Kollwitz, Käthe (1867–1945)

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Kollwitz, Käthe (1867–1945)

German artist whose Expressionist etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and sculpture sympathetically and dramatically portrayed the German working class and victims of violence, making her the best-known German woman artist of the first half of the 20th century. Pronunciation: KAY-tee KOHL-witz. Born Käthe Schmidt on July 8, 1867, in Königsberg, Germany; died at Moritzburg on April 22, 1945; daughter of Karl Schmidt (a lawyer) and Katherina (Rupp) Schmidt; educated at a girls' academy and by private tutors; attended art schools in Berlin and Munich; married Karl Kollwitz (a physician), on June 13, 1891; children: two sons, Hans and Peter.

Began art studies with Rudolf Mauer, an engraver (1881); arrived in Berlin to study at the Women's School of Art (1885); took up residence, with husband, in slum area of North Berlin (1891); attended premiere of Gerhart Hauptmann's play The Weavers and was inspired to do a series of prints (1893); received gold medal for her "Revolt of the Weavers" (1899); won Villa Romana prize (1907); became first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts (1919); was co-founder of the Society for Women Artists and Friends of Art (1926); visited the Soviet Union as a guest of the Soviet government (1927); was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy by the National Socialist government, the beginning of the period when her works were condemned by the Nazis as "degenerate art" (1933); evacuated to Nordhausen because of bombing of Berlin (1943); moved to Moritzburg, located near Dresden, after that home was bombed (1944).

Major works:

Revolt of the Weavers (1898); The Peasant Wars (1908); Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground (1942).

Throughout history, many women artists learned their craft under the tutelage of a mentor, often a male relative, and many were born into families with a long artistic tradition. Neither was true of Käthe Kollwitz, who traveled her own path, balancing careers as a mother and an artist. Her rejection of a career as a painter led her to produce a series of memorable and highly distinctive etchings and lithographs portraying the working class and poor in the Germany of her day.

The fifth child in a family of seven children, Kollwitz was raised in an atmosphere of religious independence and high social ideals. Her grandfather, an ordained Lutheran minister, had left that church to found the first "Free Religious" Congregation in Germany, a church that sought to emulate early Christianity, even to the point of trying to create communal property among church members. Both her mother and father thought that thorough religious training would give their children high moral character.

Kollwitz' relationship with her mother Katherina Rupp Schmidt was uneasy. She later wrote that her mother was not friendly to her children, but Kollwitz came to admire Katherina's stoic suffering in the face of the early deaths of three of them. "I loved her terribly," Kollwitz wrote; she described the family atmosphere as loving and caring, despite her mother's emotional distance. What she admired in Katherina—emotional strength—she also noticed as a characteristic of the female friends of the family, particularly the ones who often came to their home to debate theology with her father.

It has been said many times that pure art does not have a purpose. But I want to have an influence with my art, as long as I can.

—Käthe Kollwitz

Kollwitz also came to admire the progressivism of her parents. Her mother, who had read Lord Byron and Shakespeare in the original English, was uncommonly well-educated for a Prussian woman of the middle class at the time. Katherina also taught her children that socialism, or concern for the working class, was a Christian duty. Her father's political views were similarly progressive. Although Karl Schmidt had a law degree, he refused to follow that profession because his political and social views placed him in conflict with the authoritarian state of the family's native Prussia. Among the writings that Karl Schmidt read to his children was a German translation of Thomas Hood's poem, "Song of the Shirt." The poem, a paean to a nameless seamstress and her never-ending work, proved to be an inspiration for much of Kollwitz' art work, which focused on the poor and the downtrodden.

The family's socialist sentiments were well-known. Her older brothers Karl, Hans, and Konrad were sympathizers with the Marxist party in Germany (the Social Democratic Party), and Käthe participated in family discussions about August Bebel, a co-founder of the party, who claimed that socialism would make women independent, both socially and economically. Her family's progressivism also created opportunities for Kollwitz that were unavailable to other women. Her father decided that both Käthe and her sister Lisa Schmidt should be encouraged to pursue artistic careers. The girls' academy they attended proved to be a revelation for Käthe, who liked literature and history but was fascinated by the library, which included works of the English painter William Hogarth, and German writers such as Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Among the writers, Goethe, with his poem praising the powers and mysteries of nature, was Käthe's favorite.

Kollwitz felt a sibling rivalry with Lisa over their joint status as the family's future artists. Her fear that her sister would outpace her was a powerful motivation for her to achieve, at least until her sister's marriage in the late 1880s. Käthe realized that she had no family mentor for her artistic career, but she also acknowledged that the "blessed" atmosphere of her family had opened the door to a career that was denied to most German middle-class women.

In 1881, her father arranged for Rudolf Mauer, an engraver, to give Käthe lessons in art. When, at age 16, she was unable to enter the Königsberg Academy of Art because women were not admitted, her father arranged for a private tutor. Karl Schmidt's controlling influence also caused her to postpone a marriage to Karl Kollwitz, a medical student who proposed to her in 1884. Her father feared that marriage would ruin her prospects for a successful artistic career. When her brother Konrad, a student at the University of Berlin, discovered that the Berlin Academy of Art had an affiliated women's art school, Käthe was enrolled in it.

Her period of study in Berlin, which lasted just three years, influenced her in two ways. First, one of her art professors, a Swiss named Karl Stauffer-Bern, noticed that Kollwitz' drawings resembled the naturalistic style of the artist Max Klinger, whose works focused on human beings suffering in the social struggle for survival. He encouraged her to emphasize drawing, rather than painting, and Kollwitz tended to agree. She had discovered that she lacked the natural sense and appreciation for color shown by many of her fellow art students. She believed that drawing had closer ties "to reality" than did painting. Her work in the students' Etching Club convinced her that she had made the correct decision. She was impressed with Klinger's writing, which argued that drawing involved more imagination and creativity than painting—with "unfilled lines" and "holes" which had to be given meaning by subtleties of shading and angles of line.

Her Berlin studies also propelled her toward the idea that art should fulfill a social purpose. A close friend of hers in Berlin, Helen Bloch , met regularly with Kollwitz to read German Marxist writers and to discuss the "social question" and the "woman question." Kollwitz wanted to use arts to portray the suffering of the victims of German industrialization and urbanization. "Expression was all that I wanted," she later wrote, "and therefore I told myself that the simple line of the lithograph (and drawing) was best suited to my purposes."

In 1889, she entered the Munich Academy of Art, where teaching was less rigid and more progressive than at Berlin. Since the school believed that marriage and an artistic career were incompatible, celibacy was required of students. Women who married were condemned as traitors to art. When she graduated, Kollwitz discovered that she could not obtain a job as a commercial artist.

She married Karl Kollwitz in June 1891—when she was 24 and he was 28—both having agreed to continue their careers. The couple took up residence in North Berlin, where he opened a practice as a physician for slum residents as part of a government-sponsored medical program instituted by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The marriage was, at first, more a union of mutual admiration than a love match, although it "grew slowly" toward the latter. Although she became pregnant with their son, Hans, during their first autumn together, Kollwitz was determined not to let marriage and motherhood spoil her chances to create art. While motherhood was special to her, she thought of herself as an artist rather than as a wife. Her Self Portrait of a Young Couple, begun in 1893, portrayed Kollwitz and her husband sitting in a double bed, facing different directions, and not touching.

Käthe set up a studio in a spare room of their apartment. Although initially she used her son Hans as a model, the subjects of most of her works would prove to be the working class in Germany and, in her words, the "downtrodden." "I did not see beauty in the upper, educated classes," she wrote. "I saw their superficiality and their lack of naturalness, integrity, and honesty." Working-class women, she noted, presented their feelings more "openly" and without disguises. "Bourgeois life on the whole struck me as stilted," she wrote, "whereas the proletariat had real grandeur and breadth in their lives."

She rejected the most popular styles in the art world of the time—Impressionism and Art Nouveau. If her art is to be classified as part of a school or movement, it fits most easily with Expressionism. She shared that movement's belief

that feeling was more important than form, but she was determined that figures in her work should be individuals—they never really represented types or categories of people—and that the picture should be dictated by the subject's feelings or emotions, rather than her own. Whether working in etchings, lithographs, or woodcuts, she also worked to achieve an economy of style, which would require the minimum number of lines and shading to portray a situation or an emotion.

Her first major art work, Revolt of the Weavers, was the result of a play she attended in 1893, Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers. The play dramatized a strike by weavers in Germany during the 1840s and the eventual shooting of several weavers by German troops. Revolt of the Weavers consisted of three etchings and three lithographs, depicting poverty, death (a portrait of a child dying of hunger), conspiracy, the weavers on the march, an attack on the boss' mansion, and the death of many weavers at the end. Contrasting dark areas were used to underline the emotions of the strike and the hopelessness of the strikers.

The series was condemned by the German emperor Wilhelm II (William II) as "gutter art," but the king of Saxony was persuaded to award her a medal. In fact, more of Kollwitz' art would eventually be on display in Saxony than in any other German state. Together with a later work entitled The Peasant War, the Revolt of the Weavers earned her the Villa Romana medal in 1907. Offered the job of teacher of life drawing and graphics at the Berlin School of Art for Women, she accepted only after hesitation, believing herself incompetent to teach etching.

The Peasant War, completed in 1908, was a series of seven prints about the peasant revolt of the early 1500s. Rejecting the idea that women had to be portrayed according to the prevailing standards of beauty, she depicted strong, enduring women whose physical presence was emphasized more than their sex. One of the most powerful prints was Raped, which depicted a shocked and humiliated woman lying on the ground after she had been attacked by mercenary soldiers. Flowers, which in an Impressionist painting might be objects of beauty, were here twisted menacingly with weeds, symbolizing tragedy, sorrow, and outrage. Kollwitz attacked the callousness of urban life with The Downtrodden (1900), which depicted urban poverty, and Run Over (1910), which portrayed parents furiously trying to save the life of a baby run over by a car as other children watch with looks of terror.

World War I brought triumph and sorrow. In 1917, a retrospective of her work, held in Berlin, was a great success. At the war's end, she became the first woman to be elected to the Berlin Academy of Art, winning the title of professor (which she rejected because she declared herself opposed to all titles) and the privilege of a free studio in the academy's building (which she accepted). But the war also brought the death of her son Peter while he was serving in the German army in Belgium in the early months of the conflict, plunging her into periodic fits of depression. Although she decided to make Peter's "spirit" pervade her work, she complained that her periods of depression became longer, and that the periods in between, which were periods of creativity, were becoming progressively shorter.

During the 1920s—when Kollwitz, like so many others, lived through periods of famine, very high inflation, and high unemployment in Germany—she devoted her work to specific social and political issues or situations. Although she never became a member of the Social Democratic Party, one of her first works after World War I was From the Living to the Dead, in honor of the party leader Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was killed by government-approved irregular troops ("Free Corps" troops) during an attempted revolution in 1919. Liebknecht was portrayed in the woodcut in a stylized and rather stately pose while grieving workers were bent at dramatically different angles, underlining their shock and sorrow.

Kollwitz increasingly tied her art to social issues, arguing that "I felt that I did not have the right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the suffering of men." When an Austrian aid society asked her to do a poster to dramatize postwar famine in that country, she responded with a poster of death whipping masses of groaning, starving people. Feminist groups asked her help in a campaign to revoke an article in the German constitution which prescribed prison terms for women who had abortions. Her poster "Against the Abortion Law" portrayed a working-class woman with two children, looking hungry and very hopeless. In fact, her art during the 1920s made her a bit of a feminist icon, requiring her to hire a secretary to answer the volumes of mail pouring in from German, and even European, women.

A new theme in her work was a direct denunciation of the war, in memory of her beloved son. The antiwar movement drew her support. Her poster "Never Again War!," using the title of a book by the pacifist Bertha von Suttner , reflected her belief that the idealistic energies of young people should be transformed into efforts to build a better German society, rather than be exploited to wage war.

A public opponent of National Socialism, she was not surprised when the new Nazi government of Germany began, in 1933, to include her work in the banned category of "degenerate art." Her public influence waned, and she suffered financially as the number of commissions she received dwindled. She decried the silence of those who she thought should speak out. "Scarcely anyone had anything to say to me about [the banning of my art]," she wrote. "Such a silence all around us."

Her etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts were increasingly removed from museums and consigned to museum basements. Nazi officials banned her small sculpture Tower of Mothers, completed in 1938, from appearing in an art show. Eventually even her husband's medical practice was banned, and the family increasingly relied on her small, and now infrequent, commissions.

Kollwitz was generally left alone by the government, except for a visit in 1936 from Gestapo officers who wanted to know the name of an anonymous friend who had joined her in giving an interview to a foreign correspondent. Although their comments did not criticize the government, Kollwitz refused to identify the man. Thereafter, she always carried a vial of poison with her, to take if she were arrested by the Gestapo. When an American art collector offered to help her escape to the United States, she refused, not wanting to be removed from her family and friends.

World War II brought further blows. Her grandson Peter, namesake of her son, was killed during fighting in Russia. She condemned both the war and the American and British bombing of her homeland with a lithograph entitled Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground, which portrayed a mother holding firmly onto rambunctious 16-year-old boys—symbolizing, by implication, a mother who refuses to let her offspring go off to war. Her family twice changed residences because of the bombing. Once, just before their Berlin home was destroyed, they moved to Nordhausen. When bombs damaged

that, the family moved to Moritzburg, near Dresden, where Käthe Kollwitz died in 1945 at the age of 78.


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

Kollwitz, Käthe. Briefe der Freundschaft und Begegnungen. Edited by Hans Kollwitz. Munich: List Verlag, 1966.

——. The Diary and Letters of Käthe Kollwitz. Edited by Hans Kollwitz. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1955.

——. Drawings, Etchings, Lithographs, Woodcuts, Sculpture. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum and Israel Museum, 1972.

suggested reading:

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

Kollwitz, Käthe. An Exhibition of Graphic Works by Kathe Kollwitz from the Permanent Collection of the Minnesota Museum of Art. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1973.

Timm, Werner, ed. The Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz. NY: Crown, 1972.


There is a Käthe Kollwitz archive in the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin.

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois