Käthe Kollwitz

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz suffered darkness and depression but emerges from a show at the Ikon Gallery as an indomitable survivor

Daniel Johnson

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)  may not be the greatest 20th-century German artist, but she is certainly the most popular in her native land. Everything about her was symbolic: her life, spanning the whole era from Bismarck to Hitler; her art, which focused relentlessly on the timeless themes of suffering, ageing and death; and her compassion, above all for mothers and children, the unseen and unheard.

Her mainly monochrome media — prints and sculpture — emphasise the monumental quality that persuaded the reunified Germany to place her bronze Mother with her Dead Son in the Neue Wache in Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the national memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship. When her friend, the artist Ernst Barlach (of whose corpse she drew a powerful image on his deathbed in 1938), created his great sculpture, the Floating Angel to hang in the cathedral of Güstrow, he gave it the features of Kollwitz. The Angel was the star attraction in the British Museum’s 2014 show Germany: Memories of a Nation, but the exhibition also included more works by Kollwitz herself than any other artist except Albrecht Dürer. Now the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham has borrowed from the BM’s collection of her etchings, lithographs, engravings and woodcuts for an exhibition dedicated exclusively to her work.

“Self Portrait” (1924), lithograph; by Käthe Kollwitz, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

She was a feminist avant la lettre: snubbed by the Kaiser, she went on to become the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Art, only to find herself excluded by the Nazis. As the wife of a doctor working among the poor of Berlin, she had no shortage of models, but her most frequent subject was herself: the series of more than 50 self-portraits bears comparison with Rembrandt’s in their unforgiving depiction of the toll taken by time.  

“Unemployment” (1909), etching and engraving; by Käthe Kollwitz, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The early works that made her name — the two series of etchings based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers and The Peasants’ War — are well represented in this show. She later abandoned the complexity of their naturalism in favour of a hard-hitting expressionist simplicity. Kollwitz never fully recovered from the loss of a son in the First World War; many of her later works are devoted to mourning.

Despite the darkness and depression, however, Kollwitz emerges as an indomitable survivor. She took up left-wing politics during the 1920s and early 1930s, but her art never lapsed into propaganda. Like Michelangelo, whose Pietà was a constant source of inspiration, she rejected religion yet drew on a reservoir of Judaeo-Christian spirituality.

“Die Carmagnole” (1901), etching and drypoint; by Käthe Kollwitz, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Under the Nazis Kollwitz, like Barlach, retreated into “inner emigration”. The Gestapo grilled her but let her go. Widowed and bombed out, she saw her surviving son for the last time on Good Friday, 1945. Three weeks later, days before the war ended, she died. Her reputation has survived the postwar communist attempt to assimilate her to a socialist realism. In Berlin Käthe Kollwitz has her own museum and a square named after her. But her more lasting memorial is the affection in which she is held. Her lament for the inhumanity of man stands as a warning to her countrymen — and the world.

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