Katie Kollwitz was a German artist, one of the foremost graphic artists of her time. She is best known for her prints, lithographs, woodcuts, and sculptures of bronze and granite that explored emotionally charged issues, such as war, poverty, injustice, and hunger. Her style was always figurative and independent of modernist styles.
She came from a family of free thinkers and religious leaders and was trained at the Women’s Art School in Berlin and in Munich. In 1904, she spent two months at the Academie Julien in Paris studying sculpture.
She viewed art as fulfilling an individual’s social responsibilities. In both her graphic and sculpture works, she depicted people in states of suffering and lamentation. She often depicted the plight of women within the working class. She dealt with humanity in its tragic guise. Committed to social causes, she put the poor and oppressed at the center of her work.
Her empathetic and respectful “March of the Weavers” 1892 is from the print series “A Weavers’ Revolt” 1893-1897, which depicted the uprising of Silesian factory workers in 1844. In the best of these prints, she takes us into the homes of weavers – small, dark rooms with shafts of light – and makes that dark world believable. This work gained her immediate recognition and established her as an artist concerned with depicting the plight of the downtrodden.
Kollwitz’s second and greatest cycle, the “Peasants’ War” series, was completed a decade later between 1902-1908. These seven etchings depicted a sixteenth-century rebellion. In the famous “Uprising” 1902-1903, the legendary leader of the revolt, Black Anna, throws up her arms to urge on the peasant insurrection. She herself was the model for Black Anna seen also in “The Outbreak” 1903.
In 1913, she helped found Berlin’s Women’s Art Union. In 1914, after her younger son Peter was killed on the western front in World War I at age eighteen, she sculpted a large granite memorial to all the young men who died in battle. Her personal grief can be seen in her sculptures of kneeling figures that bear the features of herself and her husband. Her anti-war sculpture, “Pieta,” a seated mother holding her dead son between her knees, has been on display in Berlin since 1993.
By 1919, she had begun work on the series “Seven Woodcuts on the War” completed in 1923. While World War I survivors and casualties are the subject of this series, her deceased son Peter appears in the print ‘The Volunteers.” Kollwitz used the raw, monochromatic simplicity inherent to the woodcut medium to create prints that are timeless.
Under the Nazi regime, her work was listed as degenerate, and she was fired from her teaching position at the Prussian Academy of Arts. In 1940, her husband died, and in 1942 her grandson died in World War II. Undaunted by these losses, Kollwitz turned her grief into some of her most powerful work. Her legacy is not limited to her art but encompasses her incredible strength and courage to endure and to help the oppressed.
“Kathe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics” will be exhibited at the Getty Center from December through March, 2020.