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Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

The German expressionist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) dedicated her graphic work and sculpture to humanity, documenting historic rebellions against social injustice and creating memorable images of Berlin's working-class women, mothers and children, and the victims of modern warfare.

Käthe Kollwitz was born on July 8, 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, into a large family liberal in thought and religion and sympathetic to socialism. Her father encouraged her artistic talent and sent her to a local engraver and to Berlin (1884) and Munich (1888) to study at women's art schools (the Berlin Academy of Art was closed to women). Having discovered that she was no colorist, she found her true vocation in drawing and the graphic arts. At 17 she became engaged to Karl Kollwitz, a socialist friend of her brother's and a medical student in Berlin, whom she married in 1891 despite her father's warning: "You will scarcely be able to do both things." She proved him wrong, becoming both a productive and successful artist and a devoted wife and mother. Her son Hans was born in 1892, Peter in 1896.

The 1893 premiere of Gerhart Hauptmann's play The Weavers inspired her first major work, a cycle of six lithographs and etchings. They depict the oppressive poverty of Silesian handicraft weavers and their rebellion of 1844 against unfair competition from industrialized textile mills. As in her later art, the women—workers and bereaved mothers—tell much of the grim story, in prints entitled Poverty, Death, Conspiracy, March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End. She showed A Weaver's Rebellion at a major Berlin exhibition, and the artists' jury voted it a gold medal—denied by the German Kaiser, who considered the work too dark, ugly, and politically inflammatory. (She received the gold medal two years later from enlightened patrons in Dresden.) After this critical success, she taught drawing and etching at the same Berlin School for Women Artists where she had studied earlier; she also joined the newly founded Berlin Secession, a group of anti-academic artists.

She travelled to Paris in 1904, frequented museums and galleries, studied sculpture at the Académie Julian, twice visited Rodin, and met the social satirist Théophile Steinlen. In 1907 she won a study prize to Florence. She stayed seven months and took a walking tour to Rome, but worked little and barely mentioned the masterpieces she saw. Nevertheless, these travels strengthened the stylistic direction her art was taking toward simplification and greater expressiveness. In Outbreak, the most dramatic of seven sheets, the massive figure of the historic Black Anna incites the peasants to fight. Compared to the earlier Weavers, these figures are larger, often sculptural in their concentrated forms, and the backgrounds are stripped of anecdotal detail.

Kollwitz was far less inspired by other art and other masters than by her life experiences among the people who sought out her husband's clinic in the working-class district of north Berlin. She recalled in 1941 that already in her youth bourgeois life seemed "pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives." Between 1908 and 1911 she contributed 14 drawings of social commentary and "scenes of poverty" to the politically liberal, satirical weekly Simplicissimus; occasionally she drew a happily smiling mother with her child and worked on small sculpture groups.

World War I brought the most wrenching experience of her life: her 18-year-old son Peter enlisted and died in action in October 1914. She resolved to create a monument "to commemorate the sacrifice of all the young volunteers." After many studies and transformed and abandoned projects, in 1931 she completed the life-size figures of mourning parents and showed them at the Berlin Academy and in the National Gallery. The following summer she supervised their installation in the military cemetery of Reggevelde in Flanders—the mother, with Kollwitz's features, and the father, with those of her husband, kneeling in grief amidst the endless rows of simple wooden crosses, one of them Peter's.

Kollwitz also experienced honors and public acclaim during these bitter years: important exhibitions in Berlin, Bremen, and her native Königsberg celebrated her 50th birthday. In 1919 she became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. She was also appointed professor and later director of the graphic arts studio. She became more involved politically, creating a truly public art with the greatest economy of means. Her many lithographic posters publicized relief work for victims of famine: Vienna Is Dying! Save Her Children! (1920), Help Russia (1921), or Germany's Children are Starving! (1924), for instance, and the starkly dramatic No More War (1924).

She had lost interest in making detailed etchings and found her lithographs inadequate when an exhibition of Ernst Barlach's woodcuts inspired her to try this technique (diary, June 1920). Her first woodcut commemorated the murdered Communist leader Karl Liebknecht; seven woodcuts about war's impact followed in 1922 and 1923. The generalized forms seem carved from solid wood, some silhouetted against the white paper like sculptural groups. Except for The Volunteers swept toward death, it is a commentary on war by the survivors, widows and parents. Kollwitz again was working entirely from personal experience.

Throughout her life, Kollwitz created memorable self portraits in pencil, charcoal, clay, and various graphic techniques. We can thus recognize her grave and compassionate features in the proletarian women with whom she identified. She saw her mission very clearly (diary entries of 1920): "I must express the suffering of humanity that never ends," and she described "the woman watching who feels everything. …"

National and personal tragedy marked her final decades. Immediately after Hitler came to power in January 1933, she was forced to resign from the academy and to give up her graphics studio; her work was removed from public exhibition. In July 1940, her husband died after 49 years of marriage; in September 1942, her grandson Peter— like the uncle he never knew—was killed in action. When Allied bombing raids over Berlin intensified, she was evacuated in May 1943, first to Nordhausen in East Germany (her Berlin home was destroyed in November), then to Moritzburg near Dresden, to the estate of the Saxon prince and art patron, where she died on April 22, 1945, at the age of 77. A lithograph in 1942 was her last work—a passionate outcry against war and its waste of the young. With a few sweeping rhythms she gave an older woman her strong features as she desparately, defiantly sheltered three little boys and entitled it with Goethe's words that she had first quoted in 1918: Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground Up.

Further Reading

Renate Hinz has edited a well-illustrated monograph, Käthe Kollwitz (1981), with an excellent foreward by Lucy R. Lippard and a helpful bibliography. Martha Kearns' Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (1976) is a readable biography with many illustrations and quotations from letters and diaries. Käthe Kollwitz (1971) by Otto Nagel, a friend of the artist's from East Germany, has historical and personal background information, but occasionally awkward translation. For the most authentic source, read The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz (1955), selected and edited by her son Hans, with some 50 illustrations. For a good general introduction, see Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists; 1550-1950 (1976). □

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Kollwitz, Käthe Schmidt

Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz (kā´tə shmĬt kôl´vĬts), 1867–1945, German graphic artist and sculptor. She first gained a reputation with her illustrations for Hauptmann's Weavers and Zola's Germinal. Kollwitz became known for her superb woodcuts and lithographs. An ardent socialist and pacifist, she produced stark and anguished portrayals of misery and hunger such as Death and the Mother (1934, Phila. Mus. of Art). These powerful images convey her compassion for the poor. In 1932 she was director of the department of graphic arts at the Berlin Academy, but the advent of the Nazi party ended her public career in Germany.

See her diary and letters (1955); her prints and drawings, ed. by C. Zigrosser (2d ed. 1969); study by O. Nagel (tr. 1971).

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Kollwitz, Käthe

Kollwitz, Käthe (1867–1945) German graphic artist and sculptor. Influenced by her experiences of the impoverished districts of n Berlin, Kollwitz's works depict suffering, especially of women and children. Her economical style conveyed tragedy in the tradition of German expressionism. Her pieces include the series of etchings, The Weavers' Revolt (1897–98) and Peasants' War (1902–28). She also produced lithographs and woodcuts such as War (1922–23) and Death (1934–35).

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Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

July 8, 1867
Königsberg, East Prussia
April 22, 1945
Moritzburg, Germany

Artist, humanitarian

During a career that lasted more than sixty years, Prussianborn Käthe Kollwitz created a large number of prints and drawings that earned her a reputation as one of the most important graphic artists of her era. Some of her works depict the impact of World War I on women and children and make a powerful statement about the horror of the war. Kollwitz was the daughter of liberal parents who instilled in her a lifelong hatred of militarism (the buildup of military power by governments) and social injustice. Kollwitz created works that reflected her concern for the oppressed, especially the suffering people in her own country. Among her earliest and most famous works was a series of prints titled A Weavers' Uprising, (1897) inspired by German writer Gerhart Hauptmann's drama about striking textile workers in Silesia (an industrial region in present-day Poland).

Kollwitz earned the nickname "The Socialist Artist" for her strongly expressive prints that depicted life from the point of view of the downtrodden. After her brother was killed in combat during World War I, her works often incorporated themes of death and melancholy—an expression of her profound sadness at the horror of war—and she began allying herself with some of Germany's leftist groups. These political groups supported socialist programs that would protect the interests of the common people, as opposed to the interests of businesses and wealthy people. After the Nazis (a German political party led by Adolf Hitler that promoted racism and the expansion of state power) came to power in the 1930s, Kollwitz's works were declared "degenerate," or politically unacceptable, and she was forbidden to teach or display her art. Although she didn't leave the country, she was deeply distressed by the rise of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) in Germany during the 1930s and early 1940s. She died in April 1945, a few weeks before the end of World War II (1939–45).

Reared a Radical

Käthe Kollwitz was born Käthe Ida Schmidt in Königsberg, East Prussia, on July 8, 1867. She was the daughter of Karl Schmidt, a master mason (stonecutter) who had once studied law, and his wife Katharina Rupp, a cultivated woman who enjoyed reading both German and English literature. Käthe was the fifth of seven children, three of whom died in infancy. The surviving children included an older brother and two sisters, one older and one younger than Käthe. Käthe's maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, the spiritual leader of a liberal and nonconformist (a person not complying with established church rules) Protestant congregation, had been sympathetic to the leftist revolutionaries who tried to overthrow the kaiser's rule in 1848. (The Kaiser was the emperor of Prussia.) Rupp later served in the Prussian legislature but was imprisoned in the 1850s for his political activities. Young Käthe was thus brought up in a radical household—one that identified with the underdog and supported progressive causes. When Rupp retired from his ministry, he was succeeded by his sonin-law Karl Schmidt, Käthe's father.

As an adolescent Käthe often exhibited periods of depression and nervousness. She was schooled at home because her parents objected to the conservative Prussian state school system. Käthe had an obvious talent for drawing, and when she was sixteen, she started taking formal art lessons from Rudolph Mauer, an engraver, who taught her how to draw and make etchings and prints. From an early age, Käthe chose poor and working people as subjects for her art, preferring to draw pictures of dockworkers or weavers instead of landscapes or still lifes (pictures of nonliving objects). She also enjoyed reading the poetry of Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) and the plays of dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who remained an important influence on her to the end of her life, even though his political views were more conservative than her own. Käthe's elder brother, Konrad, introduced her to the writings of more radical European writers, like Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen, and also the Russian naturalists, such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Maksim Gorky. While living in London, England, Konrad made the acquaintance of socialist thinker Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), who had collaborated with Karl Marx (1818–1883) in creating the theoretical base for modern communism. (Both socialism and communism are political systems that advocate shared or government ownership of the production and ownership of goods.) Besides passing on his political enthusiasm to Käthe, Konrad also introduced her to his friend, Karl Kollwitz, a socialist and medical student. In 1884 Käthe and Karl became engaged.

Painting Life as It Really Was

The same year that Käthe became engaged, she traveled to Berlin and Munich with her mother and her sister Lise. In Berlin, she met her sister's friend Gerhart Hauptmann, author of The Weavers, a play that protested the working conditions in the textile mills of Silesia. Käthe would later make a series of highly acclaimed prints that were inspired by Hauptmann's writing. Soon afterwards, she enrolled in the School for Women Artists in Berlin, where her principal instructor was Karl Stauffer-Bern, a Swiss artist. He introduced Käthe to the work of his friend Max Klinger, a painter and sculptor of the naturalist school. (The naturalists created works that tried to show life as it really was, with all its blemishes, unlike the impressionists, who used light and color techniques to mask the gritty realities of the scenes they portrayed.) Max Klinger's work was to have a profound influence on Käthe's developing style.

After a year in Berlin, Käthe returned to Königsberg to study privately. There, her interest in portraying ordinary working people and unromantic situations deepened. In 1888 she moved to Munich, which was then a very important center of artistic activity in Europe. She studied at the School for Women Artists under Ludwig Hertereich, a painter, but she made a decisive move to graphics, or printmaking. During this period, she perfected the techniques of etching that would bring her recognition as one of the finest graphic artists of her generation.

In 1891, Käthe married Karl Kollwitz, who was by then a practicing physician; he worked with working-class patients in a poor neighborhood in Berlin. Their first child, Hans, was born the following year and their second son, Peter, in 1896. Although Karl did not earn much money, he supported his wife's artistic ambitions. Käthe Kollwitz had little success in exhibiting her works in galleries dominated by more traditional artists, but in 1893 she became a part of a group of radical young artists that broke away from the more conservative Association of Berlin Artists. When Hauptmann's play The Weavers was staged in Berlin that year, Kollwitz was inspired to create a cycle of prints called A Weavers' Uprising. These prints portrayed textile workers being exploited by capitalist bosses (people who privately own the means of production and the distribution of goods), rising up in protest, and being brought under control by the Prussian military. When the prints were exhibited, an art jury wanted to award Kollwitz a gold medal. However, the prize was blocked by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who like many other rulers did not want to see artists portraying contemporary social conditions. Later, the kaiserin (kaiser's wife) refused to attend an exhibit in Berlin until Kollwitz's works were removed. In spite of such official criticism, Kollwitz's prints won gold medals in international competitions and were added to the collections of the Dresden Museum and other prestigious art institutions.

Success as an Artist

Kollwitz soon gained an international reputation for the quality of her work. She became an instructor in graphics and figure drawing at the Berlin School for Women Artists, where she encouraged her students to bypass the traditional method of imitating old masters and develop their imaginations and creativity instead. Kollwitz continued to find inspiration in the struggles of common folk, creating the Peasants' War, a series of prints made between 1902 and 1908 and inspired by the sixteenth-century farmers' uprisings that occurred across central Europe.

In 1904, Kollwitz visited Paris, France, for several weeks and adopted a poor boy named Georg Gretor, the son of one of her former Munich classmates. In 1907, she won a prize that enabled her to spend a year in Florence, Italy. During her stay there, she met a twenty-year-old free-spirited English-woman named Constanza Harding, who wore her hair mannishly short, carried a revolver, and preferred to be known as "Stan." Kollwitz and Stan became fast friends and set off on a threehundred-mile walking trip to Rome before rejoining Kollwitz's husband and younger son, who had come from Berlin. After her trips abroad, Kollwitz's subject matter and medium (type of artwork) shifted somewhat: Instead of concentrating on class struggle, she began focusing on mothers and their children; and she began experimenting with sculpture, though she remained primarily a printmaker. Her visit to Italy had familiarized her with the theme of Madonna and Child and the Pietà (a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ), and as late as the 1930s Kollwitz was creating sculptures inspired by these themes.

The Impact of World War I

In 1912, Kollwitz traveled to New York for the first exhibition of her works in the United States. Two years later, World War I broke out, and Kollwitz's beloved younger son, Peter, was killed in Belgium that October. Profoundly griefstricken, Kollwitz planned a memorial sculpture called Mourning Parents that she wanted to dedicate to the mothers and fathers of all who died in battle; it was finally completed in 1931 and placed in a veterans' cemetery in Roggevelde, Belgium. The sculpture—one of the best-known artistic works to commemorate the war—depicts a mother and father kneeling in grief amidst row after row of wooden crosses; the grieving parents bear the features of Kollwitz and her husband. In the 1950s, both the cemetery and the sculpture were moved to a new site at Vladsloo-Praebosch.

During and after World War I, Kollwitz created many sculptures and prints that depicted the horrible wasting of young lives on the battlefields of Europe. Among the more famous of these are the drawings Widows and Orphans (1919),

Killed in Action (1921), and Survivors (1923). Kollwitz refused to join other German artists and intellectuals in their appeals to German patriotism. Instead, she became increasingly pacifist (opposed to conflict and war), and in a letter published in socialist newspapers she criticized militarism and nationalism (devotion to national interests and independence), closing with these words: "There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall! … Seed for the planting shall not be ground up!"

After World War I ended, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts and, against her wishes, received the title of professor. In 1928, she became the supervisor of master graphic students at that institution. In the years of disillusionment that followed Germany's defeat in World War I, Kollwitz supported the socialist and communist causes and created posters advocating assistance for the newly established Soviet Union. However, she insisted that her work was not political and that she was creating it as an artist and as a humanitarian. During the 1920s, she devoted herself to a series of woodblock prints called War that graphically depict the sufferings of women and children during the conflict. She believed that if her art had any purpose, it was in the service of pacifism—to support and inspire those who were working to eliminate war around the world.

Clashing with the Nazis

In the 1930s, Kollwitz spoke out against the rise of Nazism. The Nazis tried to purge German art of what they considered leftist influences. When Kollwitz's work became the target of some pro-Nazi critics, she lent her support to the Society of Revolutionary Artists and defiantly continued to create posters that sympathized with the class struggle, as well as tender portrayals of mothers and children. Many of her pictures were exhibited in the Soviet Union during this period, to great acclaim.

Because of her anti-Nazi stand, Kollwitz was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy and was forbidden to teach, though she continued to do so privately. Her husband also was harassed by the government. In spite of these pressures, including a visit from the Gestapo (German security police known for terrorizing German citizens), Kollwitz steadfastly refused to change her artistic vision to suit the Nazi government. In 1937, many of her prints and drawings were removed from museums and art galleries by the Nazi government. The Nazis burned books and artwork, including Kollwitz's that they found objectionable. Kollwitz's work was exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, and other foreign cities, but never again in her homeland during her lifetime. Undaunted, she wrote in a letter, "For Germany I am dead, but for America I have begun to come alive. That is wonderful!"

It was during these difficult days that Kollwitz began work on her last great graphics project, a series of lithographs titled Death. The eight prints in the series bear such titles as Death Reaches into a Group of Children, Woman Entrusts Herself to Death, and Death Seizes a Woman. Kollwitz created a number of bronze sculptures—including Soldiers' Wives Waving Good-Bye and Tower of Mothers—depicting the extreme sadness of mothers seeing their children suffering under unjust and militaristic regimes. She also created memorial sculptures for the graves of Jewish friends who had been persecuted by the Nazis. Just before her husband died in 1940, she created Farewell, a tiny bronze sculpture that depicts a woman embracing a man who seems to be moving into another dimension.

Kollwitz remained in Berlin during the early part of World War II. Her last great lithograph, completed in 1942, shows a defiant woman protecting small children with her massive arms. It is titled Seed for the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up, the line from one of Goethe's poems that she used to conclude her antiwar letter a quarter-century earlier. That September, Kollwitz's grandson, Peter, had been killed in combat in Russia. The following year, Kollwitz fled Berlin to live in Nordhausen with a young sculptor friend, Margaret Böning. Shortly after Kollwitz left, her Berlin home and many of her works were destroyed in an air raid. A memorial park named in her honor now graces the site.

In 1943, a sickly Kollwitz accepted the offer of an admirer and collector, Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony, to take refuge at his estate in Moritzburg, near Dresden, where she lived out her remaining days surrounded by books written by Goethe. She died there on April 22, 1945, just a week before Hitler's own death. Her ashes were later buried in the family's plot at Friedrichsfelde cemetery in Berlin.

For More Information

Books

Cornebise, Alfred E. Art from the Trenches: America's Uniformed Artists in World War I. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1991.

Gallatin, A. E. Art and the Great War. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1919.

Kearns, Martha. Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1976.

Klein, Mina C., and H. Arthur. Käthe Kollwitz: Life in Art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Web sites

Art of the First World War. [Online] http://www.artww1.com/gb/index2.html (accessed April 2001).

"Fractal Gallery." Trenches on the Web. [Online] http://www.worldwar1.com/fracgal.htm (accessed April 2001).

"Käthe Kollwitz." Artcyclopedia. [Online] http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/kollwitz_kathe.html (accessed March 2001).

"KätheKollwitzMuseum, Berlin." [Online] http://www.kaethekollwitzde (accessed March 2001).

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