We are pleased to inaugurate the Galerie St. Etienne’s newly renovated and expanded exhibition space with a comprehensive showing of the work of Käthe Kollwitz, an artist long associated with our gallery. In our forty-eight year existence (twenty-seven at the current address), we have mounted some eighteen presentations of Kollwitz’s work, and our sustained commitment to Kollwitz scholarship has been manifested in significant contributions to the catalogues raisonnés of her prints and drawings. Whereas our most recent Kollwitz exhibitions have explored issues of connoisseurship, the current show focuses on the content of the oeuvre. For those who have long known and loved Kollwitz’s prints, this approach will hardly seem radical, yet the fact remains that for many years art that espoused social or political concerns was generally looked down upon. Such work, it is true, appears to date quickly. The burning issues of one day grow cold and are replaced by those of another. However, perspective is gained with the passage of time, and it is now clear that what Kollwitz recorded were not merely the particular issues of her time and place, but abiding concerns that will never fade. Her facility for formal invention was such that the power of her work is eternal.
Kollwitz, born Käthe Schmidt in 1867, was encouraged at an early age to identify with the plight of the poor and oppressed. Her socialist parents placed no obstacles in the way of her artistic ambitions, but she felt torn between a perceived conflict between marriage and a career. Determined to have both, she married a young doctor, Karl Kollwitz, in 1891 after completed her training at the women’s art schools in Munich and Berlin. Karl established a medical practice geared to the poor in Berlin, and Käthe set out to find her identity as an artist. The première of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers in 1893 proved a turning point in this quest. Over the course of the next five years, Kollwitz completed her first print cycle, Revolt of the Weavers. Although she felt frustrated by the challenges of etching, she had recognized that printmaking provided a way to exploit her considerable skills as a draughtsman while simultaneously delivering a monumental, yet widely accessible social statement. Revolt of the Weavers was followed, several years later, by a second cycle, the Peasants’ War, in which she both consolidated her artistic vision and mastered the complex techniques of etching. Both print cycles were well received, and when, in 1907, Kollwitz was awarded the prestigious Villa Romana Prize, her position as Germany’s leading woman artist was confirmed.
Kollwitz reached the height of her career in the 1920s, following her election to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1919. Her artistic vision had been profoundly transformed by World War I, and the death of her son Peter therein. Her new commitment to pacifism was expressed in a powerful woodcut series, War, as well as in a number of lithographic posters. Eschewing the complex narrative formats of Revolt of the Weavers and the Peasants’ War, she now was inclined to encapsulate her message in single, iconic figures. This productive period came to an abrupt end in the 1930s, when the National Socialists forbade the artist to teach or exhibit, forcing her to withdraw into herself. In her last print cycle, Death, Kollwitz expressed her mounting resignation and weariness by portraying Death, the eternal enemy of the young and poor, as a friend, savior of the old and infirm. Her career ended, however, not on this negative note, but with an inspirational lithograph, Seeds for Sowing Shall Not be Milled. Its message, based on a line from Goethe, was that human potential (the symbolic “seed”) must not be squandered by human folly, but allowed to grow to fruition. In April 1945, three years after completing this, her final print, Kollwitz died in the Dresden suburb of Moritzburg, where she had retreated to escape the allied bombing of Berlin. Having lived through two world wars, she just missed, by four months, the declaration of world peace.
Kollwitz’s lifelong quest for peace and social justice generated nearly 300 prints, graphically demonstrating both the horrors of needless suffering and the triumph of human dignity. The present exhibition contains works from all phases of the artist’s lengthy career; all her print cycles are represented, as are many of her most compelling individual prints and posters. Kollwitz’s working methods and thought processes are explored through the inclusion of rare prods, rejected graphics and preliminary drawings. We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the lenders who made this presentation possible, including the estate of Edward Sindin and a number of anonymous private collectors.