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.
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).
"Kollwitz, Käthe Schmidt." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kollwitz-kathe-schmidt
"Kollwitz, Käthe Schmidt." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kollwitz-kathe-schmidt
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"Kollwitz, Käthe." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kollwitz-kathe
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July 8, 1867
Königsberg, East Prussia
April 22, 1945
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
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.
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).
"Käthe Kollwitz." World War I Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/kathe-kollwitz
"Käthe Kollwitz." World War I Reference Library. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/kathe-kollwitz
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Born July 8, 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia; died April 22, 1945, in Moritzburg, Germany; daughter of Karl (a lawyer and builder) and Katherina (Rupp) Schmidt; married Karl Kollwitz (a physician), 1891 (died 1940); children: Hans, Peter. Education: Studied painting at Zeichen und Malschüle des Vereins der Kunstlerinnen und Kunstfreundinnen (Berlin, Germany), 1885-86; studied with Ludwig Herterich in Munich, 1888-89; studied sculpture at Academie Julian (Paris, France), 1904, and in Italy. Politics: Socialist.
Printmaker, graphic artist, and sculptor. Prussian Academy, professor, beginning 1919, director of master studio for graphic arts, 1928-33. Cofounder, with Albert Einstein, George Grosz, and Upton Sinclair, International Workers Aid, 1920. Major works include A Weaver's Uprising, 1893-98; Woman with Dead Child, 1903; Peasants' War, 1903-08; Memorial to Karl Liebknecht, 1919-20; Seven Woodcuts about War, 1922-24; No More War, 1924; Mourning Parents, 1924-32; Death, 1934-37; Self-Portrait, 1926-36; Rest in the Peace of His Hands, 1935-36; Lament, 1938-40; Mother Protecting Her Child, I and II, 1941-42; and Seeds for Sowing Should Not Be Milled, 1942. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions include Galerie Cassirer, Berlin, Germany, 1917; Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany, 1917; Berlin Secession, 1917; Civic Club, New York, NY, 1925; Kupferstichkabinett, Basel, Switzerland, 1929; Moscow and Leningrad, U.S.S.R., 1932; Jake Zeitlin Bookshop and Galleries, Los Angeles, CA, 1937; Kleemann Galleries, New York, 1938; Berner Kunst-museum, Bern, Switzerland, 1946; Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, 1967; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1973; Galerie St. Etienne, New York, 1976, 2002; Kennedy Gallery, New York, NY, 1976; Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, MA, 1981; Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne, Germany, 1985, 1988-89; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1992; South Bank Centre, London, England, 1995; Art Institute of Boston, 2001; and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2003. Work included in permanent collections at Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne; Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Berlin; and Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Villa Romana prize, 1907; Ordre pour le Merite, 1929.
Ich sah die Welt mit liebevollen Blicken: Käthe Kollwitz, ein Leben in Selbstzeugnissen, edited by Hans Kollwitz, Fackeltraeger-Verlag (Hannover, Germany), 1968.
Bekenntnisse, Reclam (Leipzig, Germany), 1981.
The Diary and Letters of Kathe Kollwitz, edited by Hans Kollwitz, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1988.
Briefe an den Sohn, 1904 bis 1945, edited by Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, Siedler (Berlin, Germany), 1992.
The work of turn-of-the-twentieth-century German artist Käthe Kollwitz in sculpture and the graphic arts presents a world of compassion for the little man and woman fighting for economic rights, for the victims of war, and for the powerless in the grip of the powerful. Working in Germany during a volatile period in that nation's history, Kollwitz "witnessed many of the momentous events of the [early twentieth] … century and captured them in sculpture, the graphic arts and drawing with a feeling rarely matched," wrote Mary Sherman in the Boston Herald. Whether she was chronicling a nineteenth-century weaver's strike, a sixteenth-century peasants' uprising, the sadness of loss of a child in the war, or the anguish a nation felt at the death of a leader, Kollwitz "not only shared many of her subjects' sorrows and pains, but she also expressed them with an intensity that's unique in the history of art," according to Sherman.
The world Kollwitz depicted was a "grim place," as Grace Glueck noted in the New York Times, for the artist grew up in a family that believed in social justice. And there was a large degree of social injustice in Germany between 1867 and 1945, the period during which she lived. In addition to cultural upheavals and two world wars, Kollwitz faced personal tragedies as well; she lost one son during World War I and a grandson during World War II. The coming of the Nazis put a dismal finale to her long career, for as a "degenerate" artist she lost her position in the German art academy as well as her studio, thereby effectively ending her ability to exhibit her work.
Kollwitz was a perfectionist in her work habits, and unlike her contemporaries in Germany who were deeply involved in the Expressionist movement, she kept to a realistic style that was accessible to the common viewer. She once said, as quoted by Martha Cronin in Europe, that "One can say it a thousand times, that pure art does not include within itself a purpose. As long as I can work, I want to have an effect with my art." She got her wish. As with the work of Francisco de Goya, Kollwitz's anti-war etchings and woodcuts stay with the viewer; they are powerful evocations of the hideous price of violence. Mothers are depicted in wild grief over the loss of a child; a leftist leader lies dead; others protest war. "Making the rounds of Kollwitz is not an easy trip," wrote Glueck of a 2002 exhibition of the artist's work staged in New York City. "But it has its rewards."
A German Life
Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, in 1867, Kollwitz was brought up in a leftist household led by her father, Karl Schmidt, a lawyer active in socialist politics. Frustrated by the fact that his political beliefs conflicted with those of Bismarck's Germany, Schmidt left the law on principle and became a mason and master builder. The family's liberalism was reflected in their religion, as well; Kollwitz's mother, Katherina, was the daughter of a noncomformist Lutheran minister who preached rationalism and ethical behavior. Growing up amid such social idealism, Kollwitz developed a strong belief in the rights and freedom of all humankind. The family's progressive thought extended to the rights of women, and Schmidt encouraged Käthe to look beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother. An avid reader as a youth, she had such beliefs confirmed by her readings of naturalist works by Émile Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Gerhart Hauptmann, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, all of whom dealt with social problems and championed individual rights.
In addition to a lively intellect, Kollwitz displayed an early proclivity for the arts, an attribute encouraged by her parents. As a female she was disallowed admission to the local art academy, so her father had her study privately with the engraver Rudolf Mauer, and then with local painter Emile Neide. Her art studies were furthered in Berlin from 1885 to 1886, where she studied with Karl Stauffer-Bern at the Art School for Women, and again in Munich in 1888, at the Women's School of Art, where she studied under Ludwig Herterich. Kollwitz's taste in art paralleled her literary tastes: she favored artists who, like William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, Rembrandt, and Goya, took strong social and moral stances. Stauffer-Bern introduced Kollwitz to the prints of Max Klinger, in particular his series "Ein Leben" from 1883, and from this point on she left painting behind for print making, working in etching, lithographs, and woodcuts.
Kollwitz married in 1891. Her choice of husband was fortunate for her; a doctor and a strong believer in socialism, Karl Kollwitz gave his wife freedom to pursue her art. His medical practice was in a working-class neighborhood of Berlin; Kollwitz thus became intimately involved in the lives of the little people whose cause she had thus far championed purely on idealist and theoretical grounds. Now, confronted with the reality of their lives, she was struck by the harshness of their existence. Years later, in 1941, the artist confided in her diary how this experience influenced her work: "My real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Königsberg long-shoremen had beauty; the Polish Jimkes on their grainships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty.… The proletariat … had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. Much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life, when I met the women who came to my husband for help, and so, incidentally, came to me, I was gripped by the full face of the proletarians' fate.… And portraying them again and again opened a safety valve for me; it made life bearable."
Prints and Sculpture
Influenced by a scene from Zola's novel Germinal, Kollwitz had drawn a scene during her school days depicting the struggle of coal miners. She reworked this early drawing into an etching that was first exhibited at the Berlin Secession in 1893. That same year she saw a performance of Hauptmann's play The Weavers, which is about the rebellion and defeat of a group of linen weavers in 1844. So moved was she by this drama that she translated her emotions into her first great print cycle, "A Weavers' Uprising," also known as "The Revolt of the Weavers." The prints in this series—Poverty, Death, Conspiracy, March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End—tell a grim story of oppression and suppression. Exhibited in Berlin, the work won a gold medal from the artists' jury, but this was later refuted by the German kaiser, who found the work too socialist and brooding. This success did bring Kollwitz a teaching position at the Art School for Women in Berlin, where she had earlier studied, and from 1893 to 1936 she exhibited annually at the Berlin Free Art Exhibition. During the 1890s she also became a mother: her son Hans was born in 1892, and Peter was born in 1896.
Kollwitz's second major print cycle, "Peasants' War," was produced between 1903 and 1908 and depicts scenes from the sixteenth-century uprising of peasants against their feudal masters. In Outbreak, the fifth print in the series, Kollwitz portrays the female leader, Black Anna, as she spurs her followers on to revolt. With the series "Pictures of Misery," done for the magazine Simplicissimus, Kollwitz takes on the privations of females in society. Kollwitz continued her art studies with a 1904 trip to Paris, where she took up sculpture at the Academie Julian and visited French sculptor August Rodin's studio. However, with the death of her son Peter as an early casualty of World War I, the grieving artist found a new theme; she decided to create a monument to the fallen, a project that would consume much of her energies for the next eighteen years. Mourning Parents was conceived as a sculptural tombstone for her son and, by extension, to all the others who died in the war. It depicts two life-size parents, a woman who resembles Kollwitz and a man who resembles her husband. The couple are kneeling in grief amid a vast field of wooden crosses, one of which is Peter's. Displayed at the Berlin Academy in 1931, the sculpture was installed at the military cemetery of Reggevelde in Flanders the following year.
Other work and honors also occupied these years. In 1919, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, and she was appointed professor and later director of its graphic arts studio. In 1926 she was a co-founder of the Society for Women Artists and Friends of Arts, a group dedicated to exhibiting women's art. She also became involved in lithographic poster art, much of it supporting left-leaning causes or in support of social movements. Among her best-known posters are those publicizing relief work for post-war famine, such as Vienna Is Dying! Save Her Children!, from 1920, Help Russia, from 1921, and Germany's Children Are Starving!, from 1924. From that same year came her famous antiwar poster, No More War. Working in the new medium of woodcut, Kollwitz reacted to the murder of German communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by right-wing thugs with 1920's Memorial for Karl Liebknecht. In this work she was influenced by German master of graphic arts Ernst Barlach. Further work using the medium of woodcuts include the prints for Seven Woodcuts about War, from 1922 to 1924, which include The Volunteers, depicting four young men whose pained faces and clenched fists reflect their sense of doom and their determination to fight as they follow a drumming figure with a deathlike mask. In The Widow I a woman hugs herself in anguish, her rounded form suggesting that she may be pregnant and lending further poignancy to her situation. In The Mothers a group of women console each other, while two frightened children look out from beneath the women's arms and embraces.
On the outs with the Nazis
A life-long critic of rightist and fascist policies, Kollwitz attracted unwanted attention when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Forced to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts, she also had to give up her position as director of its graphic arts studio. She was in effect silenced by the Nazis, as after 1936 she was no longer allowed to exhibit her work, which was classified as "degenerate art" by the Nazis. She continued to work in private, however, creating a final print cycle, Death, from 1934 to 1935 that served as an apt metaphor for her own country as it slid ever nearer to a self-annihilating war. During the 1930s and 1940s she also continued an ongoing collection of self-portraits in a variety of mediums, including etching, wood-cut, lithograph, charcoal drawing, and sculpture. Throughout her career Kollwitz created almost a hundred such self-portraits.
Kollwitz's husband died in 1940, and her grandson, Peter, was killed in action in 1942. She created her last lithograph that same year, the work Seeds for Sowing Should Not Be Milled, titled from a work by Goethe. The print depicts a mother whose arms are thrown up to shield her three little boys, saving them from future wars. Seeds for Sowing Should Not Be Milled was her final statement. Much of Kollwitz's work was lost when her house in Berlin was destroyed in November of 1943. Evacuated from the city, she lived at the estate of an art patron in Moritzburg, dying there on April 22, 1945, at the age of seventy-seven, just before the end of World War II.
If you enjoy the works of Käthe Kollwitz
you may also want to check out the following:
The art of German printmaker Max Klinger (1857-1920), German sculptor and illustrator Ernst Barlach (1870-1938).
Pablo Picasso's famed antiwar painting Guernica, 1937.
Biographical and Critical Sources
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Contemporary Women Artists, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
The Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, introduction by Stephen Longstreet, Borden Publishing (Alhambra, CA), 1967.
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Noun, L., Three Berlin Artists of the Weimar Era: Hannah Hock, Käthe Kollwitz, Jeanne Mammen, Edmundson Art Foundation, 1994.
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"Kollwitz, Käthe." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/kollwitz-kathe
"Kollwitz, Käthe." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/kollwitz-kathe