Kollwitz wrote, “I want to have an effect on my time, in which human beings are so confused and in need of help.” The wrenching subject of Woman with Dead Child is related to her experiences with families treated by her husband, a physician in an underserved sector of Berlin where disease and childhood mortality were commonplace. Using herself and her seven-year-old son as models, she developed a dense network of fine lines and shadowy textures to dramatize the theme of a mother grieving the death of her child.
Gallery label from 2021
In the early decades of the twentieth century, when modern art became virtually synonymous with colorful abstract painting by artists who were predominantly male, Kollwitz achieved unlikely renown for her figurative, black-and-white prints focusing on the hardships of the working class. Her life spanned a period of wrenching upheavals, from the social ills of industrialization through the traumas of two world wars, and women mourning or protecting children became one of her major themes. Woman with Dead Child, for example, is a particularly devastating expression of the primal maternal bond and the universality of human grief.
Kollwitz used herself and her seven-year-old son as the models for this image, a variation on the Christian pietà in which the Virgin Mary is depicted cradling the dead Christ’s body. But the raw, almost animalistic anguish on the mother’s face and the abject posture of her naked body depart from the beatific serenity of that tradition and anticipate instead the anxious distortions of German Expressionism. Kollwitz’s preoccupation with this subject was fueled in part by her marriage to a physician who served impoverished families in Berlin, where childhood mortality was often a stark reality. The artist developed a dense network of fine lines to create dramatic shadows and highlights, and she experimented with sandpaper to impart rough textures to the surface of the metal printing plate.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)