Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) created 99 etchings, 133 lithographs, 42 woodcuts, 19 extant sculptures and roughly 1,450 drawings in a career that spanned over half a century, but she is best known for her five print cycles: Revolt of the Weavers (1893-98), Peasant War (1902-08), War (1921-22), Proletariat (1924-25) and Death (1934-37). The artist first came to public attention when Revolt of the Weavers was exhibited at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1898, and her reputation was cemented with the publication of Peasant War in 1908. While her forthright depictions of Germany’s oppressed underclass remained controversial throughout the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Kollwitz flourished in the more liberal climate of the Weimar Republic, receiving wide acclaim for her woodcut series, War and Proletariat, and benefiting from reprints of the two earlier cycles. Death, produced under the harsh constraints of Nazi rule, concluded a lifelong dialogue with the subject.
Due to their remarkable range of themes, techniques and styles, the print cycles have earned Kollwitz a place among the foremost female artists of the twentieth century, and recognition as one of the great printmakers of all time. Like other successful women artists of her generation, she was an outlier. The dominant artistic movement of her time and place—Expressionism—was decisively masculine in its orientation. Kollwitz did not belong to this or any other group. Her extraordinary career was made possible by the fortuitous convergence of three trends: the revival of printmaking as a significant art form in Germany; the incipient emancipation of women; and growing support for a more egalitarian social order.
Germany boasted an exemplary printmaking tradition dating back to Albrecht Dürer, but since his time prints had been used chiefly as illustrations and to reproduce works conceived in other mediums. Although the Romantics in the early nineteenth century made an attempt to employ prints for more creative purposes, it was Max Klinger who did the most to revive printmaking as an artistic endeavor in its own right. In his highly influential 1891 treatise Malerei und Zeichnung (Painting and Drawing), Klinger posited that drawing (by which he meant all black-and-white art forms, including prints) was more conducive to the expression of ideas and imaginative fantasies than painting. He insisted that artists engage directly with the printmaking process, rather than assigning the preparation of the plate, stone or block to a technician. Most important, Klinger’s own print cycles served as a model for other artists while simultaneously stimulating the market for such works. A print cycle could be used to depict a narrative sequence of events, or to assemble a body of images more loosely related to a common topic. Kollwitz would use the first approach for Revolt of the Weavers and Peasant War, and the second in her later print series.
Klinger’s prints, though exploring symbolic themes that verged on the surreal, were conventionally realistic in style. For the younger Expressionist generation, however, printmaking became integral to the search for a new language of form. The Expressionists’ revolutionary innovations, which won little support from official institutions or the aristocracy, appealed to the more liberal bourgeoisie. Prints were a way to reach this broad class of collectors by offering original art at attractive prices. The Brücke group directed their own marketing efforts through the publication of an annual print portfolio, and most German dealers in modern art also published prints. Nonetheless, despite their aesthetic and technical originality, Expressionist prints were subordinate to the artists’ work in more “important” mediums like painting. Only Kollwitz made printmaking the center of her artistic practice.
As a student, Kollwitz had struggled to master painting, but she remained uncomfortable with color. Klinger, whose work and theories about monochromatic imagery resonated with her own nascent artistic goals, inspired her switch to printmaking. Her pursuit of a less conventional career path also had significant professional ramifications, for it took Kollwitz out of competition with male colleagues and allowed her to excel on her own terms. Indeed she enjoyed an exceptional degree of support from men: artists, art historians, curators, dealers, collectors, her father, Karl Schmidt, and her husband, Karl Kollwitz. The decision to marry (opposed by both Kollwitz’s father and her female art-student friends) was not an easy one for a woman artist at the time. However Karl Kollwitz was an unusual husband. He evidently loved his wife more than she did him, and as a physician ministering to the poor, he shared her humanistic ideals. Had Käthe married a fellow artist, her career would probably have been subsumed by his, and had she remained single, it is unlikely she could have survived financially. Thus she managed to avoid the pitfalls that doomed many female artists during this period.
Kollwitz’s immediate family fostered not only her creative autonomy but her socio-political outlook. Her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, was the leader of an evangelical sect that favored the abolition of private property and the elimination of class divisions. This proto-communistic strain of Protestantism, originating during the Reformation, acquired a sharper political focus after the 1848 revolution. Germany’s first socialist party was established in 1863. Karl Schmidt, his wife Katherina, and their children were all socialists. Käthe’s brother Konrad was a Marxist scholar whose writings were encouraged by Friedrich Engels. Karl Kollwitz, a friend of Konrad’s, held similar beliefs. But Käthe Kollwitz’s socialism was not of the theoretical sort. Her “politicization,” as she termed it, stemmed from “faith.” She depicted workers because she empathized with them, and because she found them beautiful.
As Kollwitz’s artistic philosophy began to jell, she came up with the idea of creating a print cycle based on Emile Zola’s novel Germinal. Considered Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal tells the story of a French coal miners’ strike, but Kollwitz initially chose to focus on a subplot involving a brawl between the protagonist, Étienne, and his romantic rival. She had completed two different etchings of the scene and ten related drawings when, on February 26, 1893, she attended the premiere of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers. Deeply moved, she immediately abandoned work on Germinal and instead decided to create a print series based on the play. Kollwitz’s Revolt of the Weavers was neither a literal illustration of Hauptmann’s drama, nor a precise documentation of the underlying historical event, which took place in Silesia in 1844. Whereas Hauptmann moves the action back and forth from the boss’s house to the weavers’ miserable hovels, and synopsizes diverse viewpoints, Kollwitz concentrates exclusively on the weavers’ plight. Expanding Hauptmann’s five acts into six vignettes, she traces a trajectory from intolerable suffering (Poverty and Death), to active rebellion (Conspiracy, Marching Weavers, Storming the Gate), to defeat (The End). She originally planned a Klinger-esque symbolist coda (From Many Wounds You Bleed, Oh People) but wisely dropped it, allowing the action to speak for itself. An unrelenting perfectionist, Kollwitz worked on the Weavers for five years, essaying the subjects repeatedly in different mediums (drawing, etching, lithography). She hoped to execute all the final prints as etchings. Dissatisfied with her command of the craft, however, she settled for a mixed series: three lithographs and three etchings. Nevertheless Revolt of the Weavers was a tour de force. In one fell swoop Kollwitz supplanted the grand academic tradition of history painting with a more effective, intimate contemporary alternative.
Kollwitz had long seen herself as a revolutionary. She fantasized in childhood about “battles on the barricades, with Father and Konrad taking part, and myself loading their rifles.” Armed insurrections like the Silesian weavers’ rebellion and the 1848 revolution were desperate responses to the economic inequities of industrial capitalism. For strategic reasons, after 1848 socialists came to believe it was also necessary to forge an alliance with the rural peasantry. The 1525 Peasant War, a revolt against feudalism that occurred in tandem with the Protestant Reformation, therefore suddenly became an important touchstone for theorists like Friedrich Engels. Working from a comprehensive history of the subject written in 1841 by Wilhelm Zimmermann, Engels published his own analysis of the sixteenth-century rebellion, which he presented as a result of the same class conflicts that sparked the 1848 uprising.
It was logical that Kollwitz, having dealt with the industrial-era proletariat in Revolt of the Weavers, should now address the peasantry. She was not, however, interested in the arcane ideology of class warfare. She was attracted to dramatic tales of oppression and revolt, like Germinal, or Hauptmann’s play or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. She found Zimmermann’s history of the Peasant War especially compelling, because it included a female protagonist, “Black Anna.” Beyond her girlhood fantasies, Kollwitz had been pondering the role of women in revolution. In the final plate of the Weavers’ cycle, two men lie dead before their looms, while one of the wives towers above them, fists clenched in an implicit promise of revenge. In the artist’s 1899 etching Revolt, loosely based on Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, a nude woman takes on the traditional allegorical role of muse to the fighting men. But Black Anna was a real person, actively engaged in the peasants’ struggle for justice. In 1902 Kollwitz created an etching, Uprising, that placed Anna at the forefront, inciting the men to battle. Based on this print, the Dresden Society for Historical Art commissioned the artist to produce an entire series on the Peasant War.
Kollwitz’s Peasant War cycle, seven large etchings completed over a period of six years, follows a narrative arc similar to Revolt of the Weavers. Scenes of oppression (The Plowmen, Raped) are followed by plates depicting first the course of the rebellion (Woman with Scythe, Arming in a Vault, Uprising), and then its brutal suppression (Battlefield, The Prisoners). These vignettes, often presented from a female point of view, feel more personal than the images in the Weavers. Early, rejected versions of The Plowmen (human beings harnessed like beasts of burden) included a female witness. The direct impetus for the rebellion is a woman’s rape. And a woman comes up with the idea, realizing as she sharpens her scythe that this farm tool can also be a weapon. It is nonetheless evident that Kollwitz, now the mother of two boys, has begun to question the efficacy of violence. In Battlefield, a mother discovers her dead son on a field of corpses, and two innocent youths, bound up with the adult prisoners awaiting execution, provide a moving coda to the entire saga. These women—the victim, Black Anna, the mother—are Everywomen, and they are Kollwitz herself.
With the Peasant War cycle, Kollwitz achieved full mastery of the etching techniques that had sometimes confounded her during preparation of the Weavers plates. Having met this challenge, she grew bored with etching and began what she described as “a second life with sculpture.” Her interest in printmaking was only rekindled, at first gradually and then fiercely, by the First World War. Like most patriotic Germans, the Kollwitz family initially supported the war. Kollwitz’s sons, Hans and Peter, both enlisted. The artist was nevertheless riven by ambivalence. “How can they take part in this madness?” she wondered. But, steeped in her grandfather’s theology of sacrifice, she quickly countered, “They must, must!” Peter’s death on the Belgian front in October 1914 shook her to the very depths of her being, and then, after a protracted period of despair, launched Kollwitz on her true second life, as a committed pacifist.
Kollwitz henceforth dedicated her work to Peter and to protecting young lives, which she likened to “seeds for sowing” that should not be prematurely ground up in the mills of war. Soon after her son’s death, she began a series of drawings and lithographs on the subject of grieving parents, which would culminate in a pair of memorial sculptures for the Belgian cemetery where Peter and his comrades lay. She decided that her next print cycle would be about the war, as seen not from the battlefield but from the home front. She complemented her lithograph of The Parents with etchings and lithographs of The Mothers and The Widow. Typically, she was not satisfied with any of them. Then, in the summer of 1920, she saw an exhibition of Ernst Barlach’s woodcuts at the Berlin “Freie Secession” and was completely bowled over. Though slightly intimidated at the prospect of learning an entirely new craft, Kollwitz decided to execute War as woodcuts.
The first plate in the War series is The Sacrifice, alluding to the imperative foisted upon mothers by nationalistic propaganda. Boys may go into battle with their eyes open—as did Peter, portrayed to the far left of the troops in The Volunteers—but their true leader is none other than death itself. Kollwitz’s woodcut renditions of The Mothers and The Parents have a monumentality akin to that of her sculptures, and more graphic force than her etchings or lithographs. The artist is now interested in iconic figures that project strong emotional states, rather than in complex narrative scenarios. There is no real story in the War cycle, other perhaps than that of The Widow, who is first depicted pregnant and in a second version lies stricken beneath her dead child. The series ends with The People, a shattered group of survivors who implicitly beg the powers that be never again to subject them to such agony. Though the War imagery had been gestating since 1914, when she got down to it Kollwitz produced the seven woodcuts in roughly a year.
Kollwitz’s pacifism complicated her political position during the turbulent 1920s. With Germany’s imperial regime in ruins at the end of 1918, the more radical members of the Socialist Party (SPD) had broken off to establish the German Communist Party (KPD). It quickly became evident that the SPD was hopelessly compromised by its ties to the old ruling class and military, but Kollwitz resisted joining the Communists. “My childhood dream of dying on the barricades will hardly be fulfilled,” she mused, “because I should hardly mount a barricade now that I know what they are like in reality.” Refusing to take sides in the ideological squabbles that ebbed and flowed around her, Kollwitz resumed, with renewed vigor, her role as an advocate for humanitarian causes. She did a number of posters drawing attention to the suffering that lingered throughout war-ravaged Europe. One of these, Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children! became the basis for her subsequent woodcut Hunger. Along with the woodcuts Unemployed and Infant Mortality, Hunger was included in the artist’s fourth print cycle, Proletariat. These three stark images offer a blistering indictment of Germany’s ostensibly socialist government, which had done little to ameliorate the poverty of the working class.
Kollwitz reached the peak of her professional success in the 1920s. In 1919 (the same year that German women were granted the right to vote), she became the first female member of the Prussian Academy. Her sixtieth birthday in 1927 was marked by widespread publicity and exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. The following year, she was appointed to lead the Academy’s master class in graphics. But by 1933, the worldwide economic Depression and the intractable disagreements between the SPD and the KPD had allowed Hitler to assume power. Kollwitz, who had signed a petition urging unity within the left, was forced to resign from the Academy. Although she was never physically threatened, her ability to work and exhibit was hereafter severely curtailed. Without her Academy studio, it was difficult to create large sculptures, so in 1934 the artist began work on a final print cycle, Death.
Death had haunted Kollwitz from the outset. Three of her siblings died in infancy, and her mother’s suppressed pain cast a long shadow. Prior to the discovery of penicillin, childhood was a fragile state, especially for the poor who lacked adequate nutrition and medical care. After Hans survived a serious case of diphtheria in 1902, the artist created several secular versions of the Pietà, chillingly using little Peter as her model for the dead child. The skeletal image of “Death,” referencing an allegorical tradition with numerous German antecedents, became a stock figure in her work. In 1910-11 she created a group of prints in which “Death” comes between a mother and her offspring, taking alternately the one or the other. It was around this time that Kollwitz first considered doing a Death series. But it was only in old age that the artist finally felt prepared to tackle the theme in a way that would, as she put it, “plumb the depths.”
Ever the perfectionist, Kollwitz was initially dissatisfied with the progress of her Death cycle. Reviewing her previous work on the topic, she no longer felt the same urgency, and she feared she had nothing new to say. “At the very point when death becomes visible behind everything, it disrupts the imaginative process,” she observed. In fact Kollwitz was no longer afraid of death; at times she yearned for it. The belief that death could, under some circumstances, be a welcome release was first expressed in the 1920-21 woodcut Woman in the Lap of Death, inspired by a cousin’s suicide. “Death” here embraces the woman gently. Her crown of thorns has dropped to her side, and she is at peace. The image is reprised in plate 2 of the Death cycle, Girl in the Lap of Death.
Gradually Kollwitz worked through her earlier “Death” iconography, simplifying and refining it. The 1920 Vienna poster was transformed into Death Seizes the Children, while a 1910 etching, Death and Woman, morphed into the harrowing Death Seizes the Woman. But unlike much of the artist’s prior work, the Death cycle is dominated by an acceptance of mortality. Death Recognized as Friend delivers the message succinctly. Death on the Highway, depicting a homeless person, lacks the sense of outrage with which Kollwitz might previously have infused such a theme. Most striking are the first and last plates of the cycle, Woman Entrusts Herself to Death and Call of Death, which depicts Kollwitz herself, ready to face the end. Executed in transfer lithography, a process so easy the artist once remarked it was “hardly a technique at all,” the eight Death prints are her most direct and personal statements on the subject.
Kollwitz once likened her life’s work to “the development of a piece of music. The fugues come back and interweave again and again. A theme may seem to have been put aside, but it keeps returning—the same thing in a somewhat changed and modulated form, and usually richer.” Kollwitz’s principal themes—motherhood and death—give a distinctly feminine twist to the Freudian concepts of Eros and Thanatos. In some respects, Kollwitz seems to have accepted Freud’s then-common view that a “normal” woman sublimates her professional and sexual desires in childbearing. (That may be why she characterized her artistic ambitions as “masculine” and hid her erotic drawings.) On the other hand, unlike Freud, Kollwitz did not see the Eros/Thanatos dichotomy as a zero-sum game. She believed that, as creatures of conscience, we have the ability to choose life. Her pairing of motherhood with death was a plea to abolish war and oppression for the sake of the children, who embody the future of humankind.
We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to Helen Engelhardt, Dr. Brian McCrindle, Dr. Richard Simms and several anonymous collectors, whose generous loans made this exhibition possible.