If you cover your eyes with your hand, the world and all its suffering vanish, if only for a short while.Covering the face, or burying it in a loved one, are recurrent images in the work of Käthe Kollwitz -- a brilliant artist, steadfast social activist and unbreakable spirit.
You need only take a quick glance at the new AGO exhibit of her work, The Art Of Compassion, to understand that life was hard for Kollwitz and for the people she devoted her work to liberating.
Born in the mid-19th century, Kollwitz supported peasant revolts and peacefully rebelled against two world wars. She also fought the establishment in her native Germany to become an artist at a time when women weren't allowed into the profession.
Her story is one of passion. Her work illustrates her story. The majority of her pieces are high-contrast black-and-white etchings, woodblock prints, lithographs and ink drawings. She assigned dark and light to her works with a skilled hand and eye. In most cases the dark is overpowering.
In one work, a man sharpens a scythe within an inch of his nose, his eyes white and blind to the light. In another, peasants lean forward to push a plow through a field, using every ounce of their strength to move the heavy object a few feet at a time. Some of her greatest works depict the violent uprisings of these peasants. There's a dark beauty in her Weaver's Rebellion series.
The role of women is also central to her work. She exposed their pain and its injustice. After her sons were born, she created grim portraits of women tightly clutching their children to protect them from harm. After Kollwitz's son was killed in the first world war, the mother-son relationship intensified. The woman now can be seen desperately holding the dead body of a grown child.
Following her loss she became even more the pacifist and activist, dedicating herself to making anti-war posters and pamphlets. Shortly before her death, toward the end of the second world war, she proclaimed, "Someday a new ideal will arise and there will be an end to all wars."
Kollwitz revealed the world as it was, and in so doing showed how it could be. Much has changed since then, but not enough.
Käthe Kollwitz at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West) to May 25. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNNN