Georg Kolbe - Kurt's Doctoral Dissertation
The image of Georg Kolbe's character and personality that emerges from his sculpture, from his writing, and from other sources is one of a reserved but kind man, somewhat serious, and utterly dedicated to the practice of his art. As a student Kolbe was already very independent, so that direct influences from his teachers--even in his earliest works--seldom appear in an undigested form. His personal traits have been characterized by others as obstinacy, or even "pig-headedness, but coupled with his obvious self‑ reliance was a meticulous sense of fairness toward others.
In fact, one of the reasons why Kolbe refrained from teaching was a fear of being overbearing, of imposing his own strong personality and ideas upon those of too susceptible students. Although this demonstrates admirable modesty and self-restraint, there is also in it perhaps a touch of vanity and exclusiveness: for Kolbe would not have liked the idea of seeing in the work of some student the motifs and style of his own sculpture.
Kolbe was alert, aware. of contemporary events, extremely well and widely read, and had a keen intelligence, coupled with a wry, sense of humor. He and his wife, especially in the early years of their marriage, are said to have been popular and socially active. He was prominent in artistic circles, knew several museum directors, dealers and collectors, and had many friends among fellow artists. Kolbe also traveled from time to time, and we should assume with some profit, although the influence of these trips does not seem to have become manifested in his sculpture in any clear and lasting way. It would be quite false to present a picture of him as gregarious or garrulous, for it is true that his close friends were few indeed. He tended to be taciturn and in most ways self-contained, particularly after 1927 and the death of his wife; he was a man, before everything else, committed to his work. This ls emphasized by the opening words of his speech of acceptance for the Goethe Prize, awarded to him in 1936:
'It would be indeed far easier for me to build plastically, here before your eyes, a human form or a portrait, than to speak to you with words, because the modeling and shaping of forms is my talent, and has become my language. I have practiced with this talent, and have used it throughout the years; with it I can communicate, expressing myself, and making myself understood, according to my capacity. This may be either large or small, but it is a potential that is given."
Georg Kolbe is known today as a sculptor who almost always worked with the intention of casting his pieces in bronze; but also it should be emphasized that his wash drawings and studies for sculptural compositions are sometimes complete works of art. In whichever medium Kolbe worked, he preferred one subject to the virtual exclusion of all others: the solitary nude human figure. He never treated the figure--whether large or small, male or female--in a manner that could be called abstract, or in a way that depended upon distortions of the human anatomy for its primary effect. Almost all of his sculpture remains very close to the human form as perceived in nature, and his style is customarily marked by a sense of implicit motion with which his figures are infused, as well as by unusually delicate and complex poses. Kolbe's technical use of materials was superb, and he achieved a characteristic sensitive treatment of surfaces in most of his bronzes that parallels the warmly personal style of his graphic work.
Anyone conducting a critical assessment of Kolbe's work is struck by the relative neglect accorded it in recent years. Today it is difficult, even for most educated museum visitors and collectors of art books, to formulate a clear image of his work. Obviously, Kolbe is no longer ranked among the most famous and familiar of modern sculptors like his countrymen Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Ernst Barlach, although many writers of the 1920s and 1930s regarded Kolbe as at least their equal. Now, anything more than a casual awareness of his work is limited to scholars, critics, or other people engaged professionally in the fine arts--with the exception of a few art-conscious members of the public, most of them in Germany. Kolbe's previously great popularity extended to America as well as throughout Europe, and his bronzes are still the prized pieces of many private collections. He was a prolific worker, and his figures can be found in museums and galleries in many parts of the world .
In the years since Kolbe's death, his work has suffered a gradual but marked decline in both favor and renown. The art historian concerned also with the history of taste is justified in seeking reasons for this reversal. Of the possible explanations which come to mind, the first is the incredible artistic activity throughout the world, especially since the end of the Second World War--the brilliance of the resulting work often tends to reduce some earlier artists of the century to a state of relative oblivion (unless interest in their art is revived by a stylistically related and currently flourishing approach). Probably this is in general healthy, if not psychologically necessary or historically inevitable; but such a relatively narrow historical and aesthetic point of view risks overlooking much art that is of value, even if its relevance to the development of twentieth century style is not immediately apparent.
One of the great recent means for popularizing the work of an artist is the (often sumptuously illustrated) art book. Kolbe enjoyed much publicity before the Second World War when it was far less a matter of course; yet in publications of the last two decades his sculpture is very seldom illustrated. Few books mentioning his work in any detail are still in print in German, and no previous monograph has been written in English. Even in German no comprehensive study of his work, illustrating pieces from his different stylistic periods, has yet been published. Thus, although we may recognize the important taste-making power of publications, this relative neglect of Kolbe may of course be as much a reflection of tasteas a cause of it.
A subjective, if perhaps more important, aspect of the vicissitudes of taste and fashion concerns the style of Kolbe's sculpture, in that many of his pieces now seem "dated." Few of us are immune from the cultural and visual bias (toward works of the relatively recent past) which, though it has been imperfectly studied, now appears to affect aesthetic judgments for periods of from thirty to fifty years. Looking today at illustrations of work executed by Kolbe around the 1920s, we tend to have exactly the same feeling as we do when leafing through a magazine of the period: we are not yet far enough removed in time for the "disinvolvement" of historical perspective to have come into effect. It is very difficult to identify and to establish the precise nature of this quite unjustifiable feeling that a work of art looks dated, but the feeling is real, and its relevance to our aesthetic and historical assessment of Kolbe is evident. Kolbe's sculptures are not always dated in the literal and physical sense of the work, and because of the limited range of his subject matter, the chronology of the works cannot be established by the more conventional iconographical approaches. Still, the pieces are clearly related to the time or milieu in which they were created, and often reflect through stylistic features its prevailing aesthetic taste. The datedness that might seem an injustice to the historian of taste thus turns out to be a methodological boon to the art historian. Consequently, a substantial part of our reappraisal of Kolbe's position in the history of sculpture will necessarily consist of a careful stylistic analysis of his works.
This dissertation will eventually form the basis for a monograph on Georg Kolbe, and for a catalogue raisonné of his art. The biographical chapter is intentionally brief, being meant primarily as a background for understanding Kolbe's artistic development. Especially pertinent to that development is the problem of Kolbe's relation to the totalitarian state in which the artist spent a significant portion of his life (and for which he has sometimes been accused of sympathy in spite of his usually apolitical attitudes). Thus the phenomenon of Nazism cannot be ignored in writing about Kolbe, as not only did it fundamentally affect most of the last two decades of his art and life, but it also remains an important critical factor affecting our consideration of the unique historical position occupied by Kolbe. After the chapter on Kolbe's biography is one on his painting, which relates him to some of the more important movements current before the turn of the century, while summarizing his development before he began to produce three-dimensional work. The next chapter attempts to establish Kolbe in the history of modern sculpture by emphasizing the many-sidedness of his art, and its relationships to other individuals or movements, and their influence upon him. This is followed by another basic chapter placing his work in the general setting of its time and place: first there is provided a factual frame of reference for some of his more important pieces, which are then analyzed stylistically. Several of Kolbe's most important works carefully selected from his vast oeuvre are considered in the text of this dissertation. These have been chosen, however, to illustrate the historical and scholarly problems most relevant to a monograph on the artist, while indicating the major stylistic trends in his work and the aesthetic high-points of his artistic production. Of the several problems relating to the development of Kolbe's sculpture (as represented by the bronzes), some of the more important are presented in a separate chapter in an effort to give a more general view of Kolbe's art, and to provide glimpses of his graphic and other sculptural activity. In conclusion, the lines of Kolbe's influence are examined in order to arrive at some fair estimate of the artistic and historical significance of his work.
No complete catalogue of Kolbe's work exists, nor is there even a comprehensive catalogue of the significant pieces of sculpture. Because of both his prolific activity and his previous popularity, with the subsequent wide dispersal of his work, it will necessarily be a long time before a truly definitive inventory can be compiled. However, a critical catalogue, much more comprehensive than any previously available, will be found in an appendix to this dissertation.
Kurt von Meier