Käthe Kollwitz was born in 1867 into a large Prussian family, whose religious concerns and passion for socialist politics would hugely influence her future work as an artist. As a child Kollwitz began to reveal a particular talent for drawing, a skill that would later become central to her life and eventually recognised and revered globally.
Encouraged by family support, Kollwitz developed her artistic gifts first in the home and then in her studies at the Women’s Art School in Munich. Here she was further inspired by the social concerns of the age and Kollwitz began to reflect the struggles of the working classes.
The Weavers’ Revolt, ‘March of the Weavers’, 1893-1897
As the artist developed her artistic style, she found herself more attracted to printmaking, utilising lithographic techniques, woodcuts and etchings, rather than the more fashionable painting genre, in addition to viewing herself as a draughtswoman.
Kollwitz later moved to Berlin after marrying her doctor husband Karl. Through his practice attending to the poor of the city, the artist drew on her knowledge and understanding of the workers and the peasant community. Depictions of proletariat uprisings, the pain of poverty, toil, sacrifice and loss, became constant and highly emotive themes, emphasized in the artist’s stark, graphic compositions.
Kollwitz’s 1903 etching Outbreak focuses on rebel peasant leader ‘Black Anna’ who incited a historic revolt. The idea of the female revolutionary appealed to Kollwitz so much that she created Anna in her own image in a series of work.
Kollwitz’s portrayal of her fellow women perhaps became the most striking phenomena within her body of work. The artist was able, for example, to capture and convey the strengths, anxieties and suffering of women by combining such elements as sensitivity and stoicism.
In her 1942 work Seed for the Planting Must Not be Ground Kollwitz highlights an anti- war message utilising the female subject, the mother, as the embodiment of protection against the folly of human waste. There is no sentimental or delicate femininity here, but an impacting vision of solidity and determination. Kollwitz lost her own son in World War I and her grandson in World War II. Her work was therefore profoundly relevant to her own experience as a woman.
Kollwitz also created over fifty self-portraits in her lifetime, without vanity but with a complex sense of self examination.
The artist sadly died in 1945 only two weeks before the end of the Second World War and much of her work was lost in an allied bombing raid. However, her surviving artworks have inspired generations of art lovers.
Kollwitz herself once stated:
”I am in the world to change the world”
…and indeed, she did.