1 Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)


"There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall!"

"Don’t hide yourself – be the person you are, and find your essence."

Käthe Kollwitz was a German Realist and Expressionist artist (one of the earliest Expressionists), and pacifist, who dedicated her life and work to printmaking and sculpture. She made over 275 prints in her lifetime. In 1899 she won a gold medal at the Berlin Secession Exhibition. She won the Villa Romana Prize, Germany's oldest art award, in 1907 for her print 'Outbreak'. In 1920 she was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Art, and the first woman made an honorary professor in the Academy. The honor came with a studio space and a regular stipend from the government. In 1928 she was made the director of the Master Class for Graphic Arts at the Berlin Academy - although she was stripped of this position by the Nazis in 1933. 
'Death & The Mother', 1934

In 1946, Mary Wigman's dance school, under Dore Hoyer created Dances for Käthe Kollwitz, and performed it that year in Dresden. In 1960 a plaza was named after Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin, with a statue sculpted by Gustav Seitz In that same year Germany established the Käthe Kollwitz Prize - awarded to one German artist every year. Four museums in Germany are dedicated solely to her art. In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of her death, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Köln (Cologne) was founded. It's the largest collection of Kollwitz's art in the world. A biographical film was made of her in 1986. 

In 1993 a larger version of her sculpture 'Mother with Dead Son' was placed in the Neue Wache center in Berlin, as a monument to 'The Victims of War and Tyranny'. More than forty German schools are named after Käthe Kollwitz.

'Germany's Children Starve', 1924

For the most part, the great art on this website has been concerned with life during peace time - the joy of life, the wonder of story telling and fantasy. It's dealt with difficult issues such as sickness, old age, relationships, uncertainty, and death - life isn't easy. We know that. But, what do you do when forces beyond your control tear at the very fabric of reality itself? And where does art fit into anything, when your world becomes a living hell? Käthe Kollwitz found a way, and it shows the power art can have in the worst of times. Her work was a harbinger of things to come in the 20th century, and it's tragic more people didn't listen to her voice. How we survive the 21st century and beyond will be in large part a question of whether we can remember the lessons of Käthe Kollwitz and others, like Otto Dix, filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg who created Schindler's List, or if we're doomed to repeat our mistakes. Käthe Kollwitz wasn't the most detail-oriented or accurate artist, but she didn't have to be. She was the most powerful. Each of her images hits like a gut punch, a painful reminder of our human limitations, and the darker nature that lies within all of us. The mistakes we make, and the resulting suffering. If I had the authority, I'd require every military commander in the world to hang her works in their offices as a constant reminder of what we don't want to ever repeat.

'The Seeds for Sewing Should Not Be Milled', 1941

Käthe was born in nigsberg, meaning 'King's Hill', in Prussia (present day Kaliningrad, Russia). She was the fifth child in her family. Her father, Karl Schmidt, was a mason and builder, and was politically active - even called a radical. Her mother, Katherina Rupp Schmidt was the daughter of a rebellious Lutheran pastor named Julius Rupp, who had been expelled from the church and had formed his own congregation. Much of young Käthe's education came from her grandfather, who taught her about religion and socialism. She had a very difficult childhood, as illnesses took the lives of many of her siblings. Particularly painful was the death of her younger brother, Benjamin. Some research suggests that she might, possibly, have suffered from a childhood neurological disorder, called dysmetropsia, or Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Symptoms include severe migraines and distorted vision - things appear smaller or larger, or closer or farther than they really are.

'Self-Portrait', 1891


When she was twelve, her father saw that she had artistic talent, so he arranged for her to have art lessons with Gustav Naujok and an engraver, Rudolf Mauer. At sixteen, she moved to Berlin, and began taking art lessons at The Berlin School for Women Artists, under the portrait painter Karl Stauffer-Bern. The school helped teach a group of great students who all studied together, including KätheHedwig Weiß, Maria Slavona and Clara Siewert. While at the school, Käthe was exposed to the etchings of Max Klinger, whose style and social concerns were a great inspiration to her.

'March Days I' from Dramas, Opus IX, by Max Klinger, 1883

In 1887 Käthe returned to Königsberg, where she studied painting briefly with Emil Neide. In 1888 (age 21) Käthe moved to Munich, where she attended the Women's Art School, and decided to focus on drawing and printmaking. She studied live figure drawing under the artist Ludwig Herterich.

'Praying Woman', 1892

While in Munich, her brother introduced her to his classmate, Karl Kollwitz, a medical student. The two fell in love and were soon engaged. In 1890 Käthe moved back to Königsberg, and opened her own printmaking studio, focusing on the hard lives of the working class. But, in 1891 she moved back with Karl to Berlin, where they were finally married. The couple lived in a large apartment there, up until it was destroyed during WWII. Her husband Karl was by now a doctor, tending mostly the urban poor. Käthe found these patients to be her biggest source of inspiration, saying:

'Workers Coming From the Station', 1897

"The motifs I was able to select from this milieu (the workers' lives) offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful.... People from the bourgeois sphere were altogether without appeal or interest. All middle-class life seemed pedantic to me. On the other hand, I felt the proletariat had guts. It was not until much later...when I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me, that I was powerfully moved by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life.... But what I would like to emphasize once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful."

'March of the Weavers in Berlin' from The Weavers series, 1897

Käthe had two sons in the 1890's, Hans and Peter. At some point in this decade, she saw a play by Gerhart Hauptmann titled The Weavers, telling the story of a failed revolt in Langenbielau in 1844. 

'Revolt', from The Weavers series, 1897

It inspired her to create six prints of their story (three etchings and three lithographs). She exhibited the works at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1898, and artist Adolf Menzel nominated her for a gold medal, but Kaiser Wilhelm II refused, saying, "I beg you gentlemen, a medal for a woman, that would really be going too far . . . orders and medals of honour belong on the breasts of worthy men."

'The End', from The Weavers series, 1897

However, the exhibit gained the attention of Max Lehrs, director of the print room at the Dresden Museum, and he bought her work for the museum, and became a patron. Käthe also gained a job teaching figure drawing and etching at the Berlin Academy for Women Artists.

'Uprising', from The Peasant's War series, 1899

From 1902-08 Käthe worked on a new series of prints dedicated to the 16th C. Peasant's War in Southern Germany. It was the second largest uprising of peasants against aristocracy in Europe besides the French Revolution in 1789, and it failed miserably. Spurred on by Protestant reformation priests, hundreds of thousands of peasants were killed by highly trained military. Käthe's series focused around one figure of the failed war, Black Anna. 

'Outbreak', 1903

'Woman Worker with a Blue Shawl', 1903

Also, during this time, Käthe traveled to Paris, attending the Académie Julien, where she trained in sculpture. While there, she purchased a pastel by the young Picasso. In 1907 She stayed at the Villa Romana studio in Florence, Italy, having won the Villa Romana Prize. She chose not to stay the full year, but did take a three week walking tour from Florence to Rome. From 1908-10 she drew illustrations for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus.

'Mother with Dead Child', 1903

'Battlefield', 1907

'The Prisoners', 1908

Käthe and her husband Karl

Starting in 1913 Käthe and her husband Karl became politically active. He founded the Social Democratic Association of Physicians, and she helped found the Association of Women Artists, serving as chairperson until 1923. Following WWI, he became a council member of the Social Democratic Party in Berlin.

Peter Kollwitz in 1914, months before his death

In 1914, WWI came, and Käthe's son, Peter became a soldier. He died in October of that year, age 18, just a few months after the beginning. This began a depression that lasted the rest of her life. She labored over statues to commemorate his death, and those of his comrades. She made her first statues in 1919, but it wasn't enough for her, so she destroyed them and started again, this time finishing in 1925.

'Grieving Parents'

The works were installed at the cemetery in Roggevelde in Belgium (later moved to Vladslo German War Cemetery). Meanwhile she became an ardent pacifist throughout the war, writing open letters in newspapers and magazines calling for an end to violence.

'Mothers', 1919

'The Survivors'

'Two Dead People', 1920

In 1917 Käthe wrote an obituary for Auguste Rodin, whom she had met in Paris while studying there.

'Mothers', 1921

'Hospital Visit'

'The Widow', 1921

'Self-Portrait', 1923

In 1920 Käthe switched from etching to woodcut printing, inspired by the work of Ernst Barlach. She produced a new series titled War, a harsh criticism of the pro-war propaganda she had seen others produce. She also produced a poster to promote helping Russia amid its drought in the Volga region.

'Help Russia'

In the 1930's, as the Nazi Regime came to power, Käthe opposed them. She supported the opposition party in the 1932 election, but the Nazis won. They fired her from her job, removed her art from all German museums, and banned her from exhibiting again - although they did use one of her works, 'Mother and Child' against her wishes as pro-Nazi propaganda. Käthe moved to a smaller studio, and completed her final series of prints, simply titled Death

'Death Grabs Children'

When her Jewish friend and sponsor, Max Liebermann, died, she attended the funeral, regardless what others might think, and then made a bronze relief for his grave:

'Repose in the Peace of His Hands' for Max Liebermann, 1935-6

In 1936, following the publication of her interview with the Russian newspaper Isvestija, Käthe and Karl Kollwitz were interrogated by the Gestapo, who threatened to send them to a concentration camp. Fortunately, her reputation at that time was world-wide, and the Nazis decided to leave her be. Her husband died in 1940 from illness, and her grandson Peter was killed in action in 1942. During the war she aided her Jewish friends, sharing her food rations. She was evacuated from Berlin in 1943. Her house and much of her art was destroyed in subsequent bombing. Käthe moved first to Nordhausen, and then Moritzburg, near Dresden where she was a guest of Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. She died just sixteen days before the end of the war, age 77. Thankfully, her son Hans survived, living until 1971.

'Pietà (Mother with dead Son)', 1937-9

Käthe suffered much loss in her life, from childhood all the way to the end. And she suffered watching fools in politics tear the world apart for absolutely no reason. She couldn't stop it, but she wasn't helpless either. She spoke up with her forceful, powerful artwork. It may be hard to look at, these are some of the most frightening images I know of. To empathize with these figures is to experience true terror. But, thank goodness for Käthe Kollwitz and her voice. Thank goodness for her perspective, and for empathy. Many people have spoken cynically about art's power to change the world for the better, but it does have its moments. And, at the end of the day, can you really blame an artist for trying? Käthe fought to the very end to make the world a better place. Even if you don't care for her style or mood, this is something we can and should all respect.

NOTE: Some information taken from the biography written by the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Köln.