In 1919, Käthe Kollwitz began work on Krieg (War), her response to the tragedies endured during what she called those "unspeakably difficult years" of World War I and its aftermath. The portfolio's seven woodcuts focus on the sorrows of those left behind—mothers, widows, and children. Kollwitz had struggled to find the appropriate means of expression until she saw an exhibition of Ernst Barlach's woodcuts in 1920. Revising each print through as many as nine preparatory drawings and states, Kollwitz radically simplified the compositions. The large-format, stark black-and-white woodcuts feature women left to face their grief and fears alone, with their partners, or with each other.
Only one print, Die Freiwilligen (The volunteers), shows the combatants. In it, Kollwitz's younger son, Peter, takes his place next to Death, who leads the troops in an ecstatic procession to war. Peter was killed in action just two months later. Kollwitz wanted these works to be widely viewed. By eliminating references to a specific time or place, she created universally legible indictments of the real sacrifices demanded in exchange for abstract concepts of honor and glory. The prints were exhibited in 1924 at the newly founded International Anti-War Museum in Berlin.
from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.
Käthe Kollwitz devoted herself to depicting the social and political injustices she witnessed in Germany during the tumultuous periods surrounding World Wars I and II. Trained at the School for Women Artists in Berlin during the 1880s, she turned to printmaking early in her career, feeling that it was the medium most befitting social criticism. During her lifetime, she made two hundred sixty prints, including etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts, some of which were used as poster compositions for various social causes.
The Parents is one from a series of woodcuts about World War I, a popular subject for many artists' print portfolios. Her series continued a tradition of apocalyptic print cycles that, in Europe, reaches back to the sixteenth century. Rather than depicting its violence, however, Kollwitz chose to focus on the emotional damage inflicted on the home front, especially on the women who lose sons, husbands, and brothers. Kollwitz herself never recovered from the death of her son Peter who, only months after joining the German army, was killed in combat in 1914.
Five years after his death, finding herself dissatisfied with lithography, Kollwitz experimented with the woodcut medium, hoping to find a print technique with which she could convey her grief, as well as strengthen and simplify her images. Searching for universal icons for the devastation imposed by war, she exploited the woodcut's inherent qualities to express the raw agony of war on the human psyche, slashing and gouging the wood to heighten the emotional impact of her images, and often silhouetting her black figures against the stark white smoothness of unprinted paper.
from Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 93
These prints express the raw agony that war inflicts on humanity. In The Widow I a woman hugs herself in anguish. Her rounded form and the tender contact of her massive hands over her chest and abdomen suggest that she may be pregnant, lending further poignancy to her situation. In The Mothers, a group of women locked in tight embrace console each other, while two frightened children peer out from beneath their protective huddle. In The Volunteers, four young men, whose distressed faces and clenched fists betray their sense of doom yet determination, volunteer to fight as they follow a drumming figure with a deathlike mask. Grief and torment pervade each of these images, so graphically conveyed by the crude slashes and gouges of the woodcut medium.
Kollwitz's Seven Woodcuts about War is one of several portfolios of prints by German artists focusing on the savagery of World War I. But rather than show the brutalities of warfare and bombing experienced by soldiers, the artist portrays the emotional responses of civilians. Although her sense of loss was very personal—her younger son Peter was killed in combat in Flanders—Kollwitz presents universal visions of the unending sorrow generated by war for those left behind.
from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 113