Artists are normally perceived as introverts who ignore societal norms. Käthe Kollwitz fit this stereotype. Beneath her melancholy exterior hid an extremely empathetic and warm hearted woman. She was socially conscious and took the lives of the world’s forgotten people and made their hardships into works of art.
Käthe Kollwitz was born in what is now Kaliningrad, Russia in 1867. She was the fifth child of Karl and Katharina Schmidt. Käthe’s household was controlled by her grandfather’s religious and socialist beliefs. Julius Rapp, Käthe’s grandfather, was a Lutheran pastor who was expelled from the official State church. After his expulsion he founded his own congregation, the Free Religious Congregational Church. Julius eventually died and Karl took over the church. From that point on Käthe was instructed by her father to obey ever command and to never show emotion. The forced lack of expression and firm religious grip choked Käthe into submission and fear. She became tormented with nightmares, tantrums, and stomach aches. As punishment for such ‘outlandish behavior’ Käthe was locked in her room for extended periods of time.
“A loving God was never brought home to us” – Käthe Kollwitz
Despite his strong hand and dominating presence, Käthe’s father recognized his daughter’s artistic talents. At the age of 12 he arranged for Käthe to begin lessons in drawing and copying plaster casts. At the age of 16, Käthe began drawing the people around her. Sailors, peasants, and others of the working class intrigued the blooming Käthe. She created her first painting the same year.
The following year Käthe enrolled in an art school for women in Berlin. Käthe continued her education at Munich’s School for Women Artists where she became inspired by Max Klinger. His etching technique and social concern would influence Käthe to begin her own etchings. Käthe’s introduction to Klinger was the catalyst for her transformation from painting to graphic arts.
In 1891 Käthe married Dr. Karl Kollwitz; they had two sons, Hans and Peter. Karl was a kindhearted man who focused on providing healthcare for the poor people of Berlin. The couple moved into a large apartment not far from his practice so Käthe could have room for a studio. When in her studio, Käthe required complete silence. She rarely smiled. Not even in pictures. According to Hans, she had a less serious side.
“Mother loved laughter and often longed for opportunities to laugh.” -Hans Kollwitz
Käthe’s first series of lithographs, The Weaver’s Revolt, was influenced by a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s “The Weavers.” The collection was revealed to the public at the annual Berlin art show in 1898. Due to its political message and rebellious nature Käthe was never awarded the medal she rightfully won.
As the wife of a doctor practicing in a poor area of Berlin, Käthe was able to witness the daily hardships of the working class firsthand. Hunger, death, illness, and sadness plagued the masses. Most of Käthe’s works portray such tragedy. The colors are often murky and dull. The people often had large heads and hands. The enlargement of her subjects’ appendages may be due to Käthe’s suffering from a neurological disorder called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. It is a temporary condition associated with migraines, brain tumors, the use of psychoactive drugs, and size distortion issues.
“I am content that my art should have purpose outside itself. My course is clear and unequivocal.” – Käthe Kollwitz
In 1907 Käthe won the Villa Romania Prize by Max Klinger. The award enabled her to travel to Italy. Oddly, Käthe wasn’t moved by Italian Renaissance artists, except Michelangelo.
“The enormous galleries are confusing, and they put you off because of the masses of inferior stuff in the pompous Italian vein.” – Käthe Kollwitz
Up to this point Käthe’s life fluctuated between high point and low points quite frequently. 1913 would be no different. Käthe co-founded the Women’s Arts Union and a catalog of her work was released. The same year her son, Peter, volunteered for the German army. He was killed in battle. The death of her son forced Käthe into a deep depression. She worked diligently on a pair of statues of commemorate the fallen. The kneeling figures, The Grieving Parents, were revealed in 1932 in the Roggeveld Military Cemetery in Belgum. Later, when Peter’s grave was moved, the statues moved to Vladslo German War Cemetery.
I stood before the woman, looked at her – my own face – and I wept and stroked her cheeks. Karl stood close behind me – I did not even realize it. I heard him whisper, ‘Yes, yes.’ How close we were to one another then! – Käthe Kollwitz
Käthe’s 50th birthday was commemorated in the summer of 1917 with a retrospective exhibition of 150 drawings in Berlin. At age 52, Käthe became the first woman elected to the prestigious Prussian Academy of Art.
The beginning of the end for Käthe’s art career began in 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power. Nazi’s forced her to resign from her career and her artwork was removed from museums. Many artists went into exile. An interview Käthe participated in earned the Kollwitz family a visit from the Gestapo. They threatened to arrest Käthe and deport her to a concentration camp if she didn’t keep her mouth shut. She and Karl agreed to commit suicide if going to a concentration camp was inevitable. On her 70th birthday she received over 150 letters from comrades, some from people in the United States offering to house her to save her from harm. She declined out of fear. She didn’t want the harm to turn to her family. Eventually Käthe did leave Berlin. She was forced to evacuate when her house was bombed on November 23, 1943.
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 is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed. – Käthe Kollwitz
In the spring of 1945, Kollwitz felt death’s hand upon her shoulder. She died on April 22, 1945. In her final letter she wrote: “War accompanies me to the end.”
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