Did any German artist confront the suffering of the first half of the twentieth century as directly as Käthe Kollwitz did? Through the years of war, political turbulence and social strife that defined her life, Kollwitz kept alive the moral conscience of Germany.
For fifty years Kollwitz lived and worked in working class Prenzlauer Berg, in the family home that also served as her studio and doctor husband’s surgery. The building was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the Berlin in 1943. Today, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum can be found a world away, on elegant Fasenstrasse.
For years West Berliners lobbied in vain for the establishment of a museum dedicated to Kollwitz’s work. Then, in 1986, a citizens’ campaign succeeded in preventing the demolition of Fasenstrasse’s late 19th century mansions to make way for an urban motorway. With support from Deutsche Bank and the City of Berlin, the house at number 24 was saved, along with neighbouring properties. Now the Käthe Kollwitz Museum owns one of the largest collections of the artist’s work.
The museum now owns over 200 examples of Kollwitz’s work – including prints, drawings, posters, sculptures and woodcuts – a large proportion of them permanently displayed in an exhibition that extends over four floors. It presents her life and work against the background of the the historical and political developments that shaped her personal and artistic philosophy. Ascending the staircase to each floor, a timeline guides the visitor through the crucial events in her personal life and the social and political context that informed her work.
Highlights include the lithograph Bread! (1924), several self-portraits, the woodcut cycle War from the early 1920s, works on the theme of death, and the woodcut in remembrance of Karl Liebknecht, the socialist revolutionary murdered by Freikorps troops in 1920. The top floor is dedicated to her sculptures, including a smaller version of Gustav Seitz’s sculpture of Kollwitz that can be found in Kollwitzplatz, near to where the Kollwitz family home once stood.
As Paul Sullivan writes on the Slow Travel Berlin blog, a visit to the Museum is ‘not particularly recommended for anyone looking to cheer themselves up on a rainy day’. Reflecting her deep emotions and uncompromising politics, Käthe Kollwitz’s art is not pretty or consoling. She believed that ‘For work, one must be hard and thrust outside oneself what one has lived through.’ Poverty, hunger, war and death are recurring themes. Frequently these themes are intertwined in her repeated representations of motherhood and death. Has any artist ever been so single-mindedly devoted to the portrayal of mothers and their children: nurturing and protecting them, and cradling them in death?
One of the first things you see here is a very early pen and brush self-portrait, done in 1888 or 1889 while Kathe was studying art in Munich. It’s the only one of around a dozen self-portraits in the exhibition in which she is smiling. Her sister Lisbeth said later that it shows Kathe at a time when she was ‘famous for her laugh – her powerful sense of goodwill, which never asked for anything in return – her joyfulness at parties and her talent for dressing up so marvellously’.
The self-portraits undoubtedly reflect Kathe’s internalization of the suffering that was widespread in her time: suffering that resulted from war, hunger, sickness, and unemployment. At the turn of the century Berlin was the most densely populated city in Europe, and the misery of industrialization and poor working conditions permeated her art.
She experienced all of this – personally when she lost her son Peter in World War I and her grandson in World War II – and through her contact with the impoverished workers her husband treated for free in his surgery on the ground floor of their house.
In Berlin: Imagine a City, in one of the most vivid portraits of individuals who have contributed to the rich history of Berlin, Rory MacLean imagines Kathe, aged 28, standing on the balcony of her home, gazing across Berlin and asking herself, ‘What can I give?’
Berlin’s gloomy tenements and stinking courtyards make it a place bereft of air and light. Three out of four of its children have never seen the sunrise. Half of them have never heard bird-song. A third are below normal height and weight. Tuberculosis rages through the human warrens which Christopher Isherwood will call the ‘barracks’ of the poor. Crowded, pestilent Prenzlauer Berg is a place that can kill a man, joke local residents, as easily as if one uses an axe.
The Kollwitzs’ apartment is large in comparison to their neighbours, with four tidy rooms and a small balcony overlooking Worther Platz, the only open space in the neighbourhood. […]
She holds to her breast – and against her heart – her sketchbook, the morning’s drawings. Every day in Karl’s waiting room Kathe registers the patients, drawing them out as she draws them: the cloth-cutter with severed fingers, the fierce tiler crippled by a fall, a battered tanner-woman recovering from her third miscarriage, the bow-legged twins wheezing with consumption. ‘I meet the women who come to my husband for help and so, incidentally, come to me, I am gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate,’ she records. ‘Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieve and torment me, and contribute to my feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the working class.’
One of the earliest works on show here is a scene from Emil Zola’s Germinal, planned as part of a series of prints based on the novel which deals with the hard fate of miners in north-eastern France. It’s a dark piece, both in its subject matter and execution. It’s perhaps significant that the scene Kathe chose to represent is the fight between Etienne and Chaval over the teenage miner Catherine, her horrified response to the struggle depicted at the far right of the image.
However, in 1893 Kathe abandoned the Germinal series after attending a performance of The Weavers, a play by Gerhart Hauptmann which sympathetically portrayed an uprising against industrialisation by Silesian weavers in the 1840s. She decided to produce a series on the Weavers’ Revolt instead.
The complete cycle of six works is displayed: three lithographs (‘Poverty’, ‘Death’, and ‘Conspiracy’) and three etchings with aquatint (‘March of the Weavers’, ‘Riot’, and ‘The End’). They are a free and naturalistic expression of the workers’ misery, hope, courage, and, eventually, their defeat.
The cycle was exhibited publicly in 1898 to wide acclaim, but when it was nominated for the gold medal at the Berlin Salon, Kaiser Wilhelm II personally withheld his approval, calling it ‘gutter art’.
Nevertheless, Kollwitz gained further acclaim with another cycle of work concerned with The Peasants’ War, the 16th century uprising against feudal lords and the church in southern Germany. All six parts of the cycle – ‘The Ploughmen’, ‘Raped’, ‘Sharpening the Scythe’, ‘Arming in the Vault’, ‘Outbreak’, ‘After the Battle’ and ‘The Prisoners’ – are on display.
The sequence starts with the causes of the uprising: the oppression of the peasants, their serf-like status and the grinding hardship of their lives. Käthe Kollwitz illustrates this in the first plate entitled ‘The Ploughmen’ in which a father and son are harnessed to the plough like beasts of burden, and in the second, ‘Raped’, where the abused peasant woman lies bloodied and torn amidst the plants in her devastated garden. Kollwitz suggests that it is this rape that provokes the peasants to rebel. In a letter, Kollwitz said of this print, ‘It is an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence.’
The sequence ends, as in The Weavers, with the collapse of the uprising. In ‘After the Battle’, a woman searches at night for her fallen son amongst the dead on the battlefield by the light of a lantern.
Completed in 1908, The Peasants’ War represent Kollwitz’s greatest achievement as an etcher. The works were technically more impressive than those of The Weavers, owing to their dramatic command of light and shadow (see especially ‘After the Battle’,) and their dramatic composition (most strikingly seen in ‘Sharpening the Scythe’).
‘Sharpening the Scythe’ also underlines another significant aspect of the series – the central role allocated to women in the images. It is a woman who sharpens the scythe, dreaming of revenge. Kollwitz infuses the image with a sense of dread as the woman sharpens the farming tool. Her eyes are narrowed to menacing slits and the beautifully-detailed hands positioned centrally, clenched to represent the force of someone readying a combat weapon. Throughout the series women play a central role, figures derived from quick charcoal or pencil studies Kathe had been making of the working class women in her husband’s waiting room.
By this time a key theme in Kathe’s work was the idea of woman as revolutionary. In ‘Uprising’, an etching from 1899 that existed parallel to The Peasants’ War series but was ultimately not included with it, desperate peasants – all of them men – march in revolt while hovering above them is a nude female figure, the embodiment of revolution brandishing a flaming torch and urging the men on to revolt.
During the winter of 1902/3 both Kathe’s sons fell ill. Peter, now seven, had always been susceptible to lung infections, but the older boy Hans, who was ten, was diagnosed with diptheria and treated by Karl for a week, during which he seemed to be gaining strength. Then, suddenly, the boy’s condition worsened alarmingly. Karl and Kathe tended him anxiously all through the night. Later, Kathe wrote to a friend:
Finally, in the early morning, at three AM, my husband saod, ‘I think we’ve won him back’. … During this night an unforgettable cold chill caught and held me: it was the terrible realisation that any second this young child’s life may be cut off, and the child gone for ever. … It was the worst fear I have ever known.
Months later, the memory of that long night and of her helplessness as a mother confronted with her child’s mortality led to her creating a series of drawings and etchings titled ‘Woman with Dead Child’, all produced in 1903. in which a seated, cross-legged woman clutches the body of a child whose head, tipped far back, is drawn tightly into the embrace by the woman’s strong arms. Though Hans had been its inspiration, Kathe used Peter as a model for this piece. In her diary, Kathe later wrote:
When I was doing the etching ‘Mother With Dead Child’, I drew myself in the mirror while holding him in my arm. The pose was quite a strain, and I let out a groan. Then he said consolingly in his high little voice: ‘Don’t worry, Mother, it will be beautiful, too.
The finished etching was so painfully real, writes Martha Kearns in her Kathe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist, that some viewers could not face it:
The mother’s face and mouth disappear into the child’s chest as if to warm him, to breathe her life into his. No clothes or background, past or friends comfort her; her child’s death has stripped the mother to the raw edge of existence.
Despite the trauma of Hans’ brush with death, the subject of the 1903 etchings was not based on any direct life experience: ‘Great piercing sorrows have not struck me yet’ she wrote in her diary.
My life between thirty and forty was very happy in every respect. We had sufficient to live on; the children were growing up and healthy; we went travelling.
But ‘great piercing sorrows’ would soon come: Peter was killed in the first few weeks of World War One, at the age of twenty-one. By the beginning of the war, Kollwitz was recognized as one of the most prominent German graphic artists and had already been involved with various social, political and artistic organizations, among them the Berlin Secession and Simplicissimus, a satirical magazine. When war broke out, Kathe was overwhelmed by fear and melancholy, though her position at this point was not one of outright pacifism or of opposition to the war.
But Peter’s death would mark a turning point. The tragedy would go on to dominate much of her art in later life: as well as exploring her personal loss in her art, she became an outspoken pacifist. In Martha Kearns’ words, she ‘responded to Peter’s death with her life – her life as an artist’. In her diary Kathe wrote: ‘It is my duty to voice the sufferings of humankind, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain high’.
In 1918, the Social-Democratic newspaper Vorwärts published her response to the poet Richard Dehmel’s call for all able-bodied men and boys to die for the Fatherland. She quoted words by Goethe from which, after Peter’s death, she had drawn the moral, philosophical and emotional strength to continue living and working: ‘seed corn must not be ground’. In her diary she had written:
Peter was seed for the planting which should not have been ground. He was the sowing. I am the bearer and cultivator of a grain of seed-corn.
Kathe returned to Goethe’s phrase for her last lithograph in 1942, entitled ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground’, in which an anguished mother struggles to keep her children safe. At the height of Nazi power, and in the midst of the Second World War, Kollwitz produced more than a statement against war: this work is a protest, summoning resistance to the recruitment of young men into the armed forces. On 21 February 1944, a year before she died, Kathe wrote:
Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness and why my only hope is in world socialism.
In 1919 Kollwitz became the first woman ever to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts when she was appointed as the Academy’s first female professor and member.
In her new Academy studio, Kollwitz drew a picture of mothers, huddled and trying to protect their children. In ‘Mothers’, Kollwitz combined her major themes – her own tragedy, the bond between mother and child, working-class life as personified in women, death as a force, and war. It is one of her richest works. On 6 February 1919 she wrote in her diary:
I am working on Mothers. . . . I drew the mother who embraces her two children, it’s me, with the children born from me, my Hans and my Peterchen. And I was able to do it well.
Also in 1919, she created the woodcut ‘Memorial to Karl Liebknecht’ in honour of the murdered Spartacist leader. She had begun with preparatory drawings, then moved on to etchings, but was dissatisfied with the results. By switching to the medium of the woodcut, Kollwitz tapped deep into a German tradition of artistic expression, reaching back to Durer. Furthermore, the design is in the style of a lamentation, a traditional motif in Christian art depicting the followers of Christ mourning over his dead body, and casting Liebknecht as the Christ figure. The iconography would have been instantly recognisable to the public.
Kollwitz also did something unusual in her work by including a rare decorative element: the title and dedication form the bottom frame – which is also the side of Liebknecht’s coffin: ‘The Living to the Dead. In Memory of 15 January, 1919’.
Another woodcut from this period is the stark Hunger, in which we see a woman stripped to the raw edge of existence in postwar Germany where unemployment, hunger and disease were widespread. The woman’s breasts droop low and dry and she cannot feed child from her own emaciated body. She lifts her hands to her head in despair as her child lies bloated and starving in her lap.
No-one depicted women and mothers in the way that Kollwitz did. In a significant departure from the norm, Kollwitz shifts the viewer’s focus from a woman’s body to her mind by portraying the face or body of a woman – invariably a mother – confronting poverty, death or despair, beset by social injustice, or bearing tragic loss. In Kollwitz, rather being viewed as an object, the woman is appreciated as the subject. Her women are strong and physical, protective and nurturing. They are workers and mothers, and above all they are real.
In 1919, Käthe Kollwitz began work on Krieg (War), her response to the tragedies endured during what she called the ‘unspeakably difficult years’ of World War I and its aftermath. The portfolio consists of seven woodcuts which focus on the sorrows of those left behind by the war dead – mothers, widows, and children. As with the Memorial to Karl Liebknecht, the use of woodcuts, represents Kathe’s response to an exhibition she had seen of Ernst Barlach’s woodcuts. Each print was revised through many preparatory drawings, resulting in radically simplified the compositions. These large-format, stark black-and-white woodcuts feature women left to face their grief and fears alone, with their partners, or with each other.
Throughout the years since Peter’s death, Kathe had worked on a memorial to Peter, but had been dissatisfied with her work and laid it aside. Plate 3 of War perhaps suggests an early working out of an idea that would find its final form in her sculpture The Grieving Parents at Vladso, the cemetery in Belgium where Peter’s grave is located.
When the War woodcuts were published as a portfolio in 1923, postwar inflation had reached its peak and banks were collapsing by the day. Money was worthless, hunger, destitution and disease were widespread, and the line of working-class women, children and men waiting to see Karl at his free morning surgery stretched down the stairs of their building and out into the street. Like many other Germans, Kathe and Karl had lost much of their life savings.
These were years in which Kollwitz created a number of powerful posters for various organisations – impassioned pleas to help those suffering from postwar food shortages, unemployment, and inflation. In Vienna Is Dying! Save Her Children! the skeletal figure of Death, representing starvation in Austria, lashes his whip at mothers and children.
In 1924, everyone needed food as starvation spread through Germany as the direct result of a blockade of food imports by Britain and America, that continued even after the Armistice had been signed. People begged on the streets, waited for soup and bread at municipal shelters. In Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich wrote of:
Children of seven and eight years. Tiny faces, with large, dull eyes, overshadowed by huge puffed, rickety foreheads, their small arms just skin and bones, and above the crooked legs with their dislocated joints the swollen, pointed stomachs of the hunger edema.
Kathe produced the poster Germany’s Children Are Starving! at the request of the International Workers’ Relief Organisation. Joining artists such as George Grosz and Otto Nagel in the Help by the Artists group to raise money to benefit those suffering hardship, Kollwitz produced the poster Brot! (Bread!) in which two hungry children cry and tug at the dress of their mother.
In 1921 Kathe had produced Killed in Action, a drawing imbued with the sorrow and pain she had experienced after Peter’s death. In the post-war years she became an ardent pacifist, urging that ‘the idealism and readiness for sacrifice of young people should not be turned toward war, but toward building a better life and society’.
In one of her most powerful posters ‘Nie Wieder Krieg!’ (‘No more War!’) the sorrow turned to anger. She created the poster for the 1924 German Youth Day in Leipzig which was sponsored by the organisation, Nie Wieder Krieg, founded in 1919 to spread pacifist ideas among youth, workers and soldiers.
In this prolific year, 1924, Kollwitz also produced the lithograph Brotherhood which Martha Kearns suggests could be ‘one of the few pictures in Western art in which men are shown holding each other warmly. Kollwitz made this print for the frontispiece of Henri Barbusse’s novel, The Singing Soldier.
The first woman ever elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, Kollwitz was forced to resign from that body in 1933 after signing a public manifesto calling for socialists and communists to unite to defeat the Nazis in the March 1933 election. Under the Nazis, Kollwitz was condemned to internal exile, denied even the use of studio space. ‘I want to and must be among those who have been slapped down,’ she wrote in her diary at the time. ‘Thousands are going through the same experience. It is nothing to complain about.’
Denied any chance of exhibiting her work in the Nazi period, Kollwitz nonetheless created a number of sculptures, some of which have later become her most famous pieces. The top floor of the Kollwitz Museum in Berlin is devoted to examples of her work as a sculptor.
In later life Kollwitz said that if she could have lived her life again she would have been a sculptor and nothing else. Certainly, seeing her memorial to her son at Vladso, The Grieving Parents, is an unforgettable experience, as is being in the presence of her Pieta, or Mother with her Dead Son in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden.
A smaller version of that sculpture is on display in the Museum, along with the similar Mother with Two Children, created in 1937. Kathe had long been concerned with the theme of mother and child, but this work was inspired by the birth of her grandchildren in 1923. She began work on the group in 1924, but only completed it in 1937 after a long development process and simultaneous work on The Grieving Parents.
The best piece on this floor is definitely Lamentation, a tender bronze relief Kathe created as a memorial to her friend Ernst Barlach following his death in October 1938. In 1941 Kathe wrote that she had created Lamentation in response to Barlach’s death ‘and the terrible injustice that he had suffered.’
If you listened to Neil MacGregor’s radio series Germany: Memories of a Nation, you will recall his account of Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow. Barlach admired Kollwitz so much that he used her face for his Hovering Angel.
In January 1942, aged 74, Kollwitz produced her last graphic, Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground – her response to the bombing and mass slaughter that was ravaging Europe. Then, in October 1942, came news that her grandson Peter, named after her own dead son, had been killed in Russia. In the summer of 1943, she moved out of Berlin, having been offered refuge by a young sculptor in a country farmhouse near Nordhausen. Six months later, on 23 November 1943, her home in Berlin burned to the ground, destroyed by bombs. Family photographs, letter, mementos of her lost son, and much of her work that the family had been unable to move to safe-keeping was swept away. Kathe wrote in her diary:
It was my home for more than fifty years. Five persons whom I have loved so dearly have gone away from those rooms forever. Memories filled all of the rooms … But there is also some good in the total annihilation of the past. Only an idea remains, and that is fixed in the heart.
Every day the Allied carpet bombing of German cities intensified. On 21 February 1944, this was Kathe’s diary entry:
It is almost incomprehensible to me what degrees of endurance people can manifest. In days to come people will hardly understand this age. What a difference between now and 1914. … People have been transformed so that they have this capacity for endurance. … Worst of all is that every war already carries within the war which will answer it. Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness and why my only hope is in world socialism.
In the autumn of 1944, the threat of air raids and shortages of food forced another move, accompanied by her grand-daughter Jutta, to a place near Dresden. There, Kathe died on 22 April 1945. Jutta later recalled how she would read to her grandmother, and how both of them would talk in those last weeks:
Do you see those lovely little apples out there? Everything could be so beautiful if it were not for the this insanity of the war. … But some day a new ideal will arise and there will be an end of all wars. … People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it.
Today, the presence of Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin is palpable. From the Museum in Fasenstrasse the visitor to the city could go to the Neue Wache on Unter Den Linden where one of her most famous sculptures Mother with her Dead Son, chosen in 1993 for Germany’s Central Memorial for the Victims of War and Tyranny by Helmut Kohl, now stands. This is Rory MacLean’s response to the Neue Wache, from his book, Berlin: Imagine a City:
Kathe Kollwitz took life as it was and, charged yet unbroken, captured in her art the pain suffered in this place by its mothers and children, giving Berliners a first, true, unadorned portrait of themselves. ‘All my work hides within it life itself, and it is with life that I contend through my work.’
Fifty years after her death, on the reunification of Germany, Schinkel’s Neue Wache guardhouse became a national memorial to the ‘victims of war and tyranny’. At its centre was placed Kathe’s Pieta, her sculpture of a grieving mother and son. Buried beneath it lie the remains of two other boys – an unknown German soldier and an unknown resistance fighter – as well as soil from nine European battlefields and from Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen and Natzweiler. Today it is one of the most visited spots in Berlin, and the mother’s bronze limbs, which cradle her dying child, gleam from the touch of countless living hands.
Kathe and her family lived for half a century at 25 Weissenburgstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, the working class district formerly in East Berlin which, since reunification, has become a place to find coffee shops and bars and trendy shops and restaurants. Weissenburgstrasse was renamed Kollwitzstrasse by the Communist regime in 1947, and for nearly 20 years a copy of her sculpture Mother with Two Children was placed in the gap where the family home once stood. (The street numbering changed, so the building that replaced the Kollwitz home is now at the address 56a – occupied by a restaurant.)
Kollwitzstrasseforms one side of the triangular patch of green that is Kollwitzplatz, known to Kathe as Worther Platz and renamed in 1947 after a campaign led by her fellow Berlin painter Otto Nagel. In 1958, the sculptor Gustav Seitz created the square’s impressive memorial which depicts Kathe, seated and gazing into the distance with a characteristically sombre expression, her left hand resting on a large portfolio folder. The memorial is placed so that her gaze is directed towards the building in which she once lived. A small version of Seitz ‘s sculpture is located on the top floor of the Kathe Kollwitz Museum.
After the war, Kathe’s ashes were transferred to the central Municipal Cemetery in the Friedrichsfelde district of east Berlin. Since the 19th century this had been a burial ground open to all faiths and social classes – and therefore the preferred resting place for social democrats and labour movement leaders. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxembourg and other victims of the Janauary Uprising of 1919 are also buried there. In the family grave are buried Kathe and her husband, her brother Konrad and his wife Anna, and her brother-in-law, Georg Stern.
After visiting the Kathe Kollwitz Museum it’s well worth spending some time unwinding in the Wintergarden Cafe of the Literature House next door. The whole idea of a literature house seems highly civilized, and they are an important part of the cultural landscape throughout Germany but particularly in Berlin, which has four. A Literature House is a place open to the public and devoted to literature, offering regular readings, library facilities and bookstores.
The Literature House on Fasenstrasse has a great cafe with seating indoors, in a conservatory room, or outdoors in the beautiful garden. The coffee is excellent, and the food (including fantastic cakes) is delicious.
- Kathe Kollwitz’s ‘Grieving Parents’ at Vladslo: ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground’
- Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in Berlin
- Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk
- Germany: Memories of a Nation
- Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story (British Museum blog)
- Kathe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness (BBC iPlayer: episode from Neil MacGregor’s radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation)
- Käthe Kollwitz Museum (Slow Berlin blog)
- Käthe Kollwitz and Berlin’s Neue Wache The Culture Trip blog)