Käthe Kollwitz, 1906, in front of her etching “Carmagnole”
(Kollwitz Estate, Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln, photo: Philipp Kester)
On the occasion of the artist’s anniversary, this article is dedicated to the graphic work of Käthe Kollwitz.
Käthe Kollwitz, who was born on July 8, 1867 in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad, Russia), is one of the most important German artists of the 20th century. Her art and universal message “Never again war!” have lost none of their expressiveness even today. They are more relevant than ever. Sensitive, stirring, poignant: nothing characterizes the work of this exceptional artist better. “I want to have an effect in this time when people are so helpless and in need of help,” she wrote down in her diary in 1922. This life motto developed out of a strong inner need and drove the graphic artist and sculptor forward in her artistic work. She dealt exclusively with the depiction of man, portraying his hardship and suffering, but also joy, in a vivid pictorial language. Her prints belong to the great tradition of Rembrandt, Goya and Klinger.
(Kollwitz Estate, Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln)
According to her own account, she owed her turn to graphic art and her preoccupation with the problematic and oppressive aspects of life to Max Klinger’s graphic art work and his art-theoretical publication “Painting and Drawing”, which appeared in 1891. However, her marriage to the Social Democratic doctor for the poor Karl Kollwitz, the resulting move to Berlin to today’s Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, and the limited work possibilities in her apartment were also reasons for the artist to turn away from painting and towards printmaking. In 1898, she achieved her artistic breakthrough with her first print cycle “A Weavers’ Revolt” at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. Inspired by a drama by Gerhart Hauptmann, she created the six-part cycle in equal parts as an etching and a lithograph. As a member of the jury, Max Liebermann, with whom she remained on friendly terms throughout her life, lobbied hard for recognition of the artist. Although this was denied to her by the highest authorities, this did not detract from her artistic success.
March of the Weavers, sheet 4 from the cycle „A Weavers’ Revolt“, etching 1893-1897
Charge, sheet 5 from the cycle „Peasants’ War“, etching 1902/1903
Liebermann, who was 20 years her senior, remained one of her most important patrons. Under his presidency, Käthe Kollwitz became the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1919 and was appointed professor. In 1928, she was appointed director of the master studio for graphic art. A year later, the now world-famous artist was awarded the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts. However, it was not artistic success alone that drove her, but rather the need to use her art to denounce societal and social grievances and to make a difference.
Printmaking was an adequate means for her to do this, due to its dissemination possibilities. Kollwitz first experimented with lithography and etching. In the early 1920s, the outstanding draftswoman also discovered woodcutting through works by the sculptor Ernst Barlach, who was three years her junior. In her graphic series “War” and “Proletariat” she applied the woodcut revived in Expressionism. Especially for the subject of war, this printing technique with its high-contrast black-and-white effect seemed most suitable to her. She processed her personal experiences of the First World War in the 1922 series “War”: the loss of her younger son Peter, who had been killed as a war volunteer on October 22, 1914. This event shaped the artist like no other and made her a pacifist. In a letter to the French writer Romain Rolland from October 1922, she wrote:
“I have always tried to shape the war. I could never grasp it. Now, finally, I have finished a series of woodcuts that say to some extent what I wanted to say. […] These sheets are to travel all over the world and are to say to all people: that’s how it was – that’s what we all carried through these unspeakably difficult years.”
As a memorial to her fallen son, the figural group “Mourning Parents” was erected in 1932 at the Flemish military cemetery in Vladslo, where Peter’s grave is also located. Although her sculptural work, in contrast to her graphic oeuvre, is quite manageable, Kollwitz repeatedly emphasized how much sculptural work meant to her.
The Mothers, sheet 6 from the series „War“, woodcut 1921/22
During this difficult time, Käthe Kollwitz, who was “unofficially” banned from working and ostracized by the National Socialist regime, acknowledged her longtime artistic companion, Max Liebermann, who was ostracized by the National Socialists, and was one of the few colleagues to attend his funeral in 1935. She herself died at the age of 77, just a few days before the end of the Second World War, in the seclusion of Moritzburg near Dresden. In accordance with her wishes, the urn containing her ashes was buried at the Berlin-Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery, where she found her final resting place in the family grave – she had created the tomb relief “Rest in the Peace of His Hands” herself.
The wide range of her work encompassed serious, heavy themes such as hardship, war, poverty, hunger and death as well as cheerful, light-hearted motifs such as love and the bond between mother and child. But it was especially with her socially critical works that she put her finger on the wounds of the times. Her intensive involvement with printmaking and her extraordinary printmaking skills made her an exceptional figure in the art of her time. She not only succeeded in combining career and family. Unlike many other women artists of her time, her name is also firmly anchored in art history. The artist lived and worked in Berlin for more than 50 years and was committed to social justice, humanity and peace. Her touching and timeless work has lost nothing of its radiance to this day.
The article, written by art historian Neslihan Aslan of the Kollwitz Museum Berlin, was created for the museum blog of the Liebermann Villa on Wannsee.
Poster „Never again War!“, Lithography 1924