Austrian & German Expressionism

Käthe Kollwitz: the Print Cycles

Lecture by Annette Seeler [October 8, 2013]

As some of you probably already know, I am presently working with the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne on the first proper catalogue raisonné of the artist’s sculpture. This evening, however, I am going to speak less about Kollwitz’s three-dimensional works than about her works on paper, for which she was best known during her lifetime. Despite her eventual renown, however, Kollwitz was hardly an overnight success. She completed her artistic education in Munich in 1890 at the age of 23, but only came to pubic attention in 1898, when her first print cycle, Revolt of the Weavers, caused a sensation at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. By that time, Kollwitz was 31 years old. She had been married for 7 years and was the mother of two sons: Hans, born in 1892, and Peter, born in 1896.

Why did it take such a relatively long time for Kollwitz to achieve proper recognition? Comparable male artists of her generation—for example, Max Liebermann—became known already in their 20s. But during this period gender played a decisive role. Not only did female artists have to battle against severe prejudice, but they were also hindered by inferior training. Forbidden to attend the art academies, they were unable to study the artistic genre that, since the Renaissance, had enjoyed the highest status within the academic system. I am referring here to the genre of history painting: the art of creating on the canvas a pictorial space for the reenactment of stories taken from myth, history or the Bible; the ability to create believable gods and heroes, whether real or imagined. It was just this highest form of artistic practice that was not taught at the ladies’ academies. “Ladies” were supposed to be satisfied with lowly subjects. They practiced painting flowers, still lifes and landscapes, or at best, portraits. If they were permitted to draw nudes, they could consider themselves lucky.


Only male artists learned to craft broad interior and exterior spaces with appropriately dramatic lighting, and to depict people with the characteristic clothing, postures, gestures and facial expressions required for the representation of specific meaningful historical or fictional scenes. Women were taught none of this. They did not learn, for example, the art of perspective, or how to select from a story the important moments that foreshadow further events.


Kollwitz’s father was thus unusually progressive in that he set an ambitious goal for his artist-daughter: he wanted her to study history painting, and thereby to reach the highest star in the artistic firmament. By the last third of the 19th century, this ambition was already outmoded. The Impressionists and the Naturalists were beginning to challenge history painting’s place at the top of the ladder. Nevertheless, the academic system of values had not yet been abandoned, and the old standards were still enforced at the salons and by the officially sanctioned art professors. So it is not surprising that the young Käthe Kollwitz endeavored to tell stories in pictures, and that she found ready praise for such works at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition.


For Revolt of the Weavers, Kollwitz’s first graphic cycle, is nothing less than a (successful) attempt to represent a true historical event (although with some invented details) through a series of images. In that sense, these are conventional history pictures. Exceptional, of course, is the fact that these pictures do not give starring roles to historical personalities or champion famous patriots. The 1844 revolt of the simple Silesian hand-weavers, impoverished by competition from machine-woven fabric, was hardly a theme likely to elicit much sympathy from the German imperial government. Characteristically, while the cycle was praised for its formal qualities, the content was considered inappropriate for “great painting.” Kaiser Wilhelm II refused to give Kollwitz the gold medal, for which she was nominated by the Berlin jury.


The Kaiser’s rejection of Kollwitz brought the artist to the attention of all the anti-academic members of the avant-garde, who likewise were suffering under the country’s official cultural policies. And so Kollwitz profited from the fact that, just at this time, opposition to Wilhelmine artistic tastes was starting to coalesce in Berlin. The movement centered on the Berlin Secession, which was organized by the modern artists of the day as an alternative exhibition space. Under the protective umbrella of this group, younger artists were given an opportunity to develop their talents.


The opportunity for further development was particularly important to Kollwitz, who was energetically struggling to compensate for her inadequate education. Her struggles are amply attested to by the numerous compositional studies and rejected versions of the Weavers prints. She had to accept that the classical pictorial approaches to history painting were antiquated, as was the promotion of moral teachings through allegorical personifications (as in the rejected final plate of the Weavers’ Revolt). In order to catch up with the latest artistic developments, Kollwitz felt she had to go to Paris, then the capital of the international avant-garde.


Kollwitz made her first brief visit to Paris in 1901, followed by another trip in 1904. The second time she stayed several weeks, and she used this opportunity, above all, to familiarize herself with the fundamentals of three-dimensional figure drawing at the Académie Julian. Her next big graphic undertaking, the Peasant War cycle (begun in 1901 and finished in 1908), clearly evidences various French influences. The sixth plate of the series, Battlefield, is hardly conceivable without Jean-François Millet’s Wheat Gleaners, and the last plate, The Prisoners, references Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. The first etching in the series, The Plowmen, was also presumably inspired by a sculpture, The Homeland, a relief by the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier.


The subtle tonalities, for example of the fourth plate, Arming in a Vault, were likewise inspired by art that Kollwitz had seen in Paris. Between 1901 and around 1905, she made numerous experiments with multicolored prints, as observed in the work of Steinlen, the Postimpressionist Nabis, Eduard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard, to name a few examples. (These artists also influenced Paula Modersohn-Becker.) In 2012 the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne mounted a wonderful exhibition tracing Kollwitz’s French sources.


The compositions in the Peasant War etchings are constructed geometrically, with less emphasis on creating an illusion of deep space and more on the foreground of the picture plane. The influence of photography is also noticeable, for example in the close-up of the woman with the scythe in the third pate. In one respect, however, the artist remained “old-fashioned” (if one wants to characterize it thus): As before, she believed that the content of her work should deliver a political message, that we must not forget the oppressed and disadvantaged members of society or abandon them to their fate.

But also in formal terms—that is in her aesthetic vocabulary—Kollwitz soon found herself falling behind. The Expressionistic group Die Brücke was founded by Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and others in 1905, and Kollwitz voiced irritation, in her diary, at the “talented smearings” of the young avant-garde. In April of 1910 she wrote, “I now already belong to the older, established generation, which is being robbed of space and light by youth.” In November 1913 she noted in her diary that her son, Peter, liked Expressionism, but viewed Cubism and Futurism as nonsense. These comments anticipate the future path that the artist would take, following a long period of suffering caused by World War I. Already in 1913, about 8 months after the outbreak of the war, she set forth her agenda: “If only I could still learn from the new developments and remain independent.”


And so it was. But before she could achieve her goal, the artist had to live through not only the shock of the war’s outbreak, but far worse, the loss soon after of her younger son, Peter. A victim of patriotic propaganda like many other young men, Peter had volunteered for military service early on, in August 1914. At the end of October, he fell on the Western Front in Belgium. Kollwitz was nearly paralyzed by grief for the next year. She was determined to create a monument to Peter and the other fallen volunteers, but she had to put off this project until 1919. After much soul-searching, Kollwitz emerged as a committed pacifist shortly before the war’s end in 1918. And then she embraced her work with renewed creative energy.


Kollwitz decided to create a print cycle on the theme of War. However she felt her changed feelings demanded a different means of artistic expression. Already in November 1917, she asked herself, “Where is the new form for the new content of these last years?” Initially she planned to use etching for the War cycle, but she found the technique unsatisfactory and rejected every attempt. Next she tried lithography, and was again dissatisfied with the results.


In June 1920 Kollwitz saw something at an exhibition that, as she wrote in her diary, “completely overwhelmed” her: the woodcuts of the sculptor, printmaker and writer Ernst Barlach. She realized that woodcut, with its sharply contrasting black-and-white planes, was the expressive method she had been seeking. The abstract radical reduction of form to black and white, without any intermediate gray tones, allowed her to concentrate on the essentials. Documentary details extraneous to the core statement could be eliminated or buried in darkness. We are no longer provided with any information about the space in which the figures stand; there are no props such as tables, chairs, windows or trees. Only the expressive force of the human figure and its body language remain to place the artist’s message before our eyes. In the War series, Kollwitz also took advantage of the possibility, in woodcut, to accentuate the solemn seriousness of the images with “unreal” elements like haloes. With such flickering visual effects, she embraced what, as late as 1920, she had termed the “fashionable splotches” of Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff. Kollwitz had become an Expressionist, albeit an independent one, who still endeavored to remain true to the forms of nature.


Historical developments also lie behind Kollwitz’s final print cycle, created in the mid 1930s. The artist was among the first people for whom Hitler’s seizure of power on January 30, 1933, had life-changing consequences. Because she and her husband Karl Kollwitz had signed a plea urging unity among the parties of the left, the artist was forced to resign from the Academy of Art. She also lost her teaching position and soon thereafter was prevented from publically exhibiting her work. Having reached the height of her fame during the Weimar republic, Kollwitz now experienced a marked descent into silence.

It is thus no surprise that Kollwitz devoted her final print cycle to the theme of Death, which had repeatedly engaged her over the course of her entire career. At first glance, she seems to have retreated from the formal innovations achieved in the War series. In the Death cycle, crayon lithography facilitates a far more naturalistic approach to the figure. But these compositions are distinctly different from the lithographs in the artist’s first series, Revolt of the Weavers. There we were presented with arrangements of figures in rooms, in which every detail was depicted. Now, as previously seen in War, the focus is on the essential pictorial statement. Even the sketchy quality of the images bespeaks an artistic command not yet available to the young Käthe Kollwitz.


The end of the Death cycle has undeniable biographical implications. The eighth, final plate depicts a woman with Kollwitz’s features, who is being tapped on the shoulder by a personification of “Death” and thereby called away from this world.