Käthe Kollwitz and the Kokkiri

Käthe Kollwitz - SeMa exhibition posterToday I went to Northern Seoul with my advanced German students to see some art by Käthe Kollwitz (케테 콜비츠). One of the most prominent modern artists from Germany—and one of the few women with a name in the world of art—, Kollwitz’s works are strong statements against war and social injustice. As her works a difficult to see in Korea, I found the temporary exhibition at Buk Seoul Museum of Art (북서울미술관) in Junggye-dong a good chance, not only for aesthetic discussions, but also for some background talk on the First World War, Weimar Germany and the Nazi Rule.

Käthe Kollwitz at SeMa Buk Museum of Art

Click for large view

The exhibition shows about 50 prints (woodprints, etchings, lithography etc.) as well as one scultpure, the famous Pietà (Mutter mit totem Sohn, Mother with her Dead Son) that is shown as an over-sized replica in central Berlin, in memory of “the Victims of War and Tyranny”. All these works have been lent from the Sakima Art Museum in Okinawa. I had expected some more sculptures, actually, like the self-portrait we had seen back in Berlin last summer, at the infamous Kollwitzplatz.

Berlin, Kollwitzplatz (2014)

Berlin, Kollwitzplatz (2014)

Before entering the exhibition, we shared some background information on Kollwitz’ life, including the early death of her son in World War I, her sympathies for socialism and the pacifist movement, as well as her extraordinary life as a woman in the arts. Kaiser Willhelm II had, in fact, denied her a prize in fear of decreasing its value when offered to a woman. (You can find out more about the relation between Kollwitz’ work and war in a BBC radio-piece by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and curator of the recent “Germany: Memories of a Nation”-exhibition there.)

In the Kollwitz-exhibition, everyone chose two works for discussion. There were many impressive pieces of art, but I found these two the most interesting:

Käthe Kollwitz, “Child Run Over” (Überfahren / 차에 치인 아이), softground etching on paper, 1910.

Käthe Kollwitz, “Child Run Over” (Überfahren / 차에 치인 아이), softground etching on paper, 1910.

This moving picture shows parents carrying their dead child. I didn’t suspect any personal connections, as Kollwitz’ son did later in 1914, but, as noted on the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s homepage, “In 1903, Kollwitz’s older son caught diptheria, and the threat of his death led her to use death as a major theme in her work, as shown here by a mother and father carrying their dead child.”

 

Käthe Kollwitz, "Sleeping Woman with Child (Schlafende mit Kind / 아이와 잠든 여인), woodprint, 1930.

Käthe Kollwitz, “Sleeping Woman with Child (Schlafende mit Kind / 아이와 잠든 여인), woodprint, 1930.

This image of a sleeping mother with her child is quite in contrast to many images of death and suffering, showing a peaceful nap in the dark, the silhouettes shown only slightly, as if touched by a ray of light.

I had arrived a bit early and visited another exhibition on show at the museum. The English translation of the title “Unfolding the Folds of Elephant” (코끼리 주름 펼치다) is a bit funny (sounds like a title by Haegue Yang, in fact), but the works on display and the context are quite interesting. There are works by artist Oum Jeongsoon (엄정순) that deal with elephants.

Oum Jeongsoon: “Elephant WALK - to the place where clean water and grass is 1”, acrylic, oilstick on paper, 220x650cm, 2010 (엄정순: “코끼리걷는다 - 물과 풀이 좋은 곳으로 1”).

Oum Jeongsoon: “Elephant WALK – to the place where clean water and grass is 1”, acrylic, oilstick on paper, 220x650cm, 2010 (엄정순: “코끼리걷는다 – 물과 풀이 좋은 곳으로 1”).

 

The story of the first elephant in Korea (which the artists considers a symbol of “cultural unfamiliarity”) is really interesting:

Originally, there were no elephants on the Korean Peninsula. This strange animal […] first came to the Korean Peninsula 600 years ago as part of an effort towards resource diplomacy; it became a burden to citizens and they resented the animal as they raised a storm of appeals to King Sejong to get rid of the elephant.

But Sejong published a royal edict: “Send her to a place with fresh grass and water so she will be free from hunger and illness.”

Side-a-side, there are clay sculptures made by students of different schools for the visually impaired, after touching a real-life elephant.

Here are some works with comments by the students:

Park MinKyoung: “Incheon Elephant”, Incheon Hyegwang School for the blind, Elementary School 3rd year, mixed media, 550x120x120cm, 2009 (박민경: “인천코끼리”).

Park MinKyoung: “Incheon Elephant”, Incheon Hyegwang School for the blind, Elementary School 3rd year, mixed media, 550x120x120cm, 2009 (박민경: “인천코끼리”).

When I touched the nose of the elephant, my hand sunk all way into the nose. It was sticky, huge and blowing.

 

Yoon Junsoo: “Elephant which came back from space exploration”, Kangwon Myung-jin School for the blind, Elementary School 5th year, mixed media, 150x120x80cm, 2011 (윤준수: “우주를 탐헙하고 온 코끼리”).

Yoon Junsoo: “Elephant which came back from space exploration”, Kangwon Myung-jin School for the blind, Elementary School 5th year, mixed media, 150x120x80cm, 2011 (윤준수: “우주를 탐헙하고 온 코끼리”).

 

Won Hee-seung: “Elephant”, Incheon Hyegwang school for the blind, 9th grade, clay, 16x25x20cm, 2009 (원희승: “코끼리”).

Won Hee-seung: “Elephant”, Incheon Hyegwang school for the blind, 9th grade, clay, 16x25x20cm, 2009 (원희승: “코끼리”).

An elephant used to be an imaginary animal for me, but when I touched it I learnt how it looked. Its legs are so thick. How can it have legs that support such a huge body? I only made the legs, leaving the rest to the imagination.

 

Kim Seon-do: “Elephant” , Incheon Hyegwang school for the blind, 7th grade, clay, 30x67x20cm, 2009 (김선도: “코끼리”).

Kim Seon-do: “Elephant” , Incheon Hyegwang school for the blind, 7th grade, clay, 30x67x20cm, 2009 (김선도: “코끼리”).

The roughness of the nose is most remarkable.

 

Hwang Chae-yun: “Elephant”, Cheongju School for the blind, earthenware, 20x15x15cm, 2012 (황채윤: “코끼리”).

Hwang Chae-yun: “Elephant”, Cheongju School for the blind, earthenware, 20x15x15cm, 2012 (황채윤: “코끼리”).

 

Both exhibitions are still running for a few weeks—highly recommended for friends of art and elephants!

– 3 Apr. 2015 (金)

  • 케테 콜비츠, 서울시립미술관 북서울미술관 사진갤러리 1+2, 2015년02월03일 ~ 04월19일, 화-금: 오전 10시 – 오후 8시, 토․일․공휴일: 오전 10시 – 오후 7시, 월: 휴관, 도슨트 시간 매일 오전 11시 & 오후 2시, 관람료: 무료, 주최 및 후원 서울시립미술관, (사)평화박물관건립추진위원회, 문의: 김혜진, 02–2124–5269.
  • Käthe Kollwitz, SeMA Buk Seoul Museum of Art, Photo Gallery 1+2, 2015–02–03 ~ 04–19, Tue-Fri: 10am – 8pm, Sat., Sun., Holidays: 10am – 7 pm, Mon.: closed, docent tour: every day 11am & 2pm, entrance: free, production and support: Seoul Museum of Art, Peace Museum, inquiries: Kim Hye-jin, 02–2124–5269.
  • 코끼리 주름 펼치다, 북서울미술관 전시실 1, 2015년03월05일 ~ 05월10일, 전시시간: 위, 참여작가: 엄정순, 시각장애학생, 도슨트 시간: 오후 12시, 관람료: 무료, 주최 및 후원서울시립미술관, 사)우리들의 눈, 문의: 양혜숙, 02–2124–5268.
  • Unfolding the Folds of Elephant, SeMA Buk Seoul Museum of Art, Exhibition Hall 1, 2015–03–05 ~ 05–10, opening times: see above, participating artists: Oum Jeongsoon, visually impaired students, docent tour: every day 12pm, entrance: free, production and support: Seoul Museum of Art, Another Way of Seeing

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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