The Aesthetics of Loss

The Aesthetics of Loss
German Women’s Art of the First World War
Claudia Siebrecht, Oxford University Press   188pp   £65

In August 1932 the German artist Käthe Kollwitz was present at the unveiling of the war memorial she had designed at the German war cemetery in Eesen Roggeveld in Belgium. In itself this was not remarkable, as in the years following the First World War thousands of memorials to the dead and missing were erected in the cemeteries, battlefields, villages, towns and cities of Europe, as societies profoundly affected by the mass loss of life during the war attempted to mark it. However, what was unusual was the intimate nature of Kollwitz’s sculpture.  Die Traurnden Eltern (The Grieving Parents) marked a private grief as well as a public remembrance: Kollwitz’s youngest son, Peter, had been killed on the Western Front in October 1914 and the sculpture was placed in the cemetery where he was buried. Thus, Kollwitz’s sculpture is a memorial to the German war dead, a representation of ber-eaved parents and a means of commemorating her son, and her personal loss.  

Claudia Siebrecht’s fascinating and timely book, The Aesthetics of Loss: German Women’s Art of the First World War, begins with Kollwitz’s story to draw the reader into the world of wartime and postwar Germany through a study of the visual responses to war and loss of a range of female German artists. Across Europe, artists responded to this new kind of war with new forms of representation: modernist visions by Nash and Lewis in Britain, Dadaism in Switzerland and a reworking of traditionalist iconography among German women artists, who drew widely on images of the Pieta to represent maternal sacrifice. Siebrecht examines the work of 38 women to explore the ways that they were affected by, and responded to, war. Of course these responses were varied, shaped by the impact of war on the individual, by the progress of the war and by the artist’s political beliefs and moving, as the war dragged on, from patriotic representations of citizenship and nationhood to a more personal focus on grief and loss. However, Siebrecht finds common themes and modes of expression in the images and sculptures she analyses, which combined modern forms with traditional iconographical tropes, increasingly focusing on maternal grief, redemptive sacrifice and the hope for a peaceful future. Well illustrated, the stark nature of many of the sculptures, paintings, woodcuts, linographs and linocuts discussed here act as a visual narrative of the multiple demands that the war made on civilians as well as combatants.   

This cultural history draws on these public works of art, so redolent of private emotion, both to explore civilian responses to mass death and bereavement in wartime and to expand our understanding of aesthetic responses to this modern, total, war. By focusing her research on female artists, Siebrecht helps to move the historical studies of the First World War away from the male world of the battlefield towards a wider understanding of the impact of, and responses to, this most transformative of conflicts. Sensitively written and carefully researched, Siebrecht’s book opens up a whole range of German sources to an English- speaking audience, reminding us of the universality of grief amongst the bereaved of the First World War. 

Lucy Noakes has co-edited (with Juliette Pattinson) British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013).

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