Käthe Kollwitz’s Art Was Compassionate, Subversive, and Politically Outspoken
Portrait of Käthe Kollwitz by Tita Binz, 1930. Via Getty Images.
The artist Käthe Kollwitz did not shy away from presenting the worst of the human experience. In her paintings and lithographs, she captured the sudden misfortunes that life puts in our path. She once wrote, “I agree with my art serving a purpose.” And that purpose in the artist’s earliest works was to document the unpleasant aspects of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born in 1867 to a middle-class family in East Prussia, Kollwitz was raised in a household influenced by liberal socialist ideas. She later married a doctor who treated the working class in Berlin, where she saw firsthand the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the effects of impoverishment on the human body and mind. By capturing the suffering of the working poor in her early works, Kollwitz brought to life the inequalities of society in the waning days of the Prussian Empire.
Her breakthrough was a four-year cycle of work created between 1893 and 1897 known as “A Weaver’s Revolt.” The etchings and lithographs depict a working-class revolt against the Industrial Revolution. Despite the allusion to the Weavers’ Uprising of 1844—in which Prussian weavers revolted against a drop in wages after their jobs were mechanized—these dark artworks reimagine the brutally repressed uprising as a contemporary phenomenon.
Inspired by naturalist writer Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers (1892), the cycle peers inside the interiors of the weavers’ lives. Kollwitz recreates scenes in their homes as the distressed workers mourn for a lost child and plot their dissent, and shows the workers on strike in a series with single-word titles like Need, Conspiracy, and Death. Using thick, dark ink accented with occasional lines or dots that add shadows, she injects emotion into the otherwise monochrome works. The resulting mood of these colorless pieces, created using a scratching technique, is jarring.
While the cycle personified Kollwitz’s social activism, clearly outlining her beliefs in the proletarian struggle, it likewise exemplifies her particular interest in the woman’s role in such scenes. In Storming the Gate (1893–97), the weavers charge an industrialist’s villa, which peers out from behind insurmountable gates—and it is the women in the scene who hand the rebelling men the rocks they carry as they storm the complex.
Influenced by naturalist writers like Henrik Ibsen, whose notions on gender equality went beyond those popular at the time, Kollwitz’s work frequently documented the insular world of women in more honest ways. One of her earliest surviving works, A Woman’s Plight (Martyrdom of the Woman) (ca. 1889), done in shades of black and gray using pen and ink, grapples with the impact of an unwanted pregnancy by portraying a woman with a bowed head, a man at her feet. The lack of color reflects a woman in despair. The mood contrasts with the classical representations of motherhood as an angelic state of being.
Although the themes of the work, of motherhood and loss, were common in Kollwitz’s work, her later experiences would give the piece an added poignancy. In 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Kollwitz’s son Peter volunteered for the German army and was quickly killed on a battlefield in Belgium. The loss of a child, already a focal point in several of her works, took on added meaning as she returned to the subject throughout her later works.
Soon after Peter’s death, Kollwitz began sketching memorials to her fallen son; she began work on a plaster cast featuring the dead soldier at rest in late 1914. In 1932, a final version of the memorial, The Grieving Couple, featuring parents bent in mourning, was unveiled at the cemetery where Peter was buried.
The artist, however, did not let her own grief keep her from her art. She instead felt that her role, of the artist as activist, became even more necessary in the wake of her loss. “I have no right to withdraw from my responsibility as an advocate,” she wrote in her diaries in 1920.
Amid rising inflation and increasing hunger in Weimar Germany, Kollwitz turned to chalk posters to declare her pacifism and promote her ideals. Never again war! (1924) and The Survivors (1923)both feature women at their center, the latter showing women huddled over their children in a protective stance. A third chalked poster features a mother with child, advising Mothers, Give of your abundance (1926), presumably an allusion to the sacrifice Kollwitz had made when her sons volunteered to serve in the army during the war.
Though the messaging of these posters might be mistaken as a cathartic outlet for Kollwitz’s grief, they more so reveal the steadfastness of the artist’s progressive political beliefs. Described in the early years of her career as a political artist, she was later accused of creating socialist propaganda; after the death of her son, many began to view her as a pacifist artist protesting World War I. Kollwitz’s explicit political ideology led to the labeling of her work as degenerate by the Nazis.
Kollwitz was the first woman artist to be granted membership to and named a professor at the Prussian Art Academy, and she remained an outspoken activist even when that activism became dangerous. In 1933, the Nazis forced her to resign from her post at the Academy of Arts in Berlin as their clampdown on dissent and women’s rights began. Three years later, she and her husband were visited by the Gestapo and threatened with deportation for their continued activism. It is thought that her international acclaim—Kathe Kollwitz remains one of the most well-known German woman artists—saved them.
Käthe Kollwitz, Mother with her Dead Son (Pietà), 1937 / 1993. Photo by Rafael Rodrigues Camargo. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Yet despite the ban on exhibiting her work, the artist continued to sketch and sculpt from her home in Berlin as World War II drew closer.
Mother with her dead son—produced in 1937 first as a series of sketches, and then as a sculpture of a woman shrouded in mourning—has now come to memorialize the fallen soldiers of both World Wars and the sacrifice their mothers bore. “Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it,” the artist wrote near the end of her life, a lament over how little had changed despite her family’s own sacrifice.
Although Kollwitz’s sculptures can be found throughout Germany as memorials to the destruction wrought by World War II, the artist herself did not live to see its end. Her life’s story paralleled some of the biggest advancements and most destructive events in Germany history. Yet she died in April 1945, just two weeks before the country’s official capitulation.