‘Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Käthe Kollwitz, née Schmidt, is not a name I had come across in the art world until the British Museum’s show.
Born in 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz established herself as a leading, influential graphic artist by the time the First World War came about. Her travels to communist China and Russia, and finally to USA in the mid nineteen-thirties, consolidated her reputation abroad, which probably explains why she is virtually unknown in the UK.
But she was always going to succeed in the male-dominated art world she grew up in. Having been raised by progressive parents, who encouraged debate and self-expression at home, she was never going to be a wallflower! And there was much to discuss in this period of social and political unrest.
At art school in Berlin and then in Munich, she focussed on drawing, believing it to be the best medium for conveying what she had to say and feel about the injustices of society. Her father, who was supportive of her career, was not by the same token supportive of her marrying. A proposal from a medical student, Karl Kollwitz, got given short shrift. Interestingly, the Munich School for Women Artists she attended dissuaded female students from forming romantic liaisons with men. Celibacy was not only encouraged but a rule of the institution.
Independent-minded Käthe finally jumped ship after producing her first print in 1890. She went ahead and married Karl Kollwitz who was now a doctor. His practice took them to a deprived part of Berlin.
It is no surprise, given Kollwitz’s concerns, that the poor and down-trodden would dominate her early work.
At the show I was swept up in the drama of her etchings and lithographs of revolt. In Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak) we see a woman with her back to us, sinewy arms and fists held aloft, firing up an army of men charging with pitchforks. Great stuff!
The Weavers’ Revolt series, where she follows the uprising, backroom plotting and anguished family scenes, is also arresting and earned her an art prize. A lithograph entitled Tod (Death) shows a dimly lit room, where a man sits, his face, a mask of grief, shock and exhaustion.
Kollwitz’s images are never neutral. In her evocations of war, produced post 1917, her heart and focus is always with the civilian. Mothers offer their children up as sacrifices. Parents huddle together in grief. Mothers form a tight circle around their children. ‘The Mothers’ is an image which has stayed with me.
‘The Mothers’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1922-23)
The works are heart-rending as you would expect them to be and the use of the wood-cuts, the grooves and crude lines, have a primitive quality, one which perfectly conveys the starkness of the WW1 nightmare.
When I was there, the curator, Frances Carey, drew our attention to a searingly emotional lithograph entitled ‘Woman With Dead Child’ (See Header Image)
It is a self-portrait of Kollwitz with her son Peter from 1903 . She executed it in front of a mirror, much to her young son’s annoyance I imagine, who was told to keep still. A woman embraces her lifeless child with mad passion. Peter was to die on the Western Front in 1914.
Her son’s death confirmed Kollwitz’s pacifist outlook.
In Berlin today, in front of the Neue Wache (a museum dedicated to the victims of war), you will see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s sculpture entitled Pietà, featuring a mother with dead son (1937-39). I will certainly be going there on my next trip.
One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in a long while. Well worth a visit.
And if you need a little cheering … walk into the British Museum’s Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970, next door. It is a neat, colourful, and thought-provoking, themed show. The ‘Identity’ section, containing works by Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney is of particular interest.
‘Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz’ and ‘Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now’ are on until 12 January 2020. In Room 90 of the British Museum. Both are free entry shows.