Death was one of the most persistent themes in Käthe Kollwitz’s work. It continued to exert an inexorable pull on the artist near the end of her life and served as the subject of this, her final print cycle. Ten years before completing the portfolio, Kollwitz had noted in her diary, “I must do the prints on Death. Must, must, must!” She chose lithography, her preferred technique for creating emotionally powerful images with universal resonance, as the medium, but struggled to shape her ideas, only executing the first five prints in 1934. She added three more lithographs to the series in 1937.
These eight images (five of which are in the Museum’s collection) show Death visiting the most vulnerable members of society, the impoverished women and children whose plight Kollwitz had repeatedly chronicled in her long career of socially engaged printmaking. Set against a blank background free of any markers of time or place, Death comes, sometimes violently—as in Tod greift in eine Kinderschar (Death grabbing at a group of children)—and sometimes as a welcome friend. In the final print, Ruf des Todes (Call of Death), the artist herself finally yields to the temptations that had lured so many before her. Here, as in the opening print of a mother who has lost all hope, Death need only extend its hand.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.