A harrowing collection of works by one of Germany’s most acclaimed female artists…
Käthe Kollwitz: Poverty (1893-1894)
Berlin’s Käthe Kollwitz Museum is one of those Berlin attractions not particularly recommended for anyone looking to cheer themselves up on a rainy day. This permanent exhibition, which opened in 1986, was formerly housed in a charming nineteenth-century villa next to the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstraße, but since 2022 exists inside the opulent confines of Schloss Charlottenburg.
It presents an extensive range of the German artist’s work, embracing “crucial aspects of life suffering…poverty and death, hunger and war… as well as the truly happy and positive sides of life.” Those “truly happy and positive” parts are outweighed by the darker stuff somewhat unanimously. The self-portraits are a case in point: of the dozen or so on display—Käthe made around a hundred or so throughout her life, calling them ‘psychological milestones’, many of them unflattering—only one shows her laughing. It’s likely the only smile you’ll see during the exhibition, either on the walls or on the faces of any visitors.
The titles of the charcoal and crayon sketches, woodcuts, lithographs and sculptures that fill the villa’s three floors say it all. Poverty, Unemployed, The Lament, Battlefield, Raped, Killed in Action… these are not uplifting works. The artist once said that while she drew, she “wept along with the terrified children I was drawing, I really felt the burden I am bearing. I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate.”
Withdraw she did not. For nearly five decades she trained her compassionate yet unflinching gaze on those who needed it most. The exploited and oppressed; the desperate and needy; the dead and the about to die.
Kollwitz (née Schmidt) herself was born into a comfortable East Prussian middle class family in 1867. A nervous and sensitive child, given to tempers and nightmares, she began drawing when she was fourteen, attended the Berlin School of Art in 1884 and later studied in Munich. She married a doctor, Karl Kollwitz in 1891 and settled with him in Prenzlauer Berg, which back then was one of poorest areas of Berlin.
Through her husband’s work (he treated many of his poorer patients for free) and her location, she came into continuous contact with the sick and the suffering. She experienced plenty of personal heartbreak too, most significantly the loss of her son Peter during World War One and her grandson in World War Two.
Kollwitz also suffered for her art. As early as 1897 she was denied a gold medal at the Berlin Salon by the autocratic Kaiser Wilhelm due to her ‘subversive’ work. Despite becoming the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy, she was expelled in 1933 because of her art and her beliefs. And she was eventually forbidden to exhibit at all by the Nazis who classified her work as “degenerate”. She was even threatened at one point with imprisonment in a concentration camp, though the threats fortunately proved idle.
So what made Kollwitz such a thorn in the side of her country’s leaders? This museum answers the question readily. Beginning with early works such as A Weavers Uprising (1893-97) and Peasants’ War (1902-08), which dramatised the oppression of the 1842 failed Silesian weavers revolt and the violent South German Reformation uprising respectively, it’s immediately clear that Kollwitz was all too keen to expose the deep flaws hidden within the fabric of German society.
The technical mastery of these early naturalistic etchings is impressive, especially in the case of the larger format Peasant series, and the themes adumbrate those that came to dominate the artist’s entire life and career.
By the turn of the century Kollwitz had joined the Berliner Secession and was a committed socialist. Working freelance for satirical German magazines like Simplicissimus (whose contributors included Hermann Hesse and Gustav Meyrink) she produced works like Homeless, Waiting for the Drunkard, Down to the River and Unemployment, highlighting the impoverished plight of the working classes.
It’s interesting to see her works grow gradually more Expressionist as she sought new ways to broadcast her moods and feelings in intense and personal ways. The outbreak of war and the loss of her son prompted her to focus more specifically on the impact of war on women in the shape of heart-wrenching images like Widowed Orphans, Killed In Action and Survivors.
Another quote of hers was: “I have never worked coldly, but rather, in a certain sense, with my own blood. Those who see my art must feel that.” It’s impossible not to feel it. With their gestures of inconsolable loss and despair, these works are reminiscent of Picasso and Goya in their depiction of the harrowing, human cost of war.
Her son’s death led Kollwitz eventually towards a pacifist path. Withdrawing from the Communist Party (due to their acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of social change), she supported instead the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the International Workers Aid organization. However, she depicted the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in early 1919, and began at this point working with woodcuts alongside lithographs and prints.
Next to the woodcuts from her emotive War series on the second floor (which includes The Parents, The Mothers, and The People) are three of her most famous poster designs, created in 1924 for International Workers Aid: Germany’s Children Are Starving!; Bread!; and the stark but striking Never Again War! (Nie wieder Krieg!).
Kollwitz continued her anti-war stance throughout World War Two, signing an appeal of unity against the Nazis in 1932 and finishing her final cycle of lithographs, Death, in the mid 1930s. She also completed some of her most famous sculptures during this time, such as Mother With Two Children (1936) and Mourning Parents (a tribute to her son, completed in 1931). Casts of these are also on display.
At the end of an exhibition as relentlessly abject as this, it’s hard not to feel a bit shellshocked. It’s also impossible not to feel overwhelming admiration for this strangely formidable woman, who through the abominable horrors of the first half of the twentieth century tried unceasingly to bring an end to war and suffering through her art. Not once did she turn her gaze away from the terror around her. Not once did she give up.
In 1940 her husband Karl died. From that day on she walked with a cane. Two years later she lost her grandson to the fighting in Russia, and despite this and the fact that many of her contemporaries were fleeing Berlin, she hung on until the very end—literally until she was forced to evacuate to Dresden. She passed away there on 22nd April 1945, shortly before the signing of the armistice. Yet another tragic twist in her convoluted life.
Before she died, Kollwitz confided to her grand-daughter that “some day a new ideal will arise and there will be an end of all wars”. The idealism of these words is profound, and makes you think immediately of all the suffering endured since then by mothers and families in war-stricken places all over the world. Kollwitz’s work reminds us of the painful individual tragedies that are a part of all futile wars.
More of Käthe Kollwitz’s work can be found around Berlin. The various art projects that took place outside her house at Kollwitzstraße 56a after the war are now part of the Museum Pankow. A replica of “Mother With Two Children”, originally placed in Kollwitzplatz in 1951, can be found in the courtyard of the Bezirksamt (Fröbelstraße 17, Prenzlauer Berg) and another piece (“Zille, Kollwitz und Nagel im Gespräch”) was placed at the entrance to the Bezirksamt, near the corner of Prenzlauer Allee. Since 1961, a sculpture of Kollwitz can be found right on Kollwitzplatz itself, across from her former home inside the small park and playground area that dominates the square; the bronze replicates one of the self-portraits Kollwitz completed late in her life, though it’s controversially much larger than the original. A replica of Kollwitz’s “Mother With Dead Son” (also controversial, and also larger than the original) can be found in the Neue Wache (Unter den Linden 4).