Meet the artist: Käthe Kollwitz

Published 10 October 2022

The Berlin-based artist’s profound compassion and expressive depictions of those suffering were rooted in first-hand experience.

  • From the Autumn 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Francesca Wade is the author of Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber). She is working on a book about Gertrude Stein.

    “I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate,” wrote Käthe Kollwitz in her diary in 1920. “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high.” Kollwitz’s body of work – which, unusually for a female artist, was celebrated internationally during her own lifetime – is a stark delineation of everyday injustice: her etchings and drawings of men and women at work are indictments of capitalism’s toll on working-class lives.

    Kollwitz was born in 1867 in Königsberg, East Prussia, into a socialist family. Her father was determined that she should train as an artist, and sent her to the best local teachers before enrolling her in art schools in Berlin and Munich to encourage her talents. Kollwitz came to describe a visit to the Berlin première of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers (1892) – a drama documenting an 1844 uprising among a group of Silesian weavers – as a milestone in her work. In this portrayal of class solidarity and group unity, Kollwitz found the subject for her most famous series, A Weavers’ Revolt (1893-97), which drew inspiration from poor working conditions at the time. Kollwitz herself witnessed the impact of poverty through her husband Karl’s work as a doctor in the community, and it fed into many of her artworks. “I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate,” she wrote in her diary; pondering why she was drawn to life’s horrors, she concluded “the joyous side simply did not appeal to me”.

  • Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child

    Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child, 1903.

    Etching on paper. 42.4 x 48.6 cm. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln.

  • Kollwitz’s expressive depictions achieve their startling effect and emotional depth through her stark contrasts between light and dark, the density of her lines, the clarity of her technique. Few artists before or after her have made work containing such profound social criticism, borne of such sheer compassion for her subjects. While maintaining a long and involved teaching career, after 1890 she eschewed painting altogether in favour of more graphic arts, first focusing on etching – a form, she wrote in 1909, where “all the essentials are strongly stressed and the inessentials almost omitted” – before turning to “a second life” in sculpture, and later woodcuts.

    Travels to Paris and Florence introduced Kollwitz to artists including Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Auguste Rodin, as well as works by Michelangelo, whose creations proposed new directions for her own practice. But the fate of people remained a central theme. Her pacifist works and portraits of mourners are howls of anguish: embracing figures, mothers cradling dead children to their chests, bodies lying in indistinct heaps. Her most powerful works linger on the borderline between life and death: few artworks convey the raw emotional impact of Woman with Dead Child (1903), in which the two figures can hardly be distinguished, or Death and Woman (1910), in which a skeleton heaves a distraught woman backwards while a child claws, inconsolable, at her chest. The experience of nearly losing her elder son Hans to diphtheria in 1908, and the death of her younger son Peter in 1914, reverberate through her later works. “As an artist,” Kollwitz wrote, “I have the right to extract the emotional content out of everything, to let things work upon me and then give them outward form.” Her work gives shape to the darkest of human emotions, inflected with a spiritual sensibility which elevates the suffering without – devastatingly – offering any unwarranted hope.

  • Käthe Kollwitz, Death and Woman

    Käthe Kollwitz, Death and Woman, 1910.

    Etching on paper. 44.8 x 44.6 cm. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln.

  • Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait

    Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1889.

    Pen, brush and ink on drawing carton. 31.2 x 24.2 cm. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln.

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