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).