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Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German printmaker and sculptor. She received her first art tuition from Rudolph Mauer (1845–1905) in Königsberg in 1881. She continued her training in 1885 in Berlin under Karl Stauffer-Bern and in 1888 under Ludwig Herterich (1856–1932) in Munich. Influenced by the prints of Max Klinger, which had been brought to her attention by Stauffer-Bern, she devoted herself to this form and gave up painting after 1890. She first produced etchings and lithographs but later also woodcuts. From 1891 she lived in Berlin where she had her first success: the portfolio of three lithographs and three etchings, A Weavers’ Revolt (1895–8; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), inspired by Gerhard Hauptmann’s play Die Weber, was shown at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung. Kollwitz joined the Secession in Berlin and was appointed to a special teaching post at the Künstlerinnenschule.

Kollwitz was indebted stylistically to naturalism, but her preferred subject-matter was linked to the emerging workers’ movement. Her prints on themes of social comment were carried out predominantly in black and white. However, her training as a painter had initially exerted considerable influence on her style. This changed around the turn of the century. Abandoning natural surroundings, she concentrated on different ways of representing the human body. It was then that a sculptural sensibility became decisive for her graphic forms. The first expression of this changing style was the etching Woman with Dead Child (1903; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.), which portrayed with an almost sculptural monumentality a crouching, naked female figure with her child on her lap. Kollwitz combined a trip to Paris in 1904 with a visit to the Académie Julian, where she learnt the basic principles of sculpture. After completing a series of seven etchings entitled Peasant War (1902–8; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) she began to create her own sculptures from 1910. Although Kollwitz was primarily a printmaker, the importance of sculpture in her work must not be underestimated. It is often possible to perceive an interaction between graphic and sculptural work that operates both stylistically and in the reciprocal usage of images and ideas.

As a printmaker and sculptor alike, Kollwitz was a slow worker. The Parents’ Monument (granite, h. of mother 1.22 m, h. of father 1.51 m, 1924; finished and erected 1932, Eessen-Roggevelde (now Vlasloo-Praedbosch), nr Diksmuide, Belgium), dedicated to her son, who died in action during World War I, exemplifies the lengthy formation process. Some of her prints, too, such as the series of seven woodcuts War (1922–3; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), were inspired by World War I. An exhibition of the work of Ernst Barlach in 1917 had prompted her to work in woodcuts, as he had done. Her first work in this medium was Memorial to Karl Liebknecht (1919–20; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), a commemorative print of the Spartacist leader who had been murdered in 1919. Barlach cannot merely be regarded as the impulse behind her interest in the woodcut. There existed a close spiritual affinity between the two artists. In terms of artistic production Barlach’s work guided Kollwitz towards simplicity and unity in representation.

Kollwitz’s intensive artistic engagement with the war and the death of her son make clear that all of her work was shaped greatly by her personal life, by events and emotions that she had experienced directly. Thus, after her first two series, which dealt with revolutionary themes, she portrayed increasingly passive states, such as those of suffering, waiting and enduring. A more active tendency returned to her work in the 1930s, triggered by the advent of World War II. Kollwitz was persistently concerned with the themes of mother and child, war, death and misery, and the self-portrait, for example Self-portrait with Karl Kollwitz . The themes were explored not only in her prints and drawings but also in her sculpture throughout her life. Hands and faces served her as vehicles of feelings, with bodies for the most part concealed beneath shapeless articles of clothing.

It was consistent with the way Kollwitz saw herself that she wanted to use her art to work for a cause and consequently designed posters on a variety of occasions. One of the first served as an announcement for an exhibition in 1905. Her most famous poster is probably War—Never Again! (1924; New York, Gal. St Etienne). Kollwitz’s committed political stance also contributed to the wide circulation of her work and to the heightening of her reputation. Of particular importance are the large exhibition on the occasion of her 50th birthday in 1917 at the Paul Cassirer Gallery, Berlin, and two exhibitions in Moscow in 1927 and 1932.

During the Weimar Republic (1919–33) Kollwitz was very successful. In 1919 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Preussische Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and received the title of professor. She had been running a studio in printmaking since 1928, and in 1929 she was awarded the Prussian decoration Pour le mérite. In 1932 she participated in a petitionary action against the Nazis. As a result of this act of political commitment, after Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 she was asked to leave the academy, and at the same time she lost her studio. Her work was included in exhibitions in Berlin and Munich in 1934 and 1935 but after that the state made it difficult for her to exhibit. The sense of mourning and longing for death that governed Kollwitz’s later works was elaborated around the portrayal of the mother protecting her children. At the same time her sculptural works came to the fore; after the series Death (eight lithographs, 1934–7; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) she produced four more prints but completed 14 sculptures. Among these were: Self-portrait (bronze, h. 3.7 m, 1926–36); the tomb relief Rest in the Peace of his Hands (bronze, h. 3.5 m, 1935–6; Berlin, Friedrichsfelde Cemetery); the Tower of Mothers (bronze, h. 2.7 m, 1938), which took up once more, from the series War, the image of mothers standing close together, protecting their children; the relief Lament (bronze, h. 2.6 m, 1938–40), produced in response to the death of Barlach; and the reliefs Mother Protecting her Child I and Mother Protecting her Child II (bronze, h. 1.8 m, 1.7 m, 1941–2), which paralleled her final print, Seeds for Sowing Should Not Be Milled (lithograph, 1942). The events of World War II caused Kollwitz to leave Berlin in 1943. Although a large portion of her work was stored in cellars, many of them were still lost when her house was destroyed in November 1943.

Josephine Gabler
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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