Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the 'War' and 'Death' Portfolios
The devastating personal toll of war on poor and working-class families and the human response to daily struggle were the main subjects treated by Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945) during her long career. While Kollwitz worked in a variety of media, from drawing to bronze sculpture, she is best known as an accomplished and prolific printmaker. An artist-activist, she embraced printmaking as the ideal medium to wed her artistic interests and socialist political commitments. Prints could be moderately priced and easily reproduced, and they could reach large, diverse audiences through mass distribution. Throughout her life Kollwitz also produced introspective self-portraits, which offer a more private account of her worldview. This exhibition brings together examples from the Brooklyn Museum’s holdings of two of her most renowned and somber print portfolios, War (Krieg) (1922–23) and Death (Tod) (1934–35).
Born to liberal bourgeois parents, Kollwitz began taking art lessons in her early teens. A talented draftsperson, she was inspired by the work of Max Klinger (1857–1920). Considered the father of modern German printmaking, he argued for the superiority of the graphic arts as a critical tool that combined reportage with subjective elements from the artist’s imagination. In her early major cycles A Weavers’ Revolt (Ein Weberaufstand) (1893–98) and Peasants’ War (Bauernkrieg) (1902–08), Kollwitz portrayed literary and historical narratives of economic oppression and spontaneous revolution drawn from uprisings closely associated with the early writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. After the death of her son in World War I, Kollwitz’s politics shifted toward pacifism and an evolutionary approach to achieving socialist goals. In response, her images of loss and grief became both more personal and increasingly universal.
During Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic (1919–33), Kollwitz supported various progressive causes, including the release of war prisoners, temperance, birth control, hunger relief, and pacifism, for which she produced agitprop posters, contributed drawings to publications, and lent her name to petitions. The first woman appointed to the Prussian Academy of Art, Kollwitz taught until the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in the early 1930s, when her work came under attack and she was forced to withdraw from public life.
War (Krieg) (1922-1923)
In her War (Krieg) portfolio, Kollwitz turned from the fine-line etching technique used in her earlier print cycles, such as Peasants’ War (Bauernkrieg), to rough-hewn, stylized woodcuts, amplifying the raw impact of her imagery. During this period the artist’s work aligned more closely with the avant-garde tendencies of German Expressionism, especially those associated with the artists of Die Brücke (The Bridge), who celebrated woodblock printing for its reductive primitivism and nationalistic links to Gothic Germany. Both Kollwitz’s subject matter and her form placed her in distinguished company, as many of her contemporaries also used print portfolios to explore the ways in which World War I damaged society.
Created several years after the death of Kollwitz’s son Peter on the battlefield in Flanders, War chronicles the personal costs of combat, removing contextual and narrative details in favor of a more universal cycle of loss and mourning. This poignant combination of raw expression and barbed ideology carries with it an enduring urgency.
Death (Tod) (1934-35)
In the mid-1930s, following years of personal hardship, Kollwitz focused her final portfolio on the figure of Death. Having first appeared in her early A Weavers’ Revolt (Ein Weberaufstand) (1893–98), Death now became the primary subject for an eight-piece print cycle, five sheets of which are included in the Museum’s collection. Each image approaches the subject from a different perspective, with Death treated by turns as a friend and as a vengeful angel, rendered in lithography’s broad range of styles, from naturalistic lines to dramatic dark passages to muted shadings.
While some consider this portfolio her response to the rise of Nazism, Kollwitz’s writings suggest that she chose the theme of mortality because of its primal and inescapable nature, an interpretation supported by the simple rendering of each vignette. Completing her progression toward universal subjects and increasingly metaphysical depictions, Kollwitz’s final portfolio is a haunting meditation on life’s inevitable end.
November 1, 2012:
A selection of thirteen rarely seen prints by German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) will be on view in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art from March 15 through September 15, 2013. The first complete Brooklyn Museum presentation of the artist’s powerful print cycle War (Krieg), Käthe Kollwitz Prints will focus on works relating to the impact of war that the artist created between World War I, when her son was killed in Flanders, and World War II.
Included will be woodcuts from the Krieg series; The Sacrifice, depicting a mother with outstretched arms offering up her infant; and The Parents, an image of a grief-stricken couple. Also on view will be a 1927 self-portrait of the artist in profile and, from the Death cycle of lithographs, Woman Entrusts Herself to Death and Death Seizes the Children. These images of familial tenderness, the daily struggles of the poor and working classes, and the degree to which they bear the burden of war are the primary foci of Kollwitz’s canon.
Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, painter, printmaker, and sculptor Kollwitz is regarded as one of the most important German artists of the twentieth century. As a child she became interested in art, but because she was a woman, she was unable to find a place in an art academy or college. Eventually she moved to Berlin, where she attended an art school for women. She began producing etchings in the late nineteenth century, first working in a naturalistic style and later moving toward expressionism. In 1919 Kollwitz became the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. A lifelong pacifist and socialist, she was expelled from the Academy when Hitler came to power, and in 1936 her art was classified by the Nazis as degenerate. She was barred from exhibiting and her works were removed from galleries and museums.
Kollwitz’s nineteen-year-old son Peter was killed on the battlefield in 1914, after which the artist suffered a prolonged period of depression. To a friend she said, “There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.”