Käthe Kollwitz - Biography and Legacy
German Printmaker and Sculptor
Königsberg, East Prussia
Biography of Käthe Kollwitz
Käthe Ida Schmidt (later Kollwitz) was the fifth child of seven born to parents Katharina and Karl Schmidt. Karl trained as a lawyer, but he declined to practice due to the incongruousness of his political views with the authoritarian Prussian state. He later joined the German Social Democratic Workers Party (SPD), but ultimately worked as a stonemason and became an expert builder. Katharina grew up in a strict, radically political and religious household. Katharina and Karl equally supported the professional aspirations of their four surviving children and ensured that their daughters received every educational and training opportunity available. Käthe's later progressive values and politics were firmly rooted in her childhood.
As a child, Käthe, known to her family as "Käthushcen" ("Little Käthe"), was nervous and shy and prone to seizure-like fits. Scholars have since attributed these fits either to the artist's anxiety and psychological repression or to a condition now known as "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome" in which one's sense perception is distorted. The death of three of her siblings, one prior to Käthe's own birth, exposed the artist at an early age to the quiet, eternal suffering of parental grief. Käthe was particularly awed by her mother's stoicism, concealed "deep sorrow," and emotional strength in the face of such loss, and she would later incorporate these childhood observations into her own aesthetic depictions of mourning.
Early Training and Work
Kollwitz began her artistic training in 1881, working with copper engraver Rudolf Mauer in Königsberg. She later studied painting and etching both in courses at the Women's School of Art in Munich and outside of official university programs, yet, the artist's nascent painting career remained frustrated by her difficulty with color. It was only after reading printmaker Max Klinger's 1885 brochure Malerie und Zeichnung (Painting and Drawing) that the artist realized she was "not a painter at all," but instead a printmaker.
In 1891, after a seven-year engagement, Kollwitz married Dr. Karl Kollwitz, a devoted socialist and an orphan who she befriended years prior while studying with Mauer. The couple moved to Berlin where Karl began a job as a physician, working to implement the provision of social and medical insurance for workers. In the big city, the juxtaposition of her studio space with Karl's medical practice resulted in her early interest in depicting the working-class women and children who came to see her husband as patients and who would often stay and discuss their troubles with Kollwitz. Working-class women would become her favored subject matter by the turn of the 20th century.
Kollwitz's decision to marry and risk the erosion of her professional independence was not an easy one and was complicated by the backlash she received both from her family and from her fellow female artists. Her father had expressed concern that the marriage might derail her artistic future, and, as a result, he worked to separate Kollwitz from Karl by sending her to different art schools over the course of their engagement. This paternal worry was shared by Kollwitz's fellow students at the Woman's School of Art in Munich, who derided Kollwitz for choosing a life path which they felt an inevitable death knell to an artistic career.
In 1892, the artist gave birth to her first son Hans, followed in 1896 by the birth of her second son, Peter. Kollwitz's children would subsequently become prominent subjects of her work. Karl Kollwitz was a dedicated husband and father, who, along with the family housekeeper, ensured that Kollwitz would have time to work on her art despite the demands of 19th-century motherhood. Kollwitz would later recognize her unique position as a woman privileged to be both a devoted artist as well as a devoted mother, and she came to the aid of one of her fellow Munich classmates who, unable to shoulder this dual burden, lived in poverty in Paris. In 1904, Kollwitz adopted this classmate's eleven-year-old son, Georg Gretor.
In 1893, Kollwitz saw the premier of the play Die Weber (The Weavers) by the poet Gerhart Hauptmann, an experience which represented a turning point in her career. The play told the story of an 1844 peasant weavers' revolt in which the weavers protested their low wages and horrible living conditions. The narrative inspired Kollwitz, whose childhood, personal views, and her husband's political involvement encouraged righteous activism. She would later identify this performance as a "milestone in my work," which caused her to abruptly cease all her previous artistic projects and turn to the translation of Hauptmann's tale into the six plate print series The Weavers (1897). The Weavers, in biographer Martha Kearns' words, "transformed" Kollwitz into "an artist who celebrated revolution." Kollwitz dedicated this first print series to her father, and she received the national Gold Medal upon its exhibition in Dresden in 1899. Of this honor, Kollwitz would later say that "from then on, at one blow, I was counted among the foremost artists of the country." In the late 19th century, Kollwitz became the only female artist in the avant-garde Berlin Secession group, Die Sezession, and in 1909, she began her sculptural career with a memorial bust of her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp.
Art on behalf of Kollwitz's developing socialist values predominated her mature period, and the artist created prints which laid bare the realities of poverty in Berlin, or the exploitation of workers. Women became a focus of her works, and she created prints and posters that celebrated female revolutionary figures leading the charge of social change as well as the endurance, trials, and perseverance of working-class mothers that were under the most dire of circumstances. Her political engagements extended beyond her subjects, as she ensured the wide accessibility of her work through printing's easy replication and by pricing her prints at a low cost. Her prints circulated in magazines, and the Munich monthly Simplizissimus began to publish a series of her drawings entitled Portraits of Misery in 1909.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Kollwitz worked as a cook and helper in a cafeteria, feeding the unemployed as well as impoverished mothers and their children. Shortly after the start of the war, her son Peter died in battle in Belgium, and Kollwitz committed herself to pacifism. Though she remained a fervent socialist for the duration of her life, and though Karl was an active member of the SPD, Kollwitz herself never joined any of the progressive political organizations; she was not, in biographer Martha Kearns' words, "a political person in the orthodox sense."
It was during the First World War that Kollwitz's work began to be associated with the Expressionist movement. By this time, both iterations of German Expressionism, Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, had been officially disbanded; however, the cultural associations with the Expressionist movement now generally identified the group as simply left-wing artists who worked in a non-realistic style. Though Kollwitz wasn't actually involved in either Expressionist group and though she was often opposed to the art of those artists typically considered "Expressionist" - often describing their works dismissively as "pure studio art" - the Expressionist label stuck to her. She, however, perceived her work to be of a style all her own, somewhere between naturalism and realism, with her compositional approach dictated by the emotional or activist needs of her images.
In 1920, after seeing work by printmaker and sculptor Ernst Barlach at the Berlin New Secession exhibition, Kollwitz began what would become her extended experiment with woodcuts. At the time, the artist had been searching for a printmaking alternative to etching, which her declining eyesight made difficult to manage, and to lithography, which she viewed as a problematic medium for printing a good, correct image. In addition to woodcuts, the artist expanded her practice to include sculptural projects.
At the close of the Weimar era, Kollwitz's esteem as Germany's most successful female artist was at its peak. She was now widely recognized and had to hire a typist to manage her increasing correspondence (though she herself made a point to personally answer every letter).
With the rise of National Socialism, the artist's anti-war and leftist political leanings, as well as her non-naturalistic style, attracted Nazi attention. In 1932, after she had finally realized her memorial to her fallen son, Peter, she fretted over the placement of the memorial sculptures, concerned that the Nazis might, in curator Henriëtte Kets de Vries' words, "deface them with swastikas." The Nazis threated to dissolve the Prussian Academy unless Kollwitz and her colleague, both of whom had signed a petition attempting to unify the Left in advance of the elections, left their posts; she was then forced to resign from her professorship at the Prussian Academy in 1933. The oppressive and retrogressive conditions of Nazi rule also diminished her cultural prominence, and her work was censored. Yet, in the wake of Hitler's rise, so, too, did the political left turn from Kollwitz's example, with the Communist Party (KPD) determining, according to Vries, that her work was "too pessimistic as it failed to lift the workers out of their plight, and focused instead on their misery." Though rejected by the right and the left, Kollwitz continued to make sculptural work, even as she believed that these later pieces were ultimately ineffective, as "[e]verything has been said before."
In 1936, the Gestapo began a year-long campaign against Kollwitz, threatening to send her to a concentration camp if she did not renounce her anti-Nazi sympathies and cooperate with them by naming other anti-Nazi artists. The threat was ultimately not carried out, perhaps due to the support and protection she received as a beloved member of her surrounding community, but, from that point on, Käthe and Karl each carried a vial of poison to use in the event of capture by the Nazis.
Karl's practice was banned in 1938, and Käthe and Karl descended into poverty. Refuge in America was offered by a collector, but Kollwitz declined, preferring to remain near her family. Meanwhile, the Nazis used her activist prints, such as her poster Brot!, for their own propaganda, as her images were widely known and emotionally accessible.
Karl Kollwitz died in 1940, and, in 1942, Kollwitz's grandson, her son Peter's namesake, died during the war while fighting in Russia.
In 1943, Kollwitz evacuated her home in Berlin, which was razed by bombs shortly thereafter. Many of her works were destroyed in the attack, as well as photographs, letters, and mementos of Karl, her son Peter, and her grandson Peter. She was forced to evacuate from her temporary lodgings one more time, in 1944, to the Mortizburg estate of collector Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. Filled with despair at war's unending destruction and human toll, Kollwitz asked her son Hans in June 1944 for permission to commit suicide; he asked that she refrain, at least until the war's conclusion, out of a sense of responsibility as a prominent role model. On April 22, 1945, Käthe Kollwitz died of heart failure at the age of seventy-eight.
The Legacy of Käthe Kollwitz
Kollwitz was instrumental in increasing the visibility and professional validity of women artists in the interwar years. In 1916, she was voted to become the first woman juror of the Berlin New Secession, and in 1919, she became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of the Arts (though she refused to use the title of "professor"). She helped found the Society for Women Artists and Friends of Art in 1926 and was appointed the first female department head at the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1928. Kollwitz's work was internationally renowned in her lifetime. In 1927, she visited the Soviet Union as a celebrated guest to mark the tenth anniversary of the Communist state.
It should also be noted that Kollwitz exemplified the potential for a female artist to be both a prolific and celebrated practitioner and a successful and devoted wife and mother. Despite the reservations both her female artist peers and her own father held, Kollwitz, with the support and encouragement of her husband Karl and the childcare aid of her housekeeper, remained a strident activist and meticulous printmaker even while fulfilling the duties required by 19th- and early-20th-century domestic social norms. While childcare responsibilities sometimes delayed her print projects, or resulted in "wretchedly limited working time," she maintained that as a mother, "I was more productive because I was more sensual; I lived as a human being must live, passionately interested in everything." The emotional resonance of her prints betray the depth of her engagement and identification with her primary subjects - women, mothers, and children - and illustrate the successful navigation of her dual roles as an artist wielding her images in passionate advocacy for social change as well as that of a parent and spouse.
Her example as a successful female artist caught the attention and admiration of other modern women, including Dadaist Hannah Höch, who included Kollwitz's image in her famous collage, Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20), as well as the much later Guerilla Girls, who adopted names of prominent historical women, to bring attention to the lack of female representation in museums and the art world. Kollwitz's exploration of psychic depths can also be traced to portrait painters like Alice Neel, who also conveyed a range of emotions across a diverse selection of sitters from all walks of life.
As an activist, Kollwitz's work had a long and profound influence, due not only to her images' graphic expressive immediacy but also to the circulation of her prints on posters and postcards. In keeping with the use of propaganda posters as "one of the most powerful tools for rallying the masses" following the First World War, according to curator Henriëtte Kets de Vries, Kollwitz illustrated posters to denounce poverty and hunger, to abolish anti-abortion laws, in support of the women's movement and to call for the removal of criminal charges for homosexual acts, among many other progressive causes. Her anti-war posters, particularly her Central German Youth Day poster with the text "Never again War!," have particularly affected subsequent generations, and curator Claire C. Whitner notes that the Gary Yanker collection of propaganda art at the Washington, D.C., Library of Congress contains innumerable, anonymous poster riffs on Kollwitz's original image. She has, in addition, been an inspiration for many Chinese graphic artists, beginning when her work was greeted with enthusiasm there in the 1930s through to the present day.