was another of this very small band. To her, art was inexorably bound to compassion. And yet she took the art of making art very seriously. If forced to choose between compassion and art she would have said that that would be like choosing between being human and being a woman.

But she was almost alone in feeling that way. Twentieth century art has had a difficult time with the human side of its identity. It looks in the mirror and tends to see something other than what is there.

This century's art has committed the vast bulk of its creative resources to tremendous voyages of exploration and discovery. Most of our important artists spend their entire lifetimes exploring not only the planets and galaxies of the future and of alternative universes -- but also the possibility that 2 and 2 are 3, and that reality is never what we see but always what we know.

Of these, Picasso was our most important. He was our Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, and Prodigal Son all rolled into one, a swashbuckling genius who always sent home greater treasures than we could ever have imagined.

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But there were others who felt restless at home. Mondrian took to his tower to chart the infinite and the absolute. Chagall flew back to childhood, Dali went fishing to exotic creatures of the deep, Giacometti went off to try to bring identity into focus, Pollock pushed forward into uncharted country and found a new continent, Bacon extended himself to the borders of reason, and Reinhardt waited in the darkest night for the first flush of dawn.

No matter where one looked, art was either probing, digging, sailing-off, or opening-up. No sooner had something new from a previously unexplored region been hung up to be admired then it was overshadowed by something else even more strange and wonderful. Viewing art soon became much like watching a fireworks display: great fun as long as the colorful bursts topped one another, but terribly dull once the peak had been reached.

During all this time Kollwitz saw no reason to leave home. There was more than enough material for her art where she lived. Since art was a social and moral imperative for her much more than it was a philosphical, aesthetic, or spiritual ideal, she had only to look around her to see what needed to be done.

And what needed to be done was obvious. There was human suffering to be reconciled with human promise, reality to be faced and accepted, death, whose meaning had to be proved, and life, whose joys and pleasures had to be celebrated.

She tackled them all in numerous drawings and prints, and in a few pieces of sculpture. While the rest of 20th century art was exploding all around her, she kept right on searching for the most telling and provocative gestures and images with which to give form and expression to the compassion and love she felt within her.

She cared passionately, not only as a woman but as an artist. Although there are those who claim she doesn't belong in the pantheon of authentic 20th century artists because she put the human before the formal, the face before the mask, to deny such a place to her reflects discredit upon the art of our time rather than upon Kollwitz.

Her art carried a heavy burden of responsibility. Not only did she want it to move us deeply, she also wanted it to heal and to reconcile -- to give some measure of meaning -- to what it had stirred within us. That the formal aspects of her art are concerned with shaping the profoundly known rather than the as-yet-not-known, the ideal, or the magical, has nothing to do with the quality or importance of her work, unless we insist that 20th century art is by definition limited to these latter categories.

Kollwitz was a talent rather than a genius. But then so were Mondrian and Rothko, who increasingly and deservedly have earned our respect. Without the element of genius, all art becomes a matter of opinion, dedication, and integrity. The difference between a Mondrian and a Kollwitz is one of area of concern rather than of degree of truth. They, and all artists of integrity and talent, reveal moments of reality rather than an overall vision of it.

And yet there are times when an artist of talent has a glimpse of the totality, a burst of genius. Such moments are rare, but their existence cannot be denied. They can come late in life, at the beginning of a career, or any place between.

Munch's "The Cry" was such a moment. And, much later and much more quietly, so was Kollwitz's last self-portrait.

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