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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz Self-portrait, 1937. The artist at work.
It's quite likely that every serious, professionally trained, artist, at one time or another, has dreamed that his or her work might somehow have a lasting impact on the history of art, perhaps even influencing change for the betterment of society as a whole. Likewise, it's why writers write, musicians compose, architects build, and alas, why politicians...well, politic. A few days ago I turned sixty-nine so I'm probably too old at this point for such a fantasy to materialize, either on the artist's stage or in the larger arena of "real" life. If such ever happens in my case, it will probably be from sitting here at my computer keyboard rather than at my easel. Moreover, such an impact usually takes a lifetime and usually starts early in that lifetime. Its seeds are planted perhaps even before the artists begins to draw. Take Kathe Kollwitz, for example.

Kathe Kollwitz Self-portrait, 1921--one of over fifty during her lifetime.
I'd venture to say that anyone who has ever taken a college-level art history course has at least heard the name, Kathe Kollwitz. Art history professors love her. First of all, she was a woman and there are damned few really outstanding female artists for them to legitimately tout as having made much of an impact inside or outside the inbred world of art. Second, Mrs. Kollwitz was a socialist-pacifist. Academics dote on such individuals from art history with a passion. Third, she lived and worked in the red-hot crucible of tragic social and military conflict in Germany during the period before, during, and after two world wars (she died in 1945, shortly before the end of WW II). In paint, charcoal, creating etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs, she documenting with incredible compassion and empathy the horrendous human suffering she observed firsthand, and also endured herself. She is an art history prof's dream come true.

The Schmidt children, ca. 1880, Käthe, Lisbeth, Konrad, and Julie.
Karl Kollwitz
Kathe Schmidt was born in the Baltics, in what is now Kalingrad, Russia, in 1867. Her father was a social democrat, a mason and carpenter. Her mother was the daughter of a Lutheran minister expelled from his church, who went on to start his own congregation. He had a profound influence on his grandaughter's education and desire for social justice. Kathe began her art training at the age of twelve, but was hampered by the lack of art schools accepting young ladies at the time. She eventually found one in Berlin where she first studied etching with Karl Stauffer-Bern, a friend of the artist Max Klinger. Their etchings and technique coupled with their social concerns, served as inspiration for her early work. There too, at the age of seventeen, Kathe Schmidt met her future husband, Karl Kollwitz, a medical student. Later, she moved on to a similar art school for women in Munich where she came to realize her strength was not in painting but in drawing. In 1890, she returned to hometown, rented her first studio, and began to draw laborers.

Revolt at the Gates, 1897, Kathe Kollwitz, one of the "Weavers" series.
Strike of the Weavers, 1899, Kathe Kollwitz,
one of her few paintings.
Kathe and Karl Kollwitz were married in 1891, by which time he was a newly minted doctor. They moved to Berlin, where he worked in a clinic serving the poor. While her husband tended the medical needs of the poor, Kathe drew them. Her own medical needs were a major part of her life. She suffered from what has come to be called "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome" which entailed severe migraine headaches and hallucinations. During the early 1890s, the couple had two sons during which time Kollwitz produced her first series of six etchings and lithographs (three of each) depicting the tragic, Silician Weavers' Revolt of 1842. They were first exhibited in 1898 and became her most critically acclaimed work.

Outbreak, 1903, Kathe Kollwitz, from the "Peasant War" series
Whetting the Scythe, 1902-1908,
Kathe Kollwitz
During the ensuing years, Kathe Kollwitz produced a series of works she titled The Peasant War, which dramatized a violent uprising in southern Germany during the Reformation. The series depicts the peasants, treated by feudal lords as little more than slaves--Plowing, Raped, Sharpening the Scythe, Arming in the Vault, Outbreak, and After the Battle. They are considered her best etchings. Their preoccupation with violence and death, make them neither attractive as works of art nor easy to look at, but they make powerful visual statements on the social oppression of the masses and ultimately, the ghastly tragedy of war.

The Grieving Parents, 1932, Kathe Kollwitz--memorial to their son, Peter killed in the war.
Tragedy was something Kathe and Karl Kollwitz knew first hand. In October, 1914, their younger son, Peter, was killed in combat during the early months of WW I. Kathe Kollwitz became severely depressed, alleviated only by her work creating drawings for a monument to their son and all those who had died with him. Titled The Grieving Parents, it consists of two separate figures, herself and her husband, kneeling in prayer over their son's grave. Her pacifists sentiments now rising to the surface, she implored, "There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall!"

The Assassination of Communist Leader Karl Liebenknecht, 1920, Kathe Kollwitz,
typical of her woodcut prints following the war. 
Never Again War, 1924, Kathe Kollwitz
After the war, Kollwitz moved on to woodcuts while in 1920 she became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Membership brought her a regular income, a large studio, and a full professorship at the school. During this time she concentrated her work on depicting the poverty and starvation of children in Germany as the country endured the physical and economic devastation resulting from the war. Some of her anti-war posters such as Never Again War (right) have become permanent fixtures in various pacifist movments ever since. Her good fortune as an artist ended in 1933 with the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany. She was forced to resign her teaching position, her work was removed from museums, and in 1936, she and her husband were threatened with arrest and incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. They vowed to commit suicide before they'd submit to such abuse. Nothing came of the threat, largely because Kathe Kollwitz had, by that time, become an internationally acclaimed artist, her work and her face known throughout the world (she did over 50 self-portraits).

Mother with her Dead Child, 1903, Kathe Kollwitz,
the etching upon which the sculpture below was based.
The Call of Death, 1934, Kathe Kollwitz.
Following the death of her husband in 1940, Kathe was offered asylum in the United States, which she turned down out of fear for the well being of her relatives were she to leave Germany. As the war progressed, (by then well into her seventies), Kathe was evacuated from Berlin to live out the final two years of the war in a small village near Dresden. It was a wise move, her modest studio and apartment were destroyed by the intense bombing of Berlin during the final days of the war. Many of her drawings were lost. Today, a number of books have been written about her, more than forty German schools have been named for her, and two museums (Berlin and Cologne) are devoted to her work. In Berlin, in 1993, an enlarged version of a Kollwitz sculpture, Mother with her Dead Child, was placed at the center of Neue Wache (new guard, below), which serves as a monument to the "Victims of War and Tyranny."

Mother with her Dead Child, memorial based upon Kathe Kollowitz's etching and sculpture,
installed in 1993, Neue Wache, Berlin. 


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