An engraver, sculptor, and printmaker, Käthe Kollwitz was known for her heart-tugging sculptural works with themes depicting war and peace. She was the sculptor behind the eloquent The Memorial “die Eltern’ which is installed at the tomb of her son, Peter Kollwitz, in Vladslo, Belgium. This masterpiece was inspired by the death of her son during the First World War in the battlefield near Diksmuide, Belgium. Instead of sulking herself into the depths of grief and mourning, she expressed these emotions through sculpture by creating a memorial of Peter.
The art of Käthe Kollwitz involves subjects that show how humans deal with death, specifically with the tragedy of war. She was one of those artists whose empathy had always been explicitly shown through her simplified compositions and the techniques commonly used in Naturalism and Expressionism. Aside from sculpture, she also found comfort in graphic arts such as lithography, printmaking, and engraving. She considered Max Klinger as the artist who had the most influence on her, as upon seeing his art, she had finally decided to devout herself to sculpture and printmaking instead of painting.
From 1890’s onward, Käthe Kollwitz had been producing lithographs and engravings for different patrons. She stayed much of her life in Germany like in Berlin where he achieved her first major success. She produced a series of etchings and lithographs entitled A Weavers’ Revolt (1895) which was actually based on the play Die Weber by Gerhard Hauptmann. The said play was later premiered at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, which gave much public exposure to the printmaker as well. Like most of the German expressionists at the time, Kollwitz had also joined the Berlin Secession. She was then offered a teaching position at Kunstlerinnenschule, which she accepted.
Below are the selected works by Käthe Kollwitz:
Käthe Schmidt-Kollwitz was born in July 8, 1867 in Konigsberg, East Prussia. He came from a well-off family and the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a house builder, and Katherina Schmidt, the daughter of Lutheran Church pastor, Julius Rupp. It is said that as a young girl, she was raised strictly by her maternal grandfather who taught her about socialism and religion.
Julius Rupp had been a professor, lay preacher, and a political leader. He had also founded the Free Religious Congregation after being debarred from the Evangelical State Church in Prussia. Käthe had always seen her grandfather on the pedestal which made her somewhat feeling distant from him. Meanwhile, his father had been a good provider for the family working as a mason and a master builder instead of pursuing his lawyering. However, when Rupp retired from his position as a spiritual leader, Karl Schmidt replaced him and made the ultimate sacrifice of quitting his job.
As parents, Karl and Katherina seemed to give their children as much freedom and respect as they needed in order to fit into society. Even though Kathe and Lise were girls they were allowed to stroll down the city street during daytime without any body guard around. Kathe says that “Our parents thought that in the developmental years a child’s talent must be nourished in order to grow and that nourishment comes at you from all over…” No wonder Germany’s world-renowned printmaker grew up valuing social justice, mutual respect and freedom as her major qualities.
It was her father who encouraged her the most when it comes to making art. Karl knew of his daughter’s talent in drawing even at a young age. In fact, the mason felt very positive and pleased about Kathe’s artistic career that he wanted her to take up formal art training sessions and classes.
At 14, Käthe Kollwitz was to receive only the best art instructions from qualified artists such as Rudolph Mauer in Konigsberg. And then three years later she entered the workshop of Karl Stauffer-Bern in Berlin and Ludwig Herterich in Munich in 1888. She used to attend the School for Female Artists in Berlin in which she stayed for one year only before moving onto the studio of Herterich. However, it was through Karl Bern that the works of Max Klinger was introduced to Kollwitz and things had never been the same for the artist.
But before Käthe Kollwitz became an independent artist, she was first a fiancée and a wife to Karl Kollwitz. She entered the marital bond with Karl at 17, and at the time, the husband was still a medical student. During her stay in Munich she realized that becoming a draughtsman is where she can achieve immense success rather than in painting. Therefore, in 1890 she moved back to Konigsberg and founded her own workshop. Her early works focused on depicting the life and struggles of laborers. A year after she was to be married with Karl Kollwitz, who eventually became a doctor and based in Berlin.
Spring of 1891 Karl and Kathe settled in North Berlin, where they were to spend the next five decades of their lives. She continued to be an artist while the husband worked as a doctor in his own clinic. The couple had two children but she thoroughly enjoyed having a quiet life with her family.
Long before Käthe Kollwitz became inspired to draw and sculpt war, she invested much of her time working on a series of etchings called The Weavers. The work was inspired by Hauptmann’s play of the same title. During this period, she admitted to having very few techniques to perfect her lithographs which attributed to multiple failures at first.
Completing The Weavers had been slow and filled with struggles but it somehow came to an end, successfully. Kathe particularly wanted the work to be given to her father, who fell seriously ill at the time. Unfortunately, her father died already before the series was completed and exhibited. The only consolation she received from it was a gold medal from the organizers yet The Kaiser group took notice of her raw talent and gave the recommendation she needed in order to take a big step to pursuing her career on a national level.
As time went by, Käthe Kollwitz gradually realized that she wanted to change the image of female artists, to make something revolutionary. Black Anna proved to be a worthwhile persona for her as it served her purpose of being an artist. This period she had already developed an approach that would make her a unique draughtsman in the country. She used her own image and likeness to create the Black Anna persona, and The Downtrodden was one of the series inspired by the historical background of the figure.
While working on The Peasants’ War, a six-year etching series, Käthe Kollwitz was employed as a contributing artist for Simpliziccimus. The said magazine aimed at publishing satirical takes on the progress of the country. In 1909 the publishers began using her drawings as a company to the Portraits of Misery. Her association with the magazine and themes of her art could be a contributing factor to her being classified as a socialist artist. Besides, Kathe thought that to progress socialism was where Germany was heading to at the time.
But as she revealed, “my real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the broad freedom of movement and the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois as a whole seemed to me pedantic…”
As a social realist, she went as far as accepting the tragedies and struggles suffered the proletariats. Kathe had an apparent empathy towards those people, especially when her husband was working with poor people, having been exposed to the pressing problems of the less privileged; from prostitution, unemployment, and oppression, it angered her but chose art to express these emotions and let other people know of these kinds of struggles.
Just two months after the WWI broke out, her son, Peter Kollwitz died in the battlefield. This significant event made her stronger as she realized she did not want to die despite being left devastated and heartbroken by the death of her son. She thought to make the most out of her talent and continue nourishing it by creating a memorial for Peter. She gladly took the seeds (which she alluded to as Peter) that she had to cultivate over the years and faithfully believed in her ability to finish it.
However, finishing through The Parents’ Memorial had not been a smooth sailing ride for Käthe Kollwitz as she suffered stagnation in her work. She may have suffered from depression for all we know, but more importantly, she found the strength to come back to work in the end.
In her advanced years Käthe Kollwitz was able to complete three more series such as The War, Posters, and Death as well as a couple of individual lithographs. Around the 1930’s, she was already a popular lithographer and printmaker throughout Germany, and to an extent, Europe. Her popularity helped her skip death from the Nazi concentration camp and a few offers from countries like the US who was willing to take her in, being at 70 years old already.
Käthe Kollwitz died from an unknown disease on April 22, 1945 at the age of 77.