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Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Louis Marchesano on Käthe Kollwitz and why museums need to diversify.

Louis Marchesano joined the PMA less than a year before the pandemic shut down public life, but now his book on Käthe Kollwitz has won a big award and his bread-making continues to please friends.

Louis Marchesano, senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, outside the museum's Perelman Building.
Louis Marchesano, senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, outside the museum's Perelman Building.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Last month, Louis Marchesano, the senior curator for prints, drawings, and photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, got some very welcome news. His book, Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics, published last year by the Getty Research Institute, was named winner of the College Art Association’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award, given annually “to the author or authors of an especially distinguished catalogue in the history of art.”

It was very welcome news. Marchesano, 57, had been in Philadelphia for less than a year — after more than two decades at the Getty in Los Angeles — when the pandemic dropped its shroud over public life and the museum began the dreary rounds of intermittent shutdowns and radically reduced open hours.

The stack of Philadelphia guidebooks remains largely unused in his Fairmount digs, although he has worked hard on his breadmaking, honing his skills on loaves to give away to friends and colleagues. “I am a baker,” he admits. Now he’s even come up with a decent pizza crust, all to lift his own spirits and those of “my very, very small fan club.”

But the award for the Kollwitz book has also served as an affirmation and a source of renewed energy. The book grew out of his work and friendship with Los Angeles collector Richard Simms.

And to top it all, the PMA is home to Carlo Crivelli’s Dead Christ Supported by Two Putti, the painting that inspired Marchesano to pursue his career. As soon as he saw it as a first-year business student at the University of Western Ontario, he knew he had to know more about it. Why was it painted the way it was painted — so gothic, so Renaissance, so sculptural? “That’s what I asked myself and that’s what turned me into an art historian.

“I made that decision in that class at that moment, as soon as I saw it,” he told The Inquirer in a recent interview. “And then here I am.” This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How did you come to work on the Kollwitz exhibition and catalogue? You’ve focused a lot on pre-19th century European printmaking in your career, and Kollwitz is decidedly a 20th century artist who remained in Germany, much to her peril, during the rise of the Nazis.

A collector, Dr. Richard A. Simms, and I met in the early aughts, and he introduced me to the real Kollwitz as an artist. The book that I published is all about his collection. He had preparatory drawings, proof impressions, working proofs over which she would make corrections, rejected prints. It’s the single best collection of her work outside of Germany, and probably one of the top two or three in the world, full stop.

Kollwitz was interested in social justice, war, the plight of the poor, the struggle against overwhelming economic and political forces — is that what attracts people to her work?

The thing that I find really amazing about Kollwitz is that she was as committed to making masterpieces – that’s her word — as she was to the message of her art. Those two things don’t normally go hand in hand. But she didn’t think it was a contradiction.

In my essay, the first essay of the book that I co-authored with one of my collaborators, I was really interested in this problem of how do people who aspire to art for art’s sake, how do they accept great works of art that have a political message?

I came to that because the very first curators in Germany, who placed her art in important print collections in Berlin, and in Dresden — they were politically conservative, and they said to her and they wrote in their publications that she shouldn’t be focusing on politics. But despite that, they couldn’t help themselves because her work is so powerful. They could not help but love the work despite the fact that it went against everything that they believed. The great thing about Kollwitz is that she appeals to the masses and she appeals to print experts.

The art museum has a quite a few Kollwitz prints, but none are on view now.

We have such a huge collection [the museum has 150,000 works on paper by artists across the ages]; it’s more than half of the museum’s collection, and we can only put out, relatively speaking, a few things at a time because of light sensitivity. There’s nothing out at the moment of Kollwitz.

I am thinking about another Kollwitz project actually, for 2025, with one of my collaborators in the Kollwitz book, Natascha Kirchner. I think it will be about Kollwitz and American and Mexican printmaking in the 1930s. She found tons of evidence that no one had ever really seen before.

What can we expect from your department in the near future?

One exhibition that’s coming from the Georgia Museum of Art, is “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey.” Emma Amos died in May of last year. She was an African American artist who really engaged with the tradition of art history, thinking about the ways in which female artists and artists of color have been neglected or set aside or placed on the periphery, and she did it in a really clever way.

Laurel Garber [assistant curator of prints and drawings] worked on an essay for the [exhibition catalogue] publication, on Emma Amos as a printmaker, and she was a remarkable printmaker, very experimental, and really understood how to use the media to make a point — about skin color, about texture, hair texture — she was really innovative and very thoughtful.

You’ve made some acquisitions too, I think. The department has been working on diversifying its holdings for some time now, bringing in Black artists, artists of color, women. Is that still a priority?

Do we need to do more work? Yes we do. Our wish list exceeds our budget, you know. The vast majority of things come in to the collection as gifts. And for me it’s really important to think very strategically about how we use our budget because it sends a signal.

So what have you acquired recently?

We bought a few works. One, a fantastic drawing by Hale Woodruff. This is a work from 1970 that’s a combination of African masks and sculpture, done in sort of abstract or cubist style. He’s confronting the legacy of fetishizing African objects in the West, but using the style of artists he really admired, both Picasso and Cézanne.

Peter [Barberie, photo curator] found a wonderful group of photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier that we’ve added to the collection. We added a really important work to the collection by Michelle Stuart, who was involved with land art in the 1970s. She produced these huge scrolls that are like frottage, the rubbings of the earth. It’s kind of a double scroll and when you hang it up and look at it, it seems primordial, like you’re looking at the depths of the earth. It’s an extraordinary kind of record.