What is it?


Ruth Grotenrath (Milwaukee 1912–1988 Milwaukee)


Modern Madonna




Casein on Masonite


47 ½ x 35 ½ in.

Credit line

Gifted 2008, The Kohler Foundation

About the Work


Ruth Grotenrath painted Modern Madonna in 1935 as the world rushed headlong toward the Second World War. The symbol-laden feminist critique of the rise of European fascism places the figure of the Madonna front and center. Not only is the Virgin an icon of the Christian faith but she is also, as the title underscores, a mother whose child (or children) will die a tragic death for the failures of humanity.

Grotenrath’s modern Madonna is besieged by three forces. The hand in the upper right corner is attached to a poleaxe and bears the legend “Italia” (Italy), a country whose colonial ambitions would soon lead to a bloody invasion of Ethiopia. Above the Madonna’s head, a hand surrounded by a halo of coins symbolizes the worship of money and its geo-political consequences. The hand in the upper left corner is connected to a swastika bearing the legend “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church)—a slogan embraced by the Nazis to describe a woman’s proper realms of concern.

A bevy of bayonets threatens the Madonna and fascinates her elder child, who looks on admiringly and adopts the posture of a soldier, his tumbling toy blocks forgotten. Her horrified baby shrinks away from the rotten apple proffered by a grotesque halfling creature. The books on the ground have been destroyed or locked shut. Her children are sentenced to ignorance. Although she has been blindfolded to what is transpiring, the woman’s face clearly conveys fear as to what lies ahead: approximately 75 million people will become casualties of the Second World War.