Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was one of the most prolific – and political – graphic artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Raised in a politically progressive middle-class family who supported her artistic ambitions, she was keenly interested in the conditions of the poor and the working class.
She studied art in both Munich and Berlin before marrying Dr Karl Kollwitz in 1891, who opened a clinic in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the poorest parts of Berlin.
Though she had studied both painting and printmaking, she turned almost exclusively to printing etchings, lithography and woodcuts in the early 1890s. Influenced by fellow German artist Max Klinger, she saw the potential of prints for social commentary as they could be reproduced in large numbers inexpensively, giving her work a wider audience. She often mixed her printing techniques to achieve a desired image, and increasingly simplified her visual language over time. Even though the majority of her prints were black and white, a significant number of them also reveal her interest in colour.
In 1898, she gained early recognition with the publication A Weavers’ Uprising which consisted of six works on paper based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers. The play recounted the dramatic failure of the Silesian Weavers strike of 1844 and she began working on this series inspired by their rebellion, choosing to highlight its most dramatic moments and infusing the harsh reality of the weavers’ story with symbolic meaning.
She gained early recognition through this series, although she was refused a a gold medal in the official Great Berlin Art Exhibition at the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin in 1898, as it was judged by Emperor Wilhelm II’s judgment to “gutter art.” He is reported as saying “Orders and symbols of honor belong to the chest of deserved men” 1.
The success of the series, however, led to her appointment to teach at the Berlin School of Arts for Women. (She later became the first woman elected and appointed professor to the Prussian Arts Academy in 1919 and subsequently co-founded and became director of the Women’s Art Association, an organisation dedicated to exhibiting women’s art.)
Kollowitz also produced several other key print series (cycles) including Peasant War (1902–08), War (Krieg) Cycle (1921–22) and Death Series, 1934.
She was an intensely passionate individual, in personal relationships and politics, an artist who pushed hard in the direction of equality for women in all walks of life. Her emphasis was often on what was distinctive about women’s experience, including the fundamental nature and potency of maternal love. She undertook a number of projects that addressed challenging women’s issues, including abortion rights, alcoholism and domestic abuse, labour rights for women, and even breastmilk sharing.
Initially, her husband’s working-class patients were her models and subjects.
A number of Kollwitz’s works portray the mother-child relationship, which was often cut short in Germany’s impoverished working-class neighbourhoods, where child-mortality rates were high.
Much of her subject matter was drawn from both World Wars. In 1919 she commenced a series of woodcuts expressing her response to WWI. In The Sacrifice a new mother offers up her infant as a sacrifice to the cause. In The Widow II a woman and her baby lie in a heap, perhaps dead from starvation. Volunteers is the only print to show combatants. In it, Kollwitz’s son Peter takes his place next to Death, who leads a band of young men in an ecstatic procession off to war.
Peter had been killed in action two months after joining the military, in 1914, a loss from which Kollwitz never fully recovered. She also lost a grandson in WWII.
Two months after the death of her son, Kollwitz decided to create a personal memorial for him. But, as she explained in her diary, she also wished to impart a greater and more universal importance to his death: “I want to honor the death of all you young war volunteers through your [Peter’s] embodiment. In iron or bronze will it be cast and remain for centuries.”2.
Never completely satisfied with the result, it took her until 1931 to complete the sculptures titled The Grieving Parents. The life-sized sculptures of Käthe and her husband Karl in mourning – each owning their own grief – grace the edge of the Vladslow cemetery in Dixmuiden Belgium. Their son is buried among thousands of fellow soldiers, close to the place where they fell during the war.
During her final years, Kollwitz produced bronze and stone sculpture embodying the same types of subjects and aesthetic values as her prints.
In 1933, the Nazi government forced Kollwitz to resign her position as professor at the Prussian Academy and soon after she was forbidden to exhibit her art.
Much of her art was destroyed in a Berlin air raid in 1943. After her home was destroyed by bombing, she was evacuated to Moritzburg, a town just outside Dresden, where she died two years later, in April 1945, just a few days before the end of the war.
“When I was drawing I cried along with the fearful children, I felt the burden I was carrying. I felt that I could not withdraw from the task to be an advocate. I shall speak up about the suffering of people, which never ends, and which is mountainous. I have the task but it is not easy to fulfill. One says that one’s load is lightened by taking on this task, but does it offer relief when people still daily die of hunger in Vienna despite my posters? When I am aware of this? Did I feel relief when I was drawing the War series and knew that the war continues? Certainly not. Tranquility and relief have only come to me when I was working on one thing: Peter’s great work. There I had peace and was with him.” Kollwitz
1. Kito Nedo, July 18, 2017
Primary sources: MoMA; Smith College of Museum and Art.
This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.
This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris, key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.