Graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz illustrated what life was like for the working class in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Her prints imbued with sentiments of misery and loss spoke very deeply with generations that overcame the tragedies of war and impoverishment. A fierce anti-war activist (to use a modern-day term), her art also portrayed maternal love and hope for a more egalitarian and peaceful future.
Kollwitz was born into a progressive family that supported her art studies when women could not even attend higher education. She began her training in Berlin, followed by Munich, Paris and Florence. After learning about the theories and work of Max Klinger, and because she didn’t feel confident about using colour, she decided to dedicate herself to printmaking.
In 1891 the artist got married to Karl Kollwitz, a doctor who was a member of the German Socialist Party and opened a practice in a poor area of Berlin. While she observed people who waited to see her husband, she found the main subject of her prints for years to come: working-class women, mothers, children and the persistent presence of misery and suffering.
The revolution series:
The most famous prints of Käthe Kollwitz belong to one of the three series representing revolution and social themes, particularly those concerning labourers and their struggles, misery and exploitation.
The Revolt of the Weavers (1893-1897)
Consisting of three lithographs and three etchings, this series was inspired by the play “The Weavers” by Gerhart Hauptmann. Kollwitz depicted a cycle of despair, revolt and loss workers faced at the turn of the century in Germany. Brilliantly executed, they were an instant success when shown at the “Great Berlin Art Exhibition”. However, because of its “subversive” content, she was prevented from receiving a medal for the work.
The Peasant’s War (1901-1908)
On the seven engravings in this series, the German artist went deeper with the theme of the hardship of the poorest, here illustrated by the rural population.
Working this time with woodcutting, Kollwitz produced the series depicting the horrors of WWI. After losing her younger son, who volunteered to fight, she explored excruciating feelings of grief and despair especially those of parents during a war. Sadly, this was a feeling she knew from childhood because of her parent’s suffering and the mourning of three of her siblings.
“I have tried again and again to represent war. I was never able to capture it. Now, finally, I have finished a series of woodcuts that come close to expressing what I have always wanted to express. […] These prints should be sent all over the world and give everybody the essence of what it was like – this is what we all went through during these unspeakably hard times.”
Käthe Kollwitz, writing to Romain Rolland, October 1922. (From: https://www.kollwitz.de/en/series-war-overview)
An icon of German Modernism
In 1919, Käthe Kollwitz was the first woman to hold the position of professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Her work was immensely recognized during her life. The ability and sensibility to illustrate sorrow resonated (and it still does) not only with Germans but with people from all over the world.
She is one of the most celebrated German artists and a central figure of Modernism in the country.
To know more:
The Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln, Germany holds the biggest collection of her work, including drawings, prints and sculptures. If you can’t visit Köln just now, check their website where you can browse the collection and read the artist’s full bio.
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