When art really moves you

July was walk-about month for me and my family. I look forward to these trips because they are a time to look at new things, have different experiences, and generally refresh my artistic brain. We decided to go to two very different European cities — mostly because they offered activities that would please both forty-something parents and newly-minted young adults.

Our time in Amsterdam yielded two museum experiences that I enjoyed. A Matisse paper cut-out exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum felt so familiar, as I remembered the reproduction that hung on my bedroom wall throughout my adolescence. I admired Matisse’s use of white space. An early morning visit to the Van Gogh Museum took us through the artist’s development from dark and realistic, to brighter colors and abstracted perspectives. I could clearly see the influence of Japanese woodblock printing during one period of his painting, where shapes were darkly outlined, as if in an homage to a key block.

Lovely to see… but not earthshaking. We then traveled by train to Berlin. In a past life, I studied political science, took Russian, and learned a great deal about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Our AirBnB 1901 apartment was in Prenzlauer Berg — an area that was part of East Berlin. I imagined the people living in this apartment — with its soaring ceilings and thick walls — during the second World War and the time of the Stazi.

Our first real site in Berlin was an evening trip up the dome of the Reichstag. The former dome burned in 1933 and provided the impetus for the Nazi party to seize political power. The current glass dome was not completed until 1999, nine years after German reunification. Access to the site is free, but requires advanced tickets procured with your official documents. Inside it is quiet as people gradually ascend up to the top, where you can lean back on a circular wooden bench and watch the clouds go by. In a country that has known such conflict and pain, the dome provides a sense of peace and a hope for clear-eyed action in the future.

A view of the ascending and descending ramps in the dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany.

We avoided most of the famous Museum Island sites filled with antiquities. Instead we started our last day in Berlin at the Käthe Kollwitz MuseumKollwitz was an artist working in the early part of the 20th century. Married to a physician in Prenzlauer Berg (where we were staying) Kollwitz saw the struggle and poverty of pre-WW I Germany. Located in a large home, the museum begins with display cases of photos and letters — which are translated into English. You begin by reading encouraging letters from Kollwitz to her son Peter, a soldier in the WW I German army. Suddenly you need to flip back and forth, as you realize she is now writing to her older son, a physician, and that Peter has died.

A sign tells us that Kollwitz experienced old age at 47, when her son dies. I am 47 now. My own 18-year old son had registered for the Selective Service just before we left.

Kathë Kollwitz. The Survivors — Make War on War! Lithograph. Poster commissioned by the International Association of Labor Unions, Amsterdam. 1923.

The stairs of the grand house lead you upward, past drawings, etchings, chalk lithographs, woodblock prints and sculptures by Kollwitz. It was silent in the galleries, not because of any rules or guards, but because the space seemed to require a sort of thoughtful reverence. Upon her son’s death, and into the second World War, Kollwitz became a pacifist and peace activist. Much of her later work focussed on either self-portraits or studies of mothers — sometimes with children, sometimes alone. Her work encompasses the pain that humans experience and inflict on each other. She lost her grandson in World War II, and she died just before the end of that war.

You can see more of Käthe Kollwitz’s stunning work at Artsy’s Käthe Kollwitz page.

My family and I walked in silence to the next gallery, which was nearby. C/O Berlin focuses on photography, something that interests my husband. Inside was the Genesis exhibition by Sebatião Salgado. I knew nothing about this artist, but the promotional images of the show looked promising.

Huge photographic images of landscapes greeted us. It was warm outside, and as I stood in front of images of glaciers and penguins, I felt as if the ceiling of the gallery was raining a cool, refreshing mist down upon me.

Sebastião Salgado. The eastern part of the Brooks Range, which rises to over 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 2009. @ Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas images

The exhibit flew us around the globe with soaring imagery from Antarctica, South America, the desert Southwest of the United States, and northern Canada. Incredible images of thousands of penguins — some comically slipping off ice bergs — led to galleries of rain forest animals. Another section chronicled the life of peoples who have been unaffected by twenty-first century modern culture.

The overall effect of the exhibit was breathtaking grandeur and hope. We left lugging home a ten-pound book of the exhibit so we could visit these images again. Some research about Salgado while at home led me to a TED talk he did in 2013. He explains that he originally made photographs about the anguish of the human condition — poverty and malnutrition, war and genocide. While covering the genocide in Rwanda, Salgado himself became mysteriously ill. Returning to France, a physician and friend advised him that the imagery he was documenting made his body feel like it was dying. It was only after a time spent reforesting family land in the Brazilian rainforest that he felt compelled to return to photography and create the images we were seeing.

Seeing these two disparate bodies of work, in such a short amount of time, was both stimulating and exhausting. It led me to wonder what type of images were speaking to me. What do I want to say? And what is the best way to convey the message? As I muddle through August, the month of planning and beginnings in an academic family, I’m searching for that next pathway to follow.

What have you seen recently that has moved you?


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