Free entry, until 12th January 2020 @ The British Museum, London
“As an artist I have the right to extract the emotional content from everything, to let it work on me and then give it outward form.”
I saw this touring exhibition of prints and etchings at the British Museum in London. I was impressed both by Kollwitz’s work as an early feminist, pursuing her artistic ambitions unreservedly while simultaneously raising her two young sons, and by her emotionally raw depictions of the strength of maternal feeling.
The Director of the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, where the exhibition kicked off, has written that: “She was an artist who pushed hard in the direction of equality for women in all walks of life … often placing an emphasis on what was distinct in women’s experience … She believed that art, while aspiring to aesthetic purity, could be a force for good in society.”
Although themes of death and maternal grief abound, there is also a more hopeful side to Kollwitz’s work. She was fascinated by labouring, working-class people, not purely owing to her strong social concerns, but their “speed and movement, the strength and grace of their bodies” (Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz, Frances Carey and Max Egremont).
Kollwitz was a keen advocate of workers’ rights and of gender equality at a time when that idea must have seemed more or less ridiculous. That she achieved such great success as a graphic artist when painting and sculpture were so much more highly esteemed is doubly notable. Kollwitz produced over 1,000 drawings, 275 prints and 43 sculptures.
Her interest in print-making seems partly to have been a response to the fact that, with two small children to accommodate, it took up less room than painting. Parenting is the sort of little detail that male artists seem to have been able to evade for centuries. However, as Frances Carey writes, for Kollwitz “motherhood was not the ‘enemy of promise’ but a vital aspect of her identity and growth, as were the personal stories and the broader implications of the social problems around her.”
Her print Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with Dead Child) was posed using her seven-year-old son Peter, seeming to uncannily presage Peter’s death in the First World War at the age of just 18. The work makes use of an unusual combination of techniques, employing etching and lithography.
When war broke out, Kollwitz’s eldest son Hans enlisted, and his younger brother Peter longer to join him. As Peter was still underage he required his father’s signature in order to sign up; Kathe persuaded Peter’s father Karl to sign.
Just after Peter was killed, she produced the print entitled The Wait (Das Warten – not on display in this exhibition). After Peter’s death she came to focus more on sculpture, planning a memorial to her lost son. That memorial, The Grieving Parents, now stands in the Vladslo German Military Ceremony in Belgium (“I stood before the woman, looked at her -my own face – wept and stroked her cheeks”).
The devastating woodcut below, Die Eltern (The Parents) (1921-22) is on display as part of the exhibition:
Meanwhile, her woodcut series Kreig (War), completed in 1922, uses the powerful image of a circle of mothers defending their children:
Kollwitz’s life straddled both World Wars, and she tragically lost her grandson, also named Peter, to the Second World War in 1943. Kollwitz was no fan of the Nazis (and was at one point threatened with deportation to a concentration camp); with the loss of her son she had also become a resolute pacifist. Meanwhile, despite their own obsession with images of the mother and child, Egremont tells us that the Nazis “criticised her maternal figures for not being proud enough nurturers of future warriors”.