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.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.