The Raw Art of Käthe Kollwitz
On the 8th of July 1867, German artist Käthe Kollwitz, nee Schmidt, was born in Königsberg (Prussia), now Kaliningrad (Russia). “The artist grew up in a liberal middle-class family and studied painting in Berlin (1884–85) and Munich (1888–89). Impressed by the prints of Max Klinger, she devoted herself primarily to graphic art after 1890, producing etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and drawings. In 1891 she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor who opened a clinic in a working-class section of Berlin. There she gained firsthand insight into the miserable conditions of the urban poor. (…)The death of her youngest son in battle in 1914 profoundly affected her, and she expressed her grief in another cycle of prints that treat the themes of a mother protecting her children, and of a mother with a dead child.” (Britannica).
Kollwitz has long been admired for her exemplary use of the graphic medium, in which she produced some of the most chilling and tender images of twentieth-century art. A number of universal themes can be traced in her work, namely death, parting, and loss present in both her graphic work and sculpture. Kollwitz’s art is deeply personal, and she excelled in extracting great subjects from mundane existence. Kollwitz was born a generation before the core group of Expressionists, and her artistic project has much more in common with the realism of writers like Zola, Dostoevsky and Hauptmann, and artists such as Liebermann and Klinger.
Käthe Kollwitz wrote in her diary: “beautiful to me were the Königsberg longshoremen…beautiful was the bold outline of the movements of ordinary folk.” Kollwitz had imprinted upon her childhood consciousness the particular jarring juxtaposition of feeling that she would spend the whole of her adult life giving form to. To her the lives of the poor are terrible yet beautiful. The suffering she draws is almost impossible to look at, except that as we look the initial shock of the pain turns into an essential exaltation: the spirit emerges from the body facing death or bent with grief or hunger. We do not turn our heads away from the grim scenes she constantly portrayed. Gazing at her etchings and lithographs, we feel energized, made larger, deeper, ripped open and healed at the same time. (…) Symbol and nature, inner and outer, resonate at once, giving Kollwitz’ work the enduring stature of great tragedy. Much of her work is essentially theatrical. People are caught in moments of heightened vaction or equally heightened recognition. (…) Kollwitz, who lived through the two World Wars, losing a son and then a grandson at the fronts, never drew pictures of the battlefield. She focused inereasingly on the faces of the victims, women, children, men whose homes and livelihoods, loved ones and futures were sacrificed to violence. Because she saw the victims, war becomes demystified, merely ridiculous and wasteful. Kollwitz’ women embrace their young; their arms are used to shelter, not to point a finger or a gun. Her mourners are overwhelmed by grief; the whole body takes the blow. But because they grieve so deeply, her figures survive. They resist dehumanization, refuse to be turned into things. (Karen Malpede, ‘Death-Defying Art’, review of Käthe Kollwitz by Elizabeth Prelinger, in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 3, Dec., 1992).
One of Kollwitz’ most amazing works began as a series of rather standard pietas, but ended as the supremely original “Woman with Dead Child” whose power is accurately described in the diary of the artist’s friend Beate Bonus- Jeep: “A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-colored corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arns, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb… It was pure passion itself, the force, sleeping contained in the mother animal, that yielding itself to the eye, is fixed here by Käthe Kollwitz, someone to whom it is given to reach beneath the ultimate veils.” (quoted in Käthe Kollwitz by Elizabeth Prelinger).
Feature Image: Woman with Dead Child, 1903 etching, private collection