Käthe Kollwitz. Ask the Women and Children Whom Hitler Is Starving Whether Rationing Is Too Great a “Sacrifice”. 1942. Lithograph, 55 3/4 × 39 13/16" (141.6 × 101.2 cm). Gift of the Office of War Information. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Office of War Information

Images that capture what it’s like to be alive. Though they were born a century apart, Käthe Kollwitz and Wolfgang Tillmans have more in common than meets the eye. Living through widespread industrialization and the turmoil of two world wars, German artist Käthe Kollwitz dedicated herself to making art with a social purpose. “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men,” she once declared. Similarly, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans sees an artist as someone who “has the role of amplifier, of amplification.” To commemorate MoMA’s Käthe Kollwitz retrospective, we invited Tillmans to share his reflections on Kollwitz’s work and art’s potential to speak truth, no matter how difficult.
– Arlette Hernandez, Associate Educator, Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning

Arlette Hernandez: For people who may not be familiar with your work, how would you describe your artistic practice?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I come to my work from two sides. On the one hand, I want to speak directly about the time that I’m in, how it feels to be alive today—and that reaches into society, into the political, and into the intersection of the political and the private. On the other hand, the foundational motivation for what I do is wanting to speak without language, and say something about how I see the world. It’s maybe visual poetry that I’m doing. Because it’s photographs, we connect them so much to reality. But the conduit—why people even look at them—is the underlying poetry. After having tried a whole range of other media as a teenager, I found that this duality—being able to make poetry and speaking very concretely about things—is something that photography allows me to do.

Why do you feel that it’s important to make work that deals with things like society and politics and not just aesthetics?

Aesthetics are always charged with meaning, and therefore are connected to politics. Politics is always such a strong word. But when you look at it as the rules by which society lives—for example, who is allowed to love whom, who is allowed to live where—those become very personal questions that are organized by societies. If you want to be part of the conversation that shapes these decisions, then you are in a political sphere.

I found that what isn’t acceptable in a society says a lot about the politics of that society. For example, I’ve always been shocked by the fact that in most Western countries, you can show two men kill each other on afternoon television, but you cannot show two men kiss each other. In my work, I haven’t really pursued a clear agenda. For the first 25 years, it wasn’t about direct campaigning. It was really about the how. How do we look at people? How do we look at each other?
In Käthe Kollwitz’s work we see this “how” at work. How does she look at her fellow humans? Art says a lot about what is behind the camera, in my case, or what is going on in the minds of the draftspeople. You can see the point of view, and that, for me, is the biggest political message in my work. The title of my exhibition at MoMA, To look without fear, is witness to that approach, and to be open to the world.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Smokin’ Jo. 1995

Wolfgang Tillmans. Smokin’ Jo. 1995

Käthe Kollwitz. Ask the Women and Children Whom Hitler Is Starving Whether Rationing Is Too Great a “Sacrifice”. 1942

Käthe Kollwitz. Ask the Women and Children Whom Hitler Is Starving Whether Rationing Is Too Great a “Sacrifice”. 1942

Do you remember the first time you encountered a work by Kollwitz?

There is a print in my parents’ house that I grew up with, of a Käthe Kollwitz drawing of four children reaching up empty food bowls. I only now learned that it was made for a poster about German children suffering famine. It was bold for my parents to want to live with it. My mother always felt it was a reminder to be grateful. It’s a humbling picture.

Did you learn about Kollwitz’s work as a student in Germany?

Kollwitz is very much part of the cultural fabric of Germany. There are, for example, 40 high schools named after her. And here in Berlin, a popular square is called Kollwitzplatz. Even though she was very left-leaning in her lifetime, her work is admired and respected across the political spectrum.

Kollwitz’s work appears as much in history classes as in art classes, because it speaks to the time that it is from while also addressing universal values and subject matter. Her work lent itself to illustrating history books just as much as to being a political campaign tool in the past. That is a rare quality. Often, I find art that serves a political purpose lacks artistic freedom. In her case, there is a great junction of that. Kollwitz’s art works in the graphic design department as material for a poster, it’s a history lesson, and at the same time it’s a breathtaking, stunningly executed work on paper.

What do you appreciate most about Kollwitz’s work?

I find it striking how, with her prodigious talent, Kollwitz chose to make work about the downtrodden. She could have made more money and been more successful if she depicted more appealing, uplifting subject matter. But she has this sense of compassion. In the last three decades, there has been a huge shift in society toward seeing the poor as a nuisance, as people who brought this suffering on themselves. This view says that they should just be managed, and taken out of sight. But Kollwitz’s work about the poor shows that she does not blame them. She sees their dignity and right to a better life.

In the early 1900s, a part of European society was highly progressive. The scary thing is that during the 1920s, only a few years after the progressive movement developed, all of it was washed away by fascism. The fearlessness with which Kollwitz chose her subject matter is very understandable to me, because those are the things that matter: love, and reducing suffering in society. Suffering cannot be avoided completely, but we can all aim to do no further harm and look at those who are weaker among us.

Do you see similarities between Kollwitz’s work and your own?

My photographs show an active—not a passive—acceptance of everything. I think that’s also how Kollwitz looked at her subject matter. There was an acceptance and an embrace—but not in the spirit of “this is all great and should not be changed.” There can be a way of embracing what you see, seeing the dignity in it and at the same time also seeing the need for change. And providing, as an artist, agency for change. That’s what she devoted her work to—being an agent of change.

Käthe Kollwitz. Poster Against Paragraph 218 (“Down with the Abortion Paragraphs!”). 1923

Käthe Kollwitz. Poster Against Paragraph 218 (“Down with the Abortion Paragraphs!”). 1923

Among Kollwitz’s best-known politically engaged artworks is a series of posters that speak out against war. Have you encountered her posters?

In the 1980s, her Nie Wieder Krieg (Never Again War) poster was part of the peace movement vernacular. It was art history and it was history, yet during the Cold War, a time when there was a tangible fear of an arms race going wrong, the poster felt very current. It didn’t have the smell of the 1920s on it. In 1984, it felt part of a then-current desire to get over all wars, something that of course we still haven’t achieved today, and that in some ways seem more distant from than ever.

Why do you think this poster has felt relevant for so long?

The strongest thing about the poster is how vocal it is. It’s the mouth, one hears a voice shouting, and the raised arm is such an exclamation mark. The reason this person is energized about this demand—“never again war”—is the suffering that they experienced.

Kollwitz made it in 1924, six years after the bloodiest, most atrocious war in human history took place in Europe. For the first time, people witnessed industrial means of killing. In 1914, when people were marching into and volunteering for war, they had no idea what they were getting into. This war resulted in previously unimaginable misery in the trenches; many thousands from both sides were just cannon fodder with no chance of survival. This traumatized European societies in profound ways. This idea that civilized, cultured neighbors who shared a common European culture would commit such bloodshed against each other was an absolute shock. That, I think, is what we see in this poster six years after the end of the first World War, imploring us to never go back there again.

What about Kollwitz’s poster against Paragraph 218? Do you think it is still relevant today?

It is fascinating to look at Kollwitz’s poster agitating against the German law that criminalized abortion. It’s from 1923, exactly 100 years before the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Women having control over their bodies and men controlling women’s bodies—it’s a struggle that is never over. I often say in interviews that I also see it as my duty to protect civil liberties that we enjoy, and that prior generations have fought for.

It wasn’t easy to get women’s voting rights established in Germany; achieving equality for women was an uncomfortable struggle, to say the least. The women who stood up and spoke for their rights were ostracized. They were not safe. Their efforts certainly weren't greeted with immediate applause. But their bravery is really admirable. If we are not defending what has been achieved in the past, we are doing a disservice to those who fought for those freedoms.

Käthe Kollwitz. Never Again War (Nie Wieder Krieg). 1924

Käthe Kollwitz. Never Again War (Nie Wieder Krieg). 1924

Wolfgang Tillmans. No Man Is an Island. No Country by Itself. 2016

Wolfgang Tillmans. No Man Is an Island. No Country by Itself. 2016

You have made political posters in the past. What encouraged you to do this?

In 2016, I became an activist on behalf of the project of European reconciliation and cooperation that began after the Second World War. The formation of the European Union underpinned my entire life: it allowed me to live in a neighboring European country and to travel freely around Europe as a young person. All of this was under attack in 2016, during a campaign to get the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

There was so much passion on the other side, and I’ve lived all my life between the UK and Germany. And I thought to myself that I didn’t want to wake up on the day after the referendum feeling like I hadn’t done what was in my power to stop this from happening. At the time, many people thought, “Oh, this is not going to happen.” Just like people thought that certain politicians would never get elected. And so 2016 taught us that unless you actually vote, others will decide things for you. I’ve always been very passionate about voter participation and the idea that every vote matters.

In 1922, Kollwitz said, “I am content that my art has purposes. I want to have an effect in this time, in which people are so confused and in need of help.” How successful do you think she was in achieving these purposes?

I think it’s important to not think in absolutes when talking about the success of an artist’s practice. Did Kollwitz succeed in ending all wars with that Never Again War poster? Of course not. Yet even though the world around her was marching to war, her call for humanism and peace is still heard today. And, of course, her work has been successful because we are sitting here talking about it.

Käthe Kollwitz is on view at MoMA through July 20, 2024.