Kollwitz’s “Down with Abortion Clause” Poster (1924)

It has been fashionable since the late 1960's to think that some artists dedicate their work to the social plight of their own societies, to right perceived wrongs and, if socialist, fight on behalf of the people. Käthe Kollwitz is one such artist but, however much she publicized contemporary evil, she never wavered from art's conviction that self-knowledge is the ultimate goal of both life and art.1

The poster at left uses her artwork to denounce an upcoming vote on the availability of abortions. It is said that by depicting a working-class mother with young children she was linking restrictions on abortions to increasing poverty.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Kollwitz, "Down with the Abortion Clause" (1924) Lithographic Poster

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Let's look at her original lithograph, though, to study the image as art. A young child holds his mother's hand next to his head thereby linking his eye staring outwards (perception) with her hand (craft), an androgynous combination.2 One eye is open to nature, the other in the dark for insight.3 The child represents an aspect of Kollwitz because she signed her last name right under the child in both the original and poster. Out of the child's eye and hand, so to speak, comes the image above.

The mother (who is the child's mind) is pregnant like several famous women in art.4 She cradles a new-born in her over-sized hand with a thumb prominently extended. That is the traditional symbol for a painter's thumb stuck through the hole of a palette.5 Thus Kollwitz's pregnant mind has conceived a new artwork, the newborn in her arms (craft). It represents the purity of the human spirit which we all share. How do I know this?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Kollwitz, Poster against Clause 218 (1924) Lithograph

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The impoverished woman is Kollwitz. Her message then is only superficially political. On the more important level, the message in art is always self-referential. Despite what many think, it cannot be otherwise.6

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Kollwitz's "Down with the Abortion Clause"
R: Photograph of Kollwitz

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To emphasize the fertility of her pregnant mind, the artist transformed a deep ring under her eye (see prior photo) into the somewhat unrealistic shadow of a high cheekbone (top). The negative form above it, though, becomes a young female breast with a large nipple extending, so to speak, from her eye. No doubt the political operatives who commissioned or saw the poster never recognized the reference to the fertility of her vision but we, as lovers of art, should. It is, I believe, the best way - if not the only way - to experience the sweep of a true aesthetic sensation: a sudden realization of understanding.

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Kollwitz's "Down with the Abortion Clause"
Bottom: Diagram of image above showing the breast-form in her head

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Notes:

1. See explanation under the theme Every Painter Paints Himself.

2. See explanation and other examples under the themes Hand and Eye and Androgyny.

3. See explanation and other examples under the theme Insight-Outsight.

4. See explanation under the theme Conception (Sexual and Mental). Other women in art with references to pregnancy and conception include Leonardo's Mona Lisa (c.1503-7); the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo's Vatican Pietà (1498-9); Raphael's La Gravida (1505-6), La Fornarina (1518-20) and the Donna Velata (c.1516); Salvator Rosa's Lucrezia (c.1641); Egon Schiele's Pregnant Woman with Green Belly (1910) and even Picasso's Pregnant Smokers (1903).

5. See explanation under the theme Brush and Palette

6. See note 1

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 09 Dec 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.