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Käthe Kollwitz (née Schmidt) 1867-1942

 

German graphic artist and sculptor, whose major themes were poverty, injustice and suffering. "I have never produced anything cold," Kollwitz once said, "but always to some extent with my blood." Kollwitz's letters, memoirs and diaries are collected in Ich sah die Welt mit liebvollen Blicken (1970).

"Der Künster ist meist ein Kind seiner Zeit, besonders, wenn seine eigene Entwicklungsperiode in die Zeit des frühen Sozialismus fällt. Meine Entwicklungszeit fiel in die Zeit des frühen Sozialismus. Dieser ergriff mich gänzlich. Von einer bewußtn Arbeit im Dienste des Proletariats war damals für mich keine Rede." (Kollwitz in Käthe Kollwitz by Otto Nagel, 1971)

Käthe Kollwitz was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, into a relatively wealthy home. She was the fifth child of Karl and Katharina Schmidt (née Rupp). Three of their seven children died, two of them, Julius and Benjamin, of meningitis. Karl Schmidt had first studied law but he then turned his back to the legal profession and became a master-mason. "Mother was never a close friend and good comrade to us," Kollwitz recalled. " But we always loved her."

Kollwitz grew up in the atmosphere of religious teachings and radical thought. Her grandfather, Julius Rapp, was the founder of the Free Religious Congregational Church. After his death Karl was appointed its head. At home Kollwitz was taught to obey and suppress her own feelings. "A loving God was never brought home to us," she recalled. Kollwitz had nightmares, crying spouts, and she suffered from stomach aches. She was never spanked but as punishment for her wild screaming, she was usually locked up by herself for a long time. Alice Miller has noted that Kollwitz's pictures lack the feeling of genuine anger one would expect from their social themes.

Kollwitz was encouraged to draw as a child by her father. Her first painting Kollwitz created at sixteen. In 1884 she entered an academy established specially for women in Berlin. Kollwitz continued her art studies in Köningsberg, and in Munich's School for Women Artists, where she realized that she was not a painter at all - the graphic arts were her medium. In her early period Kollwitz took influences from Zola's approach to reality and Max Klinger's symbolist engravings.

In 1891 Kollwitz married Dr. Karl Kollwitz; they had two sons, Hans and Peter. Karl was a physician for a workers' health insurance fund. For the next half century they lived in the working class suburb of North Berlin. In the top story of their apartment at 25 Weissenburgerstrasse at Wörther Platz, they also housed relatives and friends. From 1922 they also took care of Georg, the young son of Kollwitz's friend, who lived in poverty in Paris. Kollwitz's studio was next to her husband's office. When she was working there, she demanded absolute silence from her family. In her self-portraits Kollwitz never smiled openly but watched the world with melancholy eyes. However, she also had a less serious side. "Mother loved laughter and longed for opportunities to laugh," Hans Kollwitz has recalled.

Kollwitz's first series of lithographs, The Weavers' Revolt (1893-98), was loosely based on Gerhart Hauptmann's play. The series was shown at the annual Berlin art show in 1898. Due to its politically powerful subject matter, Kaiser Wilhelm refused to award her the medal she had won. However, Kollwitz was appointed to teach graphics and nude studies at the Berlin Kunstlerinnenschule. At Dresden in 1899 the work was awarded a gold medal, and it received also a prize at London in 1900. The Weavers set is considered a landmark in class-conscious art, although at that time Kollwitz rejected the label of a socialist artist, and it is possible that she never joined the Social Democratic Party, for which her brother Kondrad worked.

Kollwitz's later print series include the woodcuts The Peasants' War (1903-08), in which the chief figure of 'Outbreak' was the furious Black Anna, portrayed from her back, and Proletariat (1925). Also Die Carmagnole (1901), about women dancing around a guillotine, was partly inspired by a literary source, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Black Anna's dramatic gesturing – is she full of hatred or is she desperate – is unusual for a typical Kollwitz woman, who is nurturing and protective, or resignated. Black Anna is the complete opposite to Eugène Delacroix's famous painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830), which which the half-naked female figure represents victory and control.

As a doctor's wife in a poor quarter of Berlin, Kollwitz witnessed daily the pain of distressed families and the plight of the working class women. Her enlarged, isolated figures express suffering, grief, helplessness, or gloomy introspection. The Pietà theme, Christ dead in his mother's arms, haunted Kollwitz throughout her career. Many of Kollwitz's works portray a tragedy – mother clinging to her child as he dies, or a child and a sickly mother. Sometimes a group of women protect a child, as in the sculpture Tower of the Mothers, created in 1937-38. Kollwitz's sturdy figures show the influence of her friend, Ernst Barlach, whose graphic technique also inspired her woodcut Gedenkenblatt für Karl Liebknecht (1919-20).

Kollwitz's social consciousness, which could be characterized as "critical humanitarianism", separated her from Modernist artists who wanted to minimize the importance of subject matter, and such pioneering Expressionist groups as Die Brücke and the Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky, Marc, and Klee. Following Goya and Damier, she fully accepted the social function of art. "I am content that my art should have purpose outside itself," Kollwitz wrote in her diary, "my course is clear and unequivocal." In spite of her mission, Kollwitz's works convey a feeling of inwardness and privacy which is in strange contrast with their public nature. "A certain melancholy was about her," said Geroge Grosz who met her only once, "far from talkative, rather moody."

In 1907 the Villa Romana Prize by Max Klinger enabled Kollwitz to spend time in Italy, where she took a walking tour from Florence to Rome with an English woman equipped with a revolver. Italian Renaissance art, with the exception of Michelangelo's work, did not inspire her. "The enormous galleries are confusing, and they put you off because of the masses of inferior stuff in the pompous Italian vein," she wrote in a letter. In 1913 Kollwitz co-founded the Women's Arts Union, Frauen Kunstverband. From the beginning of Kollwitz's career, the theme of romantic love did not interest her, but in some drawings she depicted tender feelings between women. "As a matter of fact I believe that bisexuality is almost a necessary factor in artistic production," Kollwitz once confessed, "at any rate, the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work."

In 1913 appeared a catalogue of Kollwitz's graphic work and an album of her prints. After the outbreak of WWI, Peter Kollwitz, just eighteen, volunteered for the German Army. He died on the Belgian front. Devastated by the loss of her son, Kollwitz worked for many years on a memorial to the fallen. The deeply personal sculpture of two kneeling figures, 'The Mother' and 'The Father', was eventually revealed in 1932 in the Rogevelt Military Cemetery in Belgium. When Kollwitz visited the cemetery for the last time, she wrote in her diary: "I stood before the woman, looked at her—my own face—and I wept and stroked her cheeks. Karl stood close behind me—I did not even realize it. I heard him whisper, "Yes, yes." How close we were to one another then!"

Before World War I, Expressionist artist had turned toward spirituality, the inner reality. After the war the dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic united politically conscious artists and writers. George Grosz, a misanthropist who scourged in his drawings militarism, capitalism, and the bourgeoisie, described Berlin as a "seething cauldron," where it could not be seen "who was fanning the flames; all one knew was that the cauldron was growing hotter all the time. Speakers stood on every street corner; songs of hate rose up everywhere..."  (from A Small Yes and a Big No, 1982) However, in general Expressionists did not use paintig as a political weapon. Great exceptions were Franz Masereel and Kollwitz, whose Hunger (1925) and Erwerbslos (1925, Unemployed) interpreted the despair of millions during the period of depression, mass unemployment, and runaway inflation.

Kollwitz's fiftieth birthday was commemorated in the summer of 1917 with a retrospective exhibition in Paul Cassirer's Gallery in Berlin. At the age of 52, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the prestigious Prussian Academy of Art. In 1920 appeared her woodcut commemorating the murder of the communist Karl Liebknecht, a friend of the family. Kollwitz had made drawings of Liebknecht's corpse before his funeral. The widely distributed work created a symbolic connection with Christ's martyrdom and the death of a Marxist revolutionary.

Kollwitz made several prints as propaganda against war, such as the woodcut Die Freiwilligen (1922/23, The Volunteers), a version of the dance of death. The feverish mass hysteria, which had gripped the nations at the outbreak of WWI, is portrayed through a group of young men following blindly the figure of Death. Among Kollwitz's most copied anti-war pieces is Nie wieder Krieg (1924, Never Again War), in which a male figure raises one arm high and the other hand is on his heart. Kollwitz was internationally known for her etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs, but also her posters for leftist organizations and humanitarian leaflets contributed to her fame. In Finland, her work infuenced the graphic artist Tapio Tapiovaara and the poet Katri Vala, and in China the short-story writer and critic Lu Xun introduced Kollwitz to his fellow countrymen.

In 1927 Kollwitz visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR). Although she was subsequently disillusioned, she did not denounce Stalinist culture and propaganda. In 1932 her works were shown in Leningrad and Moscow. Before the great wave of terror, she made a pro-Soviet lithograph, Wir schützen die Sowjetunion (1931-32), in which a chain of people form a protective wall.

In 1928 Kollwitz became the head of the master class in graphics at the Berlin Academy. After Hitler assumed power in 1933, many leftist artists went into exile or were forced to stop working. Kollowitz attempted to form with Heinrich Mann a front of artists against the Nazi administration, but soon she had to resign from the Academy, when the Nazis threatened to break up it. Kollwitz's works were still displayed at the Crown Prince Palace, but in 1936 it was closed to the public. After Kollwitz gave an interview to a Russian reporter, she was interrogated by the Gestapo. In 1938 her husband's medical practice was banned.

In 1934-35 Kollwitz made eight large lithographs called Death. The cycle culminated in her own self-portrait in Ruf des Todes, in which a ghostly hand touches the artist. During her life, Kollwitz made numerous self portraits, which intimately record the passing of time. Kollwitz never met the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), but they both approach the ageing process with similar spirituality and serenity.

Speaking in 1937 at the opening of the Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in Munich, Hitler called Expressionists as criminals and fools, and announced a purging policy "against the last elements of our cultural perversion." Among the condemned artists were Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, and some Jewish painters, such as Marc Chagall. Kollwitz was not included in the Munich list of artists. She was so popular that even the Nazis used her work in their own propaganda, as the litograph Brot (1924) in 1937.

Karl Kollwitz died in 1940. Two years later Kollwitz's grandson was killed in Russia. Her home and a number of her works were destroyed in 1943 in an air raid - only one portfolio survived. Because of bombings, she was evacuated from Berlin. In 1944 she found a refuge in the Moritzburg estate of Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. Kollwitz died on 22 April, 1945, in Moritzburg. She was cremated and buried in Berlin with her husband, brothers, and sisters. After the war, Kollwitz dramatic work was dismissed in the West by art historians as "propaganda". A New York Times reviewer called her work "positively distasteful". However, the French Nobel writer Romain Rolland praised her achievements and in the German Democratic Republic and other Communist countries she was recognized as one of the most important 20th century graphic artists.

For further reading: Kollwitz by Max Lehrs (1903); Kollwitz: Ein Ruf ertönt by Louise Diel (1927); Kollwitz, Mutter und Kind by Louise Diel (1928); Kollwitz by Carl Zigrosser (1948); Sechzig Jahre Freundschaft mit Kollwitz by Beate Bonus-Jeep (1948); Prints and Drawings of Kollwitz by Carl Zitgrosser (1951); Erlebtes mit Kollwitz by Lenka von Koerber (1957); Kollwitz: Drawings by Heinz Mansfield (1959); Kollwitz by Fritz Schmalenbach (1965); Kollwitz by Christoph Meckel, Ulrich Weisner, and Hans Kollwitz (1967); Käthe Kollwitz by Otto Nagel (1971); Kollwitz: Life in Art by Arthur Klein and Mina C. (1972); Kollwitz by Werner Timm (1974); Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist by Martha Kearns (1976); Kollwitz in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddockumenten by Catherine Krahmer (1981); The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness by Alice Miller (1991); Kathe Kollwitz by Elizabeth Prelinger et al. (1993); Käthe Kollwitz: Artist of the People (1995); Käthe Kollwitz: die prägenden Jahre by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck (1998); Käthe Kollwitz: The Art of Compassion by Brenda Rix; with an essay by Jay A. Clarke (2003)

Selected works:

  • Ka¨the Kollwitz-mappe, 1931 (6th ed., edited by Joseph Popp)
  • Käthe Kollwitz, 1946 (introduction by Carl Zigrosser)
  • Einundzwanzig Zeichnungen der spa¨ten Jahre, 1948 (introduction vy Carl Georg Heise)
  • Ten Lithographs, 1941 (introductory essay by Elizabeth McCausland)
  • Tagebuchblätter und Briefe, 1948 (edited by Hans Kollwitz)
    - The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz (translated by Richard and Clara Winston, 1955)
  • "Ich will werken in dieser Zeit", 1952 (edited by Hans Kollwitz)
  • Ein Herz schlägt für die Mütter; 100 Handzeichnungen von Käthe Kollwitz, 1953 (text by Werner Schumann)
  • Aus meinem Leben, 1957 (edited by Hans Kollwitz)
  • Bauernkrieg, 1958 (introduction by Heinz Mansfeld)
  • Aus Tagebüchern und Briefen, 1959 (edited by Horst Wandrey)
  • Briefe der Freundschaft und Begegnungen, 1966
  • The Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, 1967 (introd. by Stephen Longstreet)
  • Käthe Kollwitz an Dr. Heinrich Becker; Briefe, 1967
  • Ich sah die Welt mit liebvollen Blicken: Ein Leben im Selbstzeugnissen, 1968 (edited by Hans Kollwitz)
  • Käthe Kollwitz; die Handzeichnungen, 1972 (edited by Otto Nagel et al.)
  • Blätter über den Bauernkrieg, 1975 (edited by Harri Nündel)
  • Käthe Kollwitz: Radierungen, Lithographien, Holzschnitte, 1979 (edited by Ralph Jentsch)
  • Bekenntnisse, 1981 (edited by Volker Frank)
  • Käthe Kollwitz: das farbige Werk, 1987 (edited by Tom Fecht)
    - Käthe Kollwitz: Works in Color (edited and with an introduction by Tom Fecht, translated by A.S. Wensinger and R.H. Wood, 1988)
  • Die Tagebücher, 1989 (edited by Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz)
  • Briefe an den Sohn, 1904 bis 1945, 1992 (edited by Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz)
  • Käthe Kollwitz: Selbstbildnesse=Self-Portraits, 2007 (edited by Martin Fritsch)


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