top of page

Seed corn must not be ground

The grieving art of Käthe Kollwitz

My first and most lasting impression of the work of Käthe Kollwitz is the lithograph Selbstbildnis (Self Portrait), made in 1934. Even as a teen, I hoped to see myself in her image: serious, honest, empathetic, a searcher for truth. And not least of all, she bent her art toward social justice.

With a radical Social Democrat father and a socialist grandfather, Käthe Schmidt and her brother Konrad grew up playing barricade fighters in a revolution. She was born in 1867, in Prussia. (No doubt you’ll recall from your European history that, four years later, Prussia unified a number of smaller states to form Germany.) And those few facts together tell us much about the artist and her influences.

You wouldn’t think you’d find a champion of girls’ empowerment in that militaristic time and place, but Käthe’s parents were intellectual leftists who, recognizing her early talent, provided drawing lessons beginning when she was twelve. In a few years she was depicting the working people, sailors and peasants who came through the offices of her father, a mason and builder.

Kollowitz Self-Portrait 1889

Colleges of the time spurned the education of women so she enrolled in the School for Women Artists in Berlin, where she studied with a notable Swiss painter, etcher and sculptor, Karl Stauffer-Bern. But Käthe was more inspired by the social commentary of printmaker Max Klinger, whose 1891 essay Malerei und Zeichnung (Painting and Drawing) argued that printmaking was not bound by the prevailing notions of idealized and representational painting. He held that prints offered more freedom to relate concepts and challenge the status quo. Käthe kept a diary, writing about realism and her desire to make work that was universal and relatable. She believed art should embrace social causes, and printmaking could reach a wide audience.

At 21, she moved on to Munich to study at the Women's Art School, furthering her tilt toward drawing over painting. There she met and became engaged to a medical student, Karl Kollwitz. But before marrying she returned to her home town of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and rented a studio—it’s said her father tried to persuade her to choose art over marriage—where she drew the working people who inspired her for the rest of her life.

Marrying and moving to Berlin, Karl’s medical practice tending to the poor was important: “When I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me… 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.[1]”

The drawings, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs that she created through her life, predominantly in black and white, were so full of emotion, so unflinching. My sister and I discovered Kollwitz at a young age; she gave me a copy of Prints and Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, and the artist inspired us growing up during the anti-war movement of the late 60’s and ‘70’s.

In her own time, Kollwitz’s first major work was The Weavers Revolt. Between the births of her sons—Hans in 1892 and Peter in 1896—Kollwitz is said to have seen a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann's play The Weavers. It’s the story of the brutal Prussian putdown of the weavers’ 1844 uprising in central Europe (now Poland), revolting against new machinery that was driving down wages. And she was intrigued with serialism, where she could express multiple ideas on the human condition. She produced a cycle of works on the weavers' theme, including three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). Rather than faithfully portraying events, the works were earthy and strident, rendering the workers’ anger and their anguish.

Not (Need, or Poverty), 1893-7 Lithograph. This is the first plate in The Weavers' Revolt series, and Kollwitz apparently never finished working on this image; only proofs exist. A mother sits grieving over her dead or dying child. 154 x 153mm

Beratung (Conspiracy), 1893-7 Lithograph printed in very, very dark brown ink with scratch technique (in which the artist inks the stone, draws directly upon it with a pointed object, then prints from the stone by pressing it down and rubbing the paper; her drawing appears on the paper as white lines). This is plate 3 in the Weaver's Revolt cycle. Kollwitz made three versions of this work, the first two as etchings, then this one with lithography, enabling her to create the sense of a dark smoky room. 274 x 168mm

Weberzug (The March of the Weavers), 1897 Etching and sandpaper aquatint. Plate 4 of the series and one of her best-known works. 214 x 297mm

Ende (The End), 1897 Etching, aquatint, and sandpaper ground. This is plate 5, in black-purple ink. 241 x 304mm

Kollwitz received wide recognition when her Revolt of the Weavers series was exhibited in 1898. But the work so infuriated Kaiser Wilhelm II that he refused to let her travel to Paris to accept the Prix de Rome. And when the series was nominated for the gold medal of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) in Berlin, the Kaiser rejected it, 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."

But Kollwitz kept her gaze on the poor and downtrodden. After the renown of The Weaver's, she was chosen by the Berlin School for Women to teach Graphics and Nude Studies. Her friend and biographer, Otto Nagel, said that there she "conceived the idea for another major cycle… which would explore the mistreatment of the oppressed, their growing resentment and outrage, their attempts to right the wrongs done them, and their ultimate destruction." Thereafter, through the first decade of the twentieth century, she was preoccupied by a peasant uprising four centuries earlier. During the German Peasants' War, workers revolted against feudal lords and the church over their treatment as slaves—the revolution she and her brother had re-enacted as children. Working at the height of her powers in etching, aquatint and soft ground, The Peasant War cycle included seven works, plus two others which she made while working on the series, but which weren’t exhibited with it.

Aufruhr (Revolt), 1899 Etching, drypoint, aquatint, brush etching, sandpaper and some roulette. One of Kollwitz's more famous prints, a burning castle and the spirit of revolution loom over an army of protesters. 295 x 315mm

Sheet one: Die Pflüger (The Plowman), 1907 Etching and aquatint. A peasant, taking the place of an ox, is almost horizontal with the effort of pulling the plow. 315 x 454mm

Sheet two: Vergewaltigt (Raped), 1907 Etching, soft ground, sandpaper, drypoint, and aquatint. At first glance it's easy to overlook the body, fading into the bloodied earth. In Kollwitz' visual story, this rape provokes the peasants to rebel. She wrote in a 1908 letter, "It is just finished. It is an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence." 412 x 529mm.

Sheet three: Bein Dengein (Sharpening the Scythe), 1905 Etching, drypopint, sandpaper, aquatint, and soft ground. Another of Kollwitz' most famous images: a peasant sharpens his scythe, focused on revenge. 298 x 298mm

Inspiration (I've seen this dated as 1905 and 1908) Etching. Designed for The Peasants' War cycle, but not included. 564 x 297mm

Sheet 4: Bewaffnung in einem Gewölbe (Arming in a Vault), 1906 Original etching in two colors with line etching, drypoint, aquatint and soft ground. 497 x 327mm.

Sheet 5: Losbruch (Charge), 1902-3 Original etching, drypoint, aquatint, and soft ground. In a letter of 1902, Kollwitz wrote about it, "I consider this Peasants' War print to be my best work and I am rather happy about it." Otto Nagel said, “Kathe once told me that she had portrayed herself in this woman. She wanted the signal to attack to come from her." 513 x 587mm

Sheet 6: Schlachtfeld (After the Battle), 1907 Original etching, drypoint, sandpaper, soft ground, and aquatint. I love this image of a woman, checking the fallen with a lantern, searching for loved ones after the battle. She touches the face of a dead boy with such tenderness. 412 x 529mm

Sheet 7: Die Gefangenen (The Prisoners), 1908 Etching, drypoint, sandpaper and soft ground with the imprint of fabric and Ziegler’s transfer paper. The protest has been crushed, and the peasants are huddled together, awaiting punishment and execution. 327 x 428mm

Käthe Kollwitz was intrigued with the idea of women revolutionaries, especially “Black Anna,” a peasant rebellion instigator. Said to identify with the historical figure, Kollwitz used herself as the model for the woman in one of her most powerful works: Losbruch (translated as Outbreak or Charge), number five in the Peasant War series. Unlike some heroic women in art, she’s portrayed not as an idealized figure, but in raw, gritty fashion, looming with her back to the viewer, raising her arms and leaning into the action, inciting the revolt. She's identifiably a peasant, but an allegorical one, projecting fortitude and righteous fury in vigorous, slashing diagonals. I don’t know if the word “feminism” was used then as we understand it now, but today we’d call Kollwitz a social justice activist and a feminist, exemplifying female agency in a paternalistic world.

These works are on a larger scale compared to The Weavers, and with their vivid action and emotional resonance, the series brought Kollwitz still wider acclaim. They are considered her highest achievements as an etcher, and I think they must be among the most powerful graphic works in western art. She was by this time very popular; part of the Berlin Secession, a group of anti-establishment artists; and the first and only woman on the faculty of the Prussian Art Academy at the time.

Meanwhile, the European upheaval that triggered the 1870 war with France and the unification of the German states continued to ferment. French resolve to retake Alsace-Lorraine and general fear of another Franco-German war, as well as British anxiety about the balance of power, inexorably led towards world war.

Kollowitz, Never Again War!, 1924

Käthe Kollwitz lost her younger son, Peter, on the battlefield in World War I, in October 1914. The prolonged depression and grief she experienced informed much of her later work. As the war neared its end and a nationalistic appeal was made for old men and children to join the fighting, Kollwitz begged in a public statement: “There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall!” A lifelong socialist and pacifist, her political and social leanings found expression not just in art, but in her association with the Arbeitsrat für Kuns (Workers Council for Art), a union of architects, artists, and writers in Berlin during the post-war years.

Throughout the decades of turbulence in Germany and the world wars she survived, Kollwitz made some 100 searing self portraits. Considering her other subjects: proletarian women and children, sorrow and fear, death and war, it’s been said that her body of work itself is a self portrait, reflecting her personal struggles, her anxiety, the early loss of siblings, and loss of a child and grandchild in the fighting. Her raw, passionate oeuvre is a powerful indictment of the human cost of war.

And Kollwitz kept her honest gaze on herself as she aged. Her forceful, even harsh black strokes laid down her creased face, her wounded eyes, her mortality. I aspire once again to emulate her probity. I admire her ability to look around and use her fierce talent to tell the truth about the moral tragedies of her time and place—about the terrible price we pay for war. She had something to say and she said it, confident in her power. I am echoing her message in my way. I can only hope to relate it with such honesty and determination.

© 2019 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Read more:

[1] Fecht, Tom: Käthe Kollwitz: Works in Color, p. 6. Random House, Inc., 1988.

Receive future essays

Search by tags
My other sites
  • instagram
bottom of page