Willibald Krain and the Ashcan School. The Agony of Socio-Critical Press Graphics in the 20th Century

Willibald Krain became known during the First World War for his pacifistic prints portfolio “Krieg” [War] which was published 1916 in Zurich in three different language versions. Along with his mentor, Käthe Kollwitz, Krain ranked among the very few socio-critical artists in 1920s Germany whose work was internationally acclaimed. His illustrations and paintings were published in journals of the English and American labour movements, among others, in the Londoner “New Leader” and the New Yorker “Survey Magazine”. The fact that Krain’s work attracted interest, particularly in the United States, is no coincidence, for his artistic goals and his style almost entirely matched those of the proponents of the Ashcan Group, the most influential formation of American artists at the time.

> Slideshow: Willibald Krain: Krieg (War)  (plate 4: Bloodthirstiness)


> Slideshow: Krain / Ashcan School 

For socio-critical artists like Willibald Krain and members of the Ashcan Group, working as a graphic artist for the press was not a necessary evil just to earn money. It was foremost deemed as an adequate possibility to reach the masses. The Masses was also the apt name of the cooperatively edited magazine founded in 1911, to which many Ashcan artists, including John Sloan, Reginald Marsh, Maurice Becker and Stuart Davis contributed. Yet the magazine was less an organ dedicated to class struggle than an artistically sophisticated mouthpiece of the emerging Greenwich Village bohemians who adhered to 1920s radical chic. In terms of style, it was influenced by the French press graphics of the Daumier school. At the turn of the millennium, draughtsmen such as Jules Grandjoan, Theophile Steinlen  and Frantisek Kupka had led press graphics to an unmatched point of artistic culmination in magazines such as “Assiette au Beurre” and “Le Chambard Socialiste”. The toothless tiger of picturesque social realism found in the Ashcan School was merely a weak shadow of socio-critical French illustration graphics. It survived the years of depression and the New Deal, before it was brought down once and for all after the Second World War by its own students, the Abstract Expressionists.

Willibald Krain, also a disciple of the Daumier school, was one of the most significant German graphic artists working for the press during the Weimar Republic. He did drawings for the socialist magazine “Der wahre Jacob”, among others, and attended the 1924 trial against Hitler as a court sketch artist for the “Berliner Illustrirte”. He was only able to survive the period of National Socialism as a draughtsman by coming to terms with the ideology of fascism.

>Slideshow: Krain and the Third Reich

The MePri Collection contains one of his last works, which is at once one of his most impressive. It is a large-format original drawing from 1944 which was apparently meant to be printed. “Spuk im Morgengrauen” [Spook at Dawn] castigates the Allied war crimes which became apparent after the devastating air raids on Dresden. As the perfidious “Cheshire Cat” from “Alice in Wonderland”, Churchill lurks on all ruins of a traumatic, bombed-out landscape. A few weeks after this drawing was made, the 58-year-old pacifist Krain, who was recruited as part of the “last contingent” to the so-called people’s storm, died in a Dresden hospital of the bullet wounds he had suffered when allegedly fleeing from a Russian POW transport.

Willibald Krain: Spook at Dawn, Berlin 1944

(Short version of the German text. Translation: Karl Hoffmann)


In the MePri – Collection:

By Willibald Krain:

Die Jugend Nr. 10 München 1915
Willibald Krain: Krieg. (Grafikmappe). Zürich – Berlin 1916
Kladderadatsch. Nr. 39 (Die “Hindenburg- Nummer”). Berlin, 1917
Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung Jhg. 1924
Karl Meyer  / Willibald Krain: Berlin. Ein Heimatbuch. Leipzig 1925
Der Wahre Jakob. Jhg. 1927 / 1928
W.K.: Was der Stammbaum erzählt. München, o. J. (ca. 1943)
W.K.: Spuk im Morgengrauen :”Kinder vergesst es nie.” Zeichnung. Fettkreide, Tusche. 53,3 x 40,0 cm. undatiert. (ca. 1944)

On Willibald Krain:

Hans Baluschek: Der Krieg 1914 – 1916. (Grafikmappe). Berlin, 1917
Heinrich Zille: Vadding in Frankreich I. + II. Folge. Berlin, 1915
Ignaz Jezower ed.: Die Befreiung der Menschheit. Freiheitsideen in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Berlin 1921
Imrgard Wirth ed.: Berliner Pressezeichner der Zwanziger Jahre. Ein Kaleidoskop Berliner Lebens. Berlin 1977
Georg Pilz ed.: Sozialistische deutsche Karikatur. 1848 -1978. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Berlin 1978
Christian Ferber: Zeichner der Zeit. Pressegraphik aus zehn Jahrzehnten. Berlin 1980
Christian Ferber ed.: Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. Zeitbild, Chronik, Moritat für Jedermann. 1892 – 1945. Berlin 1982
Friedrich Luft ed.: Faksimile Querschnitt. Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. Berlin 1982
Udo Achten ed.: Lachen Links. Das Republikanische Witzblatt 1924 bis 1927. Berlin 1985
Dieter Lemhoefer: Willibald Krain –  Ein bedeutender Berliner Pressezeichner und Graphiker, Maler und Illustrator aus Schlesien im Spiegel seiner Zeit. Berlin 1987
Udo Achten ed. : Der wahre Jacob. Ein halbes Jahrhundert in Faksimiles. Bonn 1994
Stephan Berg Ulrike Groos, Clemens Krümmel, Alexander Roob ed.: Tauchfahrten. Zeichnung als Reportage. Düsseldorf 2005
Peter Krain: Willibald Krain. Als Künstler gefeiert – verboten – vergessen. Hamburg 2007
Rüdiger Zimmermann ed.: Kampf dem Hakenkreuz. Politische Graphik des Verlags J. H. W. Dietz im antifaschistischen Abwehrkampf. Bonn 2007
Bernd Küster hrsg.: Der Erste Weltkrieg und die Kunst. Von der Propaganda zum Widerstand. Oldenburg 2008


Ashcan School – Masses – New Masses – The Liberator:

Max Eastman: Journalism versus Art. New York, 1916
Michael Gold ed.: The Liberator Vol. 5. No. 7. Chicago, 1922
-:  The Liberator Vol. 6 No. 6. Chicago, 1923
Art Young: On my Way. New York, 1929
William Siegel: The Paris Commune. A story in pictures. New York, 1932
Div. ed.: The New Masses. (Various issues). 1932 – 1947
Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx “Capital” in Lithographs. New York, 1934
Hugo Gellert: Comrade Gulliver. An illustrated account of travel into that strange country the United States of America. New York 1935
Hugo Gellert: Aesop said so. New York 1936
John Nicholas Beffel ed.: Art Young. His Life and Times. New York, 1939
Thomas Craven ed.: A Treasury of American Prints. New York 1939
Joseph North: Robert Minor. Artist and Crusader. New York 1956
Div.: 36 years Drawing. A selection of drawings from “The Worker”. 1924 – 1960. New York, 1960
August L. Freundlich ed.: William Gropper.  Retrospective. Miami 1968
Fitzgerald, Richard: Art and Politics. Cartoonists of the “Masses” and “Liberator”. New York, 1973
Norman Sasowsky: The Prints of Reginald Marsh. An Essay and Definitive Catalogue of His Linoleum Cuts, Etchings, Engravings and Lithographs. New York, 1976
Helen Farr Sloan ed.: John Sloan. New York Etchings. New York – London 1978
Marilyn Cohen: Reginald Marsh’s New York. Paintings, Drawings, and Photographs. New York 1983
Div.: Hugo Gellert. People´s artist. 1892- 1985. New York 1986
Rebecca Zurier: Art for the Masses. A Radical Magazine and its Graphics. 1911-1917. Philadelphia, 1988
William L. O’Neill: Echoes of Revolt. The Masses. New York 1911-1917. New York 1989
John Loughery: John Sloan – Painter and Rebel. New York 1995
Rebecca Zurier: Picturing the City. Urban Vision and the Ashcan School. New York 2006

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