Friday, July 30, 2010

Käthe Kollwitz

 Käthe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1923

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1942) was born in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad, Russia) into a relatively wealthy home. She was the fifth child of Karl and Katharina Schmidt. Karl Schmidt had first studied law but he then turned his back to the legal profession and became a master-mason. Kollwitz grew up in an atmosphere of religious teachings and radical thought. She was encouraged to draw as a child by her father. Her first painting Kollwitz created at sixteen. In 1884 she entered an academy established specially for women in Berlin. Kollwitz continued her art studies in Köningsberg, and in Munich's School for Women Artists, where she realized that she was not a painter at all - the graphic arts were her medium. In her early period Kollwitz took influences from Zola's approach to reality and Max Klinger's symbolist engravings. 

 Käthe Kollwitz, The Weavers' Revolt (1893-98), Sheet IV

In 1891 Kollwitz married Dr. Karl Kollwitz; they had two sons, Hans and Peter. Karl was a physician for a workers' health insurance fund, who oftentimes treated the working poor free of charge. For the next half century they lived in Prenzlauer Berg, a working class suburb of North Berlin. Kollwitz's studio was next to her husband's office. Kollwitz's first series of lithographs, The Weavers' Revolt (above), was loosely based on Gerhart Hauptmann's play. The Weavers set is considered a landmark in class-conscious art. It was shown at the annual Berlin art show in 1898. Due to its politically powerful content, Kaiser Wilhelm refused to award her the medal she had won. However, Kollwitz was appointed to teach graphics and nude studies at the Berlin Künstlerinnenschule (Berlin Art School for Women). 

 Käthe Kollwitz, Outbreak, 1921

Kollwitz's later print series include the woodcuts The Peasants' War (1903-08), in which the chief figure of "Outbreak" (above) was the furious Black Anna, portrayed from her back, and Proletariat (1925). Also Die Carmagnole (1901), about women dancing around a guillotine, was partly inspired by a literary source, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Kollwitz's sturdy figures show the influence of her friend, Ernst Barlach, whose graphic technique also inspired her woodcut of Karl Liebknecht, a friend of the family. Kollwitz had made drawings of Liebknecht's corpse before his funeral. The widely distributed work created a symbolic connection with Christ's martyrdom and the murder of a Marxist revolutionary by Government troops: 

 Käthe Kollwitz, Memory Page for Karl Liebknecht: The Living and the Dead, 1921

Kollwitz's social consciousness, which could be characterized as "critical humanitarianism", separated her from such pioneering Expressionist groups as Die Brücke and the Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky, Marc, and Klee. Following Goya and Daumier, she fully accepted the social function of art. "I am content that my art should have purpose outside itself," Kollwitz wrote in her diary. In spite of her mission, Kollwitz's works convey a feeling of inwardness and privacy which is in strange contrast with their public nature. "A certain melancholy was about her," said Geroge Grosz who met her only once, "far from talkative, rather moody." 

 Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with a Dead Child, 1903

In 1907 the Villa Romana Prize by Max Klinger enabled Kollwitz to spend time in Italy, where she took a walking tour from Florence to Rome with an English woman equipped with a revolver. Italian Renaissance art, with the exception of Michelangelo's work, did not inspire her. "The enormous galleries are confusing, and they put you off because of the masses of inferior stuff in the pompous Italian vein," she wrote in a letter.  In 1913 Kollwitz co-founded the Women's Arts Union, Frauenkunstverband. From the beginning of Kollwitz's career, the theme of romantic love did not interest her, but in some drawings she depicted tender feelings between women. "As a matter of fact I believe that bisexuality is almost a necessary factor in artistic production," Kollwitz once confessed, "at any rate, the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work."

 Anom., Käthe Kollwitz, 1927

After the outbreak of WWI, Peter Kollwitz, just eighteen, volunteered for the German Army. He died on the Belgian front. Devastated by the loss of her son, Kollwitz worked for many years on a memorial to the fallen. The deeply personal sculpture of two kneeling figures, "The Parents", was eventually revealed in 1932 in the Vladslo Military Cemetery in Belgium:

 Käthe Kollwitz, The Parents, Vladslo German Soldiers’ Cemetery, Vladslo (Belgium), 1932

Kollwitz's fiftieth birthday was commemorated in the summer of 1917 with a retrospective exhibition in Paul Cassirer's Gallery in Berlin. At the age of 52, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the prestigious Prussian Academy of Art. Kollwitz made several prints as propaganda against war, such as the woodcut Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers), a version of the dance of death:

 Käthe Kollwitz, The Volunteers, 1922

The feverish mass hysteria, which had gripped the nations at the outbreak of WWI, is portrayed through a group of young men following blindly the figure of Death. Among Kollwitz's most copied anti-war pieces is Never Again War (below), in which a male figure raises one arm high and the other hand is on his heart. Kollwitz was internationally known for her etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs, but also her posters for leftist organizations and humanitarian leaflets contributed to her fame.

 Käthe Kollwitz, Never Again War, 1924

In 1927 Kollwitz visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR). Although she was subsequently disillusioned, she did not denounce Stalinist culture and propaganda. In 1932 her works were shown in Leningrad and Moscow. In 1928 Kollwitz became the head of the master class in graphics at the Berlin Academy. After Hitler assumed power in 1933, most leftist artists went into exile or were forced to stop working. Kollwitz attempted to form with Heinrich Mann a front of artists against the Nazi administration, but soon she had to resign from the Academy, when the Nazis threatened to break it up. After Kollwitz gave an interview to a Russian reporter, she was interrogated by the Gestapo. In 1938 her husband's medical practice was banned. In 1934-35 Kollwitz made eight large lithographs called Death. The cycle culminated in her own self-portrait in Call of Death:

 Käthe Kollwitz, Call of Death, from the series "Death", 1934

Karl Kollwitz died in 1940. Two years later Kollwitz's grandson was killed in Russia. Her home and a number of her works were destroyed in 1943 in an air raid - only one portfolio survived. Because of the bombings, she was evacuated from Berlin. In 1944 she found a refuge in the Moritzburg estate of Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. Kollwitz died on 22 April, 1945, in Moritzburg. She was cremated and buried in Berlin with her husband, brothers, and sisters. You can see more of her works in my Flickr set.


  1. Kollwitz is by far the best and most under rated of the classic historical artists. only DaVinci and Dali come anywhere close. thank you for featuring her work.

  2. thank you for this informative article!