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Käthe Kollwitz: Piéces de Resistance

by DeWitt Cheng

For me the Koenigsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish Jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement the gesture of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The  proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. 

—     Käthe Kollwitz, “Diary and Letters”

George Orwell famously said, “If there was hope, it must lie with the proles.” It’s an epigram that sounds bravely subversive and democratic, but does anyone really believe it anymore (if we ever did), given what we now know about the inequities of politics in our not-so democratic republic. And it is not Orwell who speaks, but the antihero of “1984,” Winston Smith, destined to be broken by the promised terrors of Room 101. In our current descent into oligarchy, American proles have likewise truckled to power. Frightened, angered and exhilarated by the right-wing groupthink flooding their 4K/Dolby telescreens and ‘Think-Different” Macs, they continue to adore Big Brother. A third of the voters, still mesmerized by the 24/7 three-minute hates, have clambered happily into into Orwell’s tyrannical boot, forever stamping the human face.


Káthe Kollwitz, 1906, in front of her etching “Carmagnole.” Photographer: Philipp Kester. All images © Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne.

Art reflects the values of the society and culture, and contemporary art has in recent years roused itself from the dogmatic slumbers of formalist innovation. More and more artists use their practices to participate in national and global life rather than to self-quarantine in the studio — as ‘free’ in their invisible chains as the covid denialists they deplore. Philip Guston famously abandoned abstraction during the turbulent 1960s. Decades later, others following his example dare to question the solipsism and careerism of the art business world.


The German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) serves as an exemplar for sociopolitical artists in our, in any troubled times. The prolific graphic artist and sculptor harnessed her considerable energies to humanistic goals when monarchist and fascist powers affirmed that might was obviously, naturally right. Her powerful and impassioned work is sometimes disparaged as political — and therefore corny, irrelevant, and tendentious: Tendenzkunst propaganda, not ‘real’ art, which is made for the delectation of connoisseurs. The class element of this criticism somehow escapes the notice of bien-pensant liberals. I believe the time requires that Kollwitz’s work be reengaged by a general audience. Let this article serve as a fresh introduction; call it Kollwitz 101.


Käthe Kollwitz, Scene from "Germinal," 1893, line etching, drypoint, sandpaper.

Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to the feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable. 

— Käthe Kollwitz, Diary and Letters


The delicate feet of women artists have always walked in the footsteps of men, they have never led, rather they have always followed. 

—Hans Rosenhagen, German art critic, 1894

Käthe Schmidt grew up in Königsberg, Prussia, in a cultured middle-class family. She would marry Dr. Karl Kollwitz at age 23 in 1890, and they would locate in Berlin the following year, where they would remain for the entire 50 years of their successful marriage.

The Schmidts were progressives who encouraged her artistic talent when women were rarities in the art world. Few career paths lay open to them, and the very notion of a woman artist was treated with mockery and disdain. Germany, boasting military might and scientific/industrial prowess, was emerging as a world power governed by a monarch and, in the Prussian Junkers, a landed aristocracy with ties to the military, that despised democracy, liberalism and even free thought.


The Schmidt family did not toe this line. Karl Schmidt, Kollwitz’s father, was an adherent of the SDP, a left wing social democratic party, and although he had studied the law, he chose to work as a mason and builder instead of engaged combat with the conservative legal establishment. His father-in-law, Julius Rupp, was a leftist who had served prison time for his communistic beliefs and later founded a church dedicated to progressive causes, which Karl took over after his death. Käthe’s brothers, Karl, Hans and Konrad, also became socialists. Karl, welcoming her to Berlin, took her to the Friedrichshain Cemetery, where two hundred laborers, inspired by contemporaneous protests in France, had been shot by the Kaiser’s forces and buried anonymously beneath a headstone inscribed, “Died March 18, 1848,” thirty-seven years before the young tourist's visit.

Given such family politics, it is not surprising that the young artist found herself attracted to the working classes, initially on aesthetic and emotional terms. As a young girl, sometimes beset by nightmares and spells of silent introversion, she had admired the “fun-loving, entertaining, and cheerful Polish, Russian and Lithuanian dockhands, dancing on their boats to accordions. She responded to “the woman question” then in circulation with both empathy and militancy. Once she started to find her way into social content, she decided it was best communicated through the revived medium of printmaking.


Käthe Kollwitz, "The Carmagnole," 1901, line etching, drypoint, aquatint respectively brush etching, sandpaper.

“Suddenly I saw that I was not a painter at all … Color was my stumbling block,” Kollwitz wrote, confirmation that her talent and interest lay in drawing, and, later, printmaking (which she learned informally through self-study and the help of artist friends), but not painting. The printmaker and sculptor Leonard Baskin wrote of her temperament: “The blandishment of colors, the inevitable sensuousness of fat oil or sparkling water paints were alien to her needs. She lived in a world of blacks and whites.” A mentor, the fantasy artist Max Klinger, now best known for his proto-surrealist etching series, “Adventures of a Glove,” had theorized, in his influential “Painting and Drawing” (1885), which Kollwitz admired:

Drawing in line invites one to cyclical compositions … presenting the artist with a cornucopia  of fantastic notions and images … The draftsman … looks perpetually at the unfilled holes, the yearned-for and barely attainable ... the draftsman cannot escape his more negative vision beyond appearance.

If Klinger’s dichotomy now seems simplistic, his support encouraged the young Kollwitz to follow her own direction. In her early prints, from the turn of the century to the aftermath of the Great War, there grew a sympathy for the underdog and a rage for social justice that belied the artist’s personally quiet demeanor. These early series, which employed etching and stone lithography, sometimes together, are pictorially conceived: individual independent artworks that stand within and elucidate a narrative framework. With each series comprising different dimensions and proportions, and even media, resulting from Kollwitz’s restless experimentation, these hybrid productions prioritize the unruly creative process over commercial or even practical concerns; yet their emotional power was discerned immediately.


By age thirty-two Kollwitz was recognized as an important artist tackling a timely and difficult subject. The Kaiser disapprovingly vetoed an award because of her gender as well as her politics, and his wife subsequently insisted that Kollwitz’s unblinkingly truthful imagery on posters for a large art exhibition be covered before she would deign to enter. Such opposition had no effect on the stubbornly independent artist, who certainly internalized the dicta of grandfather Julius, “Talent is a responsibility,” and father Karl, “Be what you have chosen to be with all your heart.”


Käthe Kollwitz, “Storming the Gate,” sheet 5 of the cycle “A Weavers’ Revolt,” 1893-1897, crayon, pen and brush lithograph with scratch technique.

Ein Weber Aufstand, A Weaver’s Revolt (1893-7)


On February 28, 1893, the twenty-six-year -old artist attended the premiere of Gerhard Hauptmann’s play, “Die Weber, The Weavers,” at the Berliner Freie Bühne, The Independent Stage Company of Berlin. The play depicts the 1844 revolt of Silesian peasant weavers against their capitalist bosses and exploiters, and it galvanized Kollwitz to make her own treatment, a suite of six prints, three etchings and three lithographs, “A Weaver’s Revolt,” over the next four years, saw Kollwitz depicting grim scenes of lower-class misery and revolt. While she also drew on Emile Zola’s “Germinal“ and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” it was in “The Weaver’s Revolt” that Kollwitz’s pictorial influences coalesce into an revelatory documentation of the uprising from its causes to its tragic aftermath. 


Kollwitz, “Death,” sheet 2 of the cycle “A Weavers’ Revolt,”

1893-1897, crayon, pen and brush lithograph with scratch technique.

In “Poverty,” or “Need,” we are transported to one of the worker’s dark hovels, where a prematurely aged mother stares fixedly in disbelief at her sleeping infant, its face aglow with fever, surrounded by looms and reels cloth. In “Death,” we see her again in the dark cramped quarters, now slumped against a wall, with a skeletal death plucking at her sleeve, with her husband and child looking on uncomprehendingly. In “Conspiracy,” a trio of men huddles over a shadowy tavern table. “March of the Weavers” and “Storming the Gate” depict the weavers, armed with axes, mallets and scythes, and even cobblestones pried from the street, in revolt against their employer, unseen behind his ornate mansion gates. 


In “End,” we are back in the weaver’s hovel, as workers bring in the bodies of the slain, witnessed by a somber woman in black, mourned by a boy huddled beneath the giant loom; it’s a secular Lamentation and Deposition. The series, exhibited in 1898, made Kollwitz’s reputation, and garnered her prizes despite the veto of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who branded it “art of the gutter.” When one print sold for five hundred marks ($120, one historian estimated in 1976), the artist was astounded: “I was so surprised that I stood still with my mouth open.” In later years, after her renunciation of direct action (as advocated by the Communists and radical Socialists) in favor of pacifism, Kollwitz paid an ambiguous tribute to the playwright: “But when an artist like Hauptmann comes along and shows us revolution transfigured by art, we again feel ourselves revolutionaries, again fall for the old deception.”

Bauernkrieg, Peasant’s War (1902-8)


Another working-class revolt, although dating three centuries earlier, became the subject of Kollwitz’s next print series, based on Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1844 book, “The Great German Peasants’ War.” In 1524 and 1525, peasants in Germany and Austria rose in vast numbers to protest the economic misery forced on them as the aristocracy, citing Roman civil law over medieval custom, seized lands formerly held in common and traditionally farmed for the common good


Käthe Kollwitz, “Raped,” sheet 2 of the cycle “Peasants War,” 1907/08, line etching, drypoint,

sandpaper, aquatint and soft ground with imprint of laid paper and Zieglers transfer paper.

Other factors contributed to the revolt: rivalries between the burghers and the nobles, between rival dynasties, and between secular and religious authorities. The religious radical Thomas Müntzer roused the peasantry with utopian fantasies and was arrested and executed. His rival, Martin Luther, wrote, in “Against the Robbing Murderous Peasants,” that the rebels “must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog.” The alliance of aristocrats (with their well-trained and equipped troops) with the church (whose properties were under attack) led to a massacre of between 100,000 and 300,000 insurgents, blinded by the righteousness of their cause, to the realities of organized, professional violence.

Once again, Kollwitz chose to depict, with great sympathy and power, a doomed rebellion. In “The Plowmen,” the artist depicts two agricultural laborers, in harness, rent nearly horizontal in their labors, reduced to beasts of burden. “Raped” shows a victim of sexual assault and murder, lying amid a trampled garden. Compositionally, it relates to the male victim in his nightdress of Honore Daumier’s “Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834,” but Kollwitz’s violated woman, an anonymous Ophelia destroyed by male madness, seemingly returning to nature, remains shocking even now. “Sharpening the Scythe” is equally shocking, though in a different way. An old woman prepares her weapon, eyes closed, head cocked, as if listening to the blade. The blade and scythe handle suggest a flexed arm or leg, suggestive of the carving of human flesh. 


“Arming in a Vault” and “Charge” are dynamic compositions that communicate the exaltation of the mob. In the former, the peasants, brandishing pikes and sickles, storm en masse along an ascending spiral. In the latter, they charge headlong across a plain toward the city of Heilbronn, goaded on by the peasant leader Black Anna, Schwarze Hofmännin, a historical figure with whom the artist identified. (The triangular composition pairs nicely with El Lissitzky’s 1919 “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” from the Russian civil war.) Finally, in “Battlefield” and “The Prisoners” comes the magic dénouement. In the former, an old woman holds a lamp above the dead in the dark  of night, an eerie reprise of Goya’s horrific scenes from “Disasters of War.” “The Prisoners” depicts a line-up of bound inmates cordoned off by a rope line, a lumpen mass of humanity awaiting collective execution. In their varied emotional reactions, it bears a resemblance to Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais.”


Käthe Kollwitz, “Sharpening the Scythe,” sheet 3 of the cycle “Peasants War,” 1908, line etching, drypoint, sandpaper, aquatint and soft ground with imprint of laid paper and Zieglers transfer paper.

Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (1919-20)


After the Great War ended in 1918, the harshly punitive measures imposed on Germany by the victorious Allies caused the devastation of the economy. Millions lost their savings even if their livelihoods survived the chaos, inevitably triggering strife among various political factions. This led to the eventual triumph of the Nazi Party in 1933.


Käthe Kollwitz, “In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht,” 1920, woodcut (third and final version).

On January 15,1919, two radical leftists, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, were arrested and executed by government-directed paramilitaries known as the Freikorps, or Free Corps, composed of war veterans. Both had been members of the Socialist Party, but had abandoned it when it supported the government during the war. They founding the antiwar, communist Spartakusbund, or Spartacus League, which attempted to oust the postwar socialist government. In the power struggle contest between the SDP Social Democrats in power and the KDP communists under Luxembourg and Liebknecht, the resolution was violent. 


Kollwitz, who by this time, after the 1918 loss of her son Peter during the war, had no patience for violence from either side. She was invited by the Liebknecht family to view his body in the mortuary, where she sketched the Marxist martyr, his bullet-pierced forehead wreathed by red flowers. Kollwitz reacted to this:

As you know, I was politically opposed but … I read his letters, with the result that his personality appeared to me in the purest light. The immense impression made by the hundred thousand mourners at his grave inspired me to a work.

The artist, now in her 50s, having admired the simplified, expressive figurative woodcuts and sculptures of Ernst Barlach, was moving toward the woodcuts and sculpture that would occupy her remaining years.  The final Liebknecht print, with its stark contrasts of light and dark, and its thirteen mourning men all individually differentiated, joined by a mother a child, is a tour de force: a lamentation for a fallen hero, now belonging to the ages, and, with the caption running beneath the slab-like white sheet, a pledge of commitment and continuity: die Liebendem dem Toten, from the living to the dead.

Kollwitz during the Third Reich


It is obvious that Kollwitz’s heroes emerge from her own strong character. In 1936 the Gestapo paid the famous socialist artist, now almost seventy, a visit, demanding that she retract statements made to the Russian newspaper, Izvestia, under the threat of imprisonment in a concentration camp. This she did, while refusing to inform on another artist. She and her husband carried suicide pills thereafter, which were fortunately never used. While Kollwitz was not forbidden create, as others had been, she was forced to resign from her teaching post at the Prussian Academy. Her work was branded degenerate; even the monumental sculpture, “Tower of Mothers,” was suppressed. The Nazis hounded not only leftists, but also feminists, because of the role liberal women had played in their electoral humiliation in 1928. Kollwitz was characteristically stoic about this harassment:


Käthe Kollwitz, “Tower of Mothers,” 1937/38,
bronze, 11 1/8 x 10 7/8 x 11 1/4"

I want to and must be among those who have been slapped down. The financial loss … is a matter of course. Thousands are going through the same experience. It is nothing to complain about.

On October 14,1942, her grandson Peter was killed fighting in Russia, tragically paralleling the death of her son in Flanders in 1918. On November 23,1943, the Berlin tenement where Kollwitz and her husband, a Kassenarzt doctor employed under the German’s national health insurance plan, had lived in since 1891, was bombed, destroying whatever artwork had not yet been removed to safety. Kollwitz died on April 22,1945, a week before Hitler’s death, and three weeks before V-E Day.

Every war carries within it the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by another war, until everything, everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness. Pacifism is not simply a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work. 

—     Käthe Kollwitz, Diary and Letters

Kollwitz’s legacy — from the dead to the living — has been profound and deep. After the Great War the artist lost the “revolutionary hatred” of her youth and focused not on historical injustices of the past but the victims of ongoing inequity and barbarism. Works produced after the Great War, such as the sculpture "Tower of Mothers," continue to strike at our hearts and moral consciences.

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