Installation photograph, Picturing the Masses: Germany, 1900–1938, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 14–August 26, 2018

Käthe Kollwitz and The Carmagnole

August 25, 2018
Erin Maynes, Assistant Curator, Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies

While selecting works for the Rifkind Center exhibition Picturing the Masses, I came across a truly magnificent find: a drawing titled Dance Around the Guillotine by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, one of the greatest graphic artists of the 20th century. The drawing, it turned out, was a study for the print, The Carmagnole, a familiar work, and fortunately one also in the Rifkind Center’s collection. 

Käthe Kollwitz's The Carmagnole and Dance around the guillotine, both 1901

Kollwitz has inspired much of my thinking about the topic of the masses in the 20th century because of the way she represented groups and the individuals within them. While she frequently depicted collective types such as industrial workers, farmers, and the urban poor, she also represented these collectives as composed of distinct individuals. In Kollwitz’s work, these individuals, often women and children, become powerful conduits for the emotional experiences of the group. She focused especially on the suffering caused by poverty, war, and political violence. Kollwitz was no stranger to this suffering; her youngest son, Peter, was killed at the front during the World War I. This painful loss runs like a red thread through the seven prints in her portfolio Krieg (War), several of which are also on view in Picturing the Masses. Viewers identify—and hopefully empathize—with these groups by connecting at the individual level with the masses Kollwitz depicts.

The subject of the Dance Around the Guillotine is quite different, but fits the theme of the masses in another way. Kollwitz depicts figures pressed together on a narrow cobblestone street. Above them towers the skeletal outline of several buildings forming a claustrophobic skyline. In the drawing, the guillotine plays a muted role, one could easily miss its rough post-and-lintel frame, and it lacks the large, diagonal blade that does the machine’s gruesome work. What takes its place at the center of the composition is the upraised fist of a woman. Her head is thrown back, her eyes are closed, and her feet are dancing. She seems animated by an energy that only she and the drummer standing at right can feel; the faces of those around them are indistinct—in shadow or otherwise unremarkable. Around the border of the image are the indexical traces of the artist: smudged thumbprints that record Kollwitz’s working process and, when seen next to the massed bodies, seem almost like the shadows or silhouettes of additional figures, observing the scene from the margins. 

The final print, The Carmagnole, more explicitly depicts a passage from Charles Dickens’s 1859 story of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens describes individuals surrendering themselves to the energy and violence of a dance called the Carmagnole, a dance which is itself a metaphor for revolutionary fervor:

No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport—a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry—a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child's head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time. This was the Carmagnole.

Kollwitz updates the subject for her audience by locating it in a contemporary German setting, especially visible in the finished print: the congested alleys bordered by tall and rickety half-timbered structures typical of the working class districts of Hamburg or in Kollwitz’s hometown of Königsberg. She thus brings the revolution home, a suggestion, perhaps, that the simmering discontent of the German working classes could boil over and unleash a violent energy that would be impossible to contain. This had not yet happened when Kollwitz made the drawing and the related print in 1901, but by 1918 revolution would break out across Germany following the country’s defeat in World War I, causing Germany’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to flee to Holland. This eventually resulted in the establishment of a new national democratic government and the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

Dickens’s written depiction of individuals lost together in the collective dance are similar to the writer Elias Canetti’s anthropological observations about the irrational behavior of crowds in his 1960 book Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht). Canetti powerfully describes how one surrenders his or her individuality to the crowd and becomes part of a larger, unified body in the process: 

As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceased to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body.

By comparing the drawing Dance Around the Guillotine with the editioned print Carmagnole, one can identify the changes in Kollwitz’s narrative focus as she moves her crowd closer to Dickens’s text and Canetti’s description. In the drawing, the individual dominates. It is the moment before the dance has seized the crowd, only the woman at center has given herself over to it. In the print, however, Kollwitz emphasizes the collective energy of the group; now everyone acts as one; arms are raised in unison. We recognize the dancing gesture of the woman and the drummer from the drawing, now on the opposite side of the street/sheet (a product of the image reversal that takes place during the printing process), but they do not stand out. What is more noticeable is the guillotine itself, now black, and a small rivulet, the “slough of blood and dirt” described by Dickens, that flows beneath their feet. Kollwitz’s own ambivalence about extreme political ideologies and the passions—and violence—they can engender is expressed in this single image, a reference to a past event full of contemporary relevance for Germany in the 20th century.

Picturing the Masses: Germany, 1900–1938  is on view in the Ahmanson Building through Sunday, August 26, 2018.

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