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Monday, 20 April 2009

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz Biography

1867 Born in Königsberg, East Prussia
1884 Attended School for Women Artists, Berlin, Germany
1919 First female member of the Prussian Academy, Berlin, Germany
1943 Work banned by the Nazis, Berlin, Germany
1945 Died in Moritzburg, Germany

Käthe Kollwitz was born on 8 July 1867, the daughter of Karl Schmidt, a master mason and preacher of the free-religious community in Königsberg.7 In 1881-82, Kollwitz received her first art lessons from the engraver Rudolf Maurer in Königsberg and attended the School for Women Artists in Berlin, where she studied with the Swiss artist Karl Stauffer-Bern from 1885 until 1886. Influenced by Max Klinger's prints, she abandoned painting and turned to graphic art. She married Karl Kollwitz, a medical student, in 1891, and lived with him in Berlin, where she had direct contact with the industrial working class, who were her husband's patients and the subject matter of much of her work.

Kollwitz was also concerned with the interrelated themes of death, war, and maternal loss. Major works include the Weavers' Revolt (1895-98), a cycle of prints based on Gerhart Hauptmann's 1893 drama The Weavers; The Peasants' War (1908), a large-format cycle of prints that established her reputation as one of Germany's most important printmakers; a steady series of drawings published in the satirical magazine Simplicissimus; and posters such as her well-known War--Never Again! (1924). Kollwitz's professional success--marked by exhibitions in honor of her fiftieth birthday in 1917, and her appointment as professor at the Preussische Akademie der Künste in 1919--did not undermine her sense of social calling, reflected in works entitled War, Departure and Death, and Proletariat.

This affinity with socialist causes and communist politics led to the loss of her position and studio at the Akademie when the National Socialists assumed power in 1933. She was prohibited from exhibiting her work, and both her husband Karl and her son Hans were prevented from practicing medicine. Some of Kollwitz's work was included in Hitler's Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937. During the same year she finished her monumental sculpture Mother with Twins. Kollwitz died on 22 April 1945, after the loss of her husband, her grandson, her home, and studio, and the destruction of most of her printing plates.

Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz (July 8, 1867 – April 22, 1945)

was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate, expressed most famously through the graphic means of drawing, etching, lithography, and woodcut, embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.[1][2] Initially her work was grounded in Naturalism, and later took on Expressionistic qualities.[3]


  • 1 Life and work
    • 1.1 Youth
    • 1.2 The Weavers
    • 1.3 Peasant War
    • 1.4 Modernism and World War I
    • 1.5 Later life and World War II
  • 2 Legacy
  • 3 References
  • 4 External links

Life and work


Kollwitz was born in Königsberg, Province of Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), the fifth child in her family. Her father, Karl Schmidt, was a radical Social democrat who became a mason and house builder. Her mother, Katherina Schmidt, was the daughter of Julius Rupp, a Lutheran pastor who was expelled from the official State Church and founded an independent congregation. Her education was greatly influenced by her grandfather's lessons in religion and socialism. The early death of her younger brother Benjamin also left an impression; in childhood Kollwitz was afflicted with anxiety.[4]

Recognizing her talent, Kollwitz' father arranged for her to begin lessons in drawing and copying plaster casts when she was twelve.[5] At sixteen she began making drawings of working people, the sailors and peasants she saw in her father's offices. Wishing to continue her studies at a time when no colleges or academies were open to young women, Kollwitz enrolled in an art school for women in Berlin. There she studied with Karl Stauffer-Bern, a friend of the artist Max Klinger. The etchings of Klinger, their technique and social concerns, were an inspiration to Kollwitz.[6]

At the age of seventeen Kollwitz became engaged to Karl Kollwitz, a medical student.[7] In 1888 she went to Munich to study at the Woman's Art School, where she realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draftsman. In 1890 she returned to Koenigsberg, rented her first studio, and continued to draw laborers.[8]

In 1891 Kollwitz married Karl, by this time a doctor who tended to the poor in Berlin, where the couple moved into the large apartment that would be Kollwitz' home until it was destroyed in World War II.[8] The proximity of her husband's practice proved invaluable:

The motifs I was able to select from this milieu (the workers' lives) offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful.... People from the bourgeois sphere were altogether without appeal or interest. All middle-class life seemed pedantic to me. On the other hand, I felt the proletariat had guts. It was not until much later....when I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me, that I was powerfully moved by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life....But what I would like to emphasize once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful.[9]

The Weavers

Between the births of her son Hans in 1892 and Peter in 1896, Kollwitz saw a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann's "The Weavers", which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langembielau and their failed revolt in 1842.[8] Inspired, the artist ceased work on a series of etchings she had intended to illustrate Emile Zola's Germinal, and produced a cycle of six works on the weavers theme, three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). Not a literal illustration of the drama, the works were a free and naturalistic expression of the workers' misery, hope, courage, and, eventually, doom. The cycle was exhibited publicly in 1898 to wide acclaim. But when Adolf Menzel nominated her work for the gold medal of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II withheld his approval. Nevertheless, The Weavers became Kollwitz' most widely acclaimed production.[10]

Peasant War

Kollwitz' second major cycle of works was the Peasant War, which, subject to many preliminary drawings and discarded ideas in lithography, occupied her from 1902 to 1908. The Peasant War was a violent revolution which took place in Southern Germany in the early years of the Reformation, beginning in 1525; peasants who had been treated as slaves took arms against feudal lords and the church. As was The Weavers, this subject, too, might have been suggested by a Hauptmann drama, Florian Geyer. However, the initial source of Kollwitz' interest dated to her youth, when she and her brother Konrad playfully imagined themselves as barricade fighters in a revolution.[11] The artist identified with the character of Black Anna, a woman cited as a protagonist in the uprising.[11] When completed, the Peasant War consisted of pieces in etching, aquatint, and soft ground: Plowing, Raped, Sharpening the Scythe, Arming in the Vault, Outbreak, After the Battle (which, eerily premonitory, features a mother searching through corpses in the night, looking for her son), and The Prisoners. In all, the works were technically more impressive than those of The Weavers, owing to their greater size and dramatic command of light and shadow. They are Kollwitz' highest achievements as an etcher.[11]

While working on Peasant War, Kollwitz twice visited Paris, and enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian in order to learn how to sculpt.[12] The etching Outbreak was awarded the Villa Romana prize, which provided for a year's stay, in 1907, in a studio in Florence. Although Kollwitz did no work, she later recalled the impact of early Renaissance art.[13]

The Grieving Parents, a memorial to Kollwitz' son Peter, now in Vladslo German war cemetery.

Modernism and World War I

After her return Kollwitz continued to exhibit her work, but was impressed by the work of younger compatriots--the Expressionists and Bauhaus--and resolved to simplify her means of expression.[14] Subsequent works such as Runover, 1910, and Self-Portrait, 1912, show this new direction. She also continued to work on sculpture.

Kollwitz lost her youngest son Peter on the battlefield in World War I in October 1914, prompting a prolonged depression. By the end of the year she had made drawings for a monument to Peter and his fallen comrades; she destroyed the monument in 1919, and began again in 1925.[15] The memorial, entitled The Grieving Parents, was finally completed and placed in the Belgian cemetery of Roggevelde in 1932.[16] Later, when Peter's grave was moved to the nearby Vladslo German war cemetery, the statues were also moved.

In 1917, on her fiftieth birthday, the galleries of Paul Cassirer provided a retrospective exhibition of one hundred and fifty drawings by Kollwitz.[17]

Kollwitz was a committed socialist and pacifist, who was eventually attracted to communism; her political and social sympathies found expression in the "memorial sheet for Karl Liebknecht", and in her involvement with the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, a part of the Social Democratic Party government in the first few weeks after the war. As the war wound down and a nationalistic appeal was made for old men and children to join the fighting, Kollwitz implored in a published statement:

There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall!"[18]

While working on the sheet for Karl Liebknecht, she found etching insufficient for expressing monumental ideas. After viewing woodcuts by Ernst Barlach at the Secession exhibitions, she completed the Liebknecht sheet in the new medium, and made about thirty woodcuts by 1926.[19]

In 1920 Kollwitz was elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, the first woman to be so honored. Membership entailed a regular income, a large studio, and a full professorship.[19]

In the years that followed, her reaction to the war found a continuous outlet. In 1922-23 she produced the cycle War in woodcut form, including the works The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People. In 1924 she finished her three most famous posters: Germany's Children Starving, Bread, and Never Again War.[20]

Later life and World War II

German stamp issued in 1991 in the Women in German history series

In 1933, after the establishment of the National-Socialist regime, the Nazi Party authorities forced her to resign her place on the faculty of the Akademie der Künste. Her work was removed from museums. Although she was banned from exhibiting, some of her work was used by the Nazis for propaganda.

Working now in a smaller studio, in the mid 1930s she completed her last major cycle of lithographs, Death, which consisted of eight stones: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

In July 1936 she and her husband were visited by the Gestapo, who threatened her with arrest and deportation to a concentration camp; they resolved to commit suicide if such a prospect became inevitable.[21] However, Kollwitz was by now a figure of international note, and no further actions were taken. On her seventieth birthday she "received over one hundred and fifty telegrams from leading personalities of the art world", as well as offers to house her in the United States, which she declined for fear of provoking reprisals against her family.[22]

She survived her husband (who died in 1940 from an illness) and her grandson Peter, who died in action during World War II (in 1942).

She evacuated Berlin in 1943. Later that year her house was bombed, and many drawings, prints, and documents were lost. She moved first to Nordhausen, then to Moritzburg, a town near Dresden, where she lived her final months as a guest of Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony.[22] Kollwitz died just before the end of the war.

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. Virtually the only portraits she made during her life were images of herself, of which there are at least fifty. These self-portraits constitute a life-long honest self-appraisal; "they are psychological milestones".[23]


Woman with Dead Child, 1903 etching
Mother with her Dead Son, sculpture in the Neue Wache in Berlin

Her silent lines penetrate the marrow like a cry of pain; such a cry was never heard among the Greeks and Romans.[24]

Käthe Kollwitz is a subject within William T. Vollmann's Europe Central, a 2005 National Book Award winner for fiction. In the book, Vollmann describes the lives of those touched by the fighting and events surrounding World War II in Germany and the Soviet Union. Her chapter is entitled "Woman with Dead Child", after her sculpture of the same name.

An enlarged version of a similar Kollwitz sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, was placed in 1993 at the center of Neue Wache in Berlin, which serves as a monument to "the Victims of War and Tyranny".

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