Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz

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Käthe Kollwitz’s Death and a Woman (Self-Portrait)

Käthe Kollwitz was a leading German artist, whose work spanned the end of the 19th century and both World Wars.

Not as well known in Britain as her male contempories Otto Dix and George Grosz, she comes from the same socially critical tradition and her keen interest in politics is reflected in all her work.

In the exhibition powerful woodcuts and prints depict the realities of hunger, motherhood, death and bereavement and offer us an insight into the experience and struggle of working people during one of Germany’s most turbulent periods.

For example, Poverty, a lithograph inspired by a play based on the revolt of Silesian weavers in 1844, depicts a crowded room with a sick child sleeping in the foreground. An exhausted mother stoops over the child clutching her head in despair. In the background the father and another child anxiously look on while a disused loom, a threatening sign of unemployment, hangs in the background.

One of her most famous woodcuts is a memorial to the murdered communist leader Karl Liebknecht. Another striking work is Death and a Woman where a mother is depicted in a fierce and macabre struggle to save her child while death holds her arms fast behind her.

The issue of women’s oppression was a central feature in Kollwitz’s work as in her life. Despite women being denied access to art academies she was determined to fight to become an artist. By 1919 she became the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts and later became the first woman professor there.

She represents working class women always as strong agents of political change rather than passive victims. By using images of mothers and children, of solidarity among human beings and of protest against social injustice and suffering — despite her harsh subject matter — she also offers hope.

She wanted her art to make a difference, to intervene and aid the struggle against war, exploitation and oppression. She chose print making so that ordinary workers could easily access and understand her work. With her art often disseminated in newspapers and as posters she was so successful in reaching a wide audience that in 1933 the Nazis forced her to resign from the academy and prevented her from exhibiting her work.

Her importance as an artist rests not only in her powerful contribution to the art community and in her position as a role model for other women artists but also in her ability as an artist to play an active part in the struggle for a better world.