Biography of Kathe Kollwitz, German Printmaker

Kathe Kollwitz
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), German painter, etcher.

 Bettmann / Getty Images

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was a German artist who specialized in printmaking. Her ability to depict the powerful emotional impact of poverty, hunger, and war made her one of the most celebrated artists of the first half of the twentieth century. She broke ground for women and honored the experiences of the working class in her art.

Fast Facts: Kathe Kollwitz

  • Full Name: Kathe Schmidt Kollwitz
  • Known For: Printmaking, painting, and etching
  • Styles: Realism and expressionism
  • Born: July 8, 1867 in Konigsberg, Prussia
  • Parents: Karl and Katherina Schmidt
  • Died: April 22, 1945 in Moritzburg, Germany
  • Spouse: Karl Kollwitz
  • Children: Hans and Peter
  • Education: Women's Art School of Munich
  • Selected Works: "The Weavers" (1898), "The Peasant War" (1908), "The Grieving Parents" (1932)
  • Notable Quote: "No longer diverted by other emotions, I work the way a cow grazes."

Early Life and Education

Born in Konigsberg, Prussia, now part of Russia, Kathe Kollwitz was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Karl Schmidt, was a house builder. His political views in opposition to the Prussian state prevented him from using his training in law. Kollwitz's family's progressive political views ensured that their daughters, as well as sons, had many educational opportunities available.

When Kathe was twelve, her father enrolled her in drawing classes. At age sixteen, she began drawing the working-class people that visited her father. Since none of the colleges near Konigsberg admitted women as students, Kollwitz traveled to Berlin to enroll in an art school for women. In 1888, she transferred to the Women's Art School in Munich. There, she studied both painting and etching. While feeling frustration with working in color as a painter, Kollwitz read an 1885 brochure titled "Painting and Drawing" by the artist Max Klinger. After reading it, Kathe realized that she wasn't a painter. Instead, she had the skills of a printmaker.

kathe kollwitz
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Kathe married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor, in 1891, and they moved to Berlin, where she would live in a large apartment until the building was destroyed during World War II. Her decision to marry was unpopular with her family and fellow female artists. They all believed that married life would cut her artistic career short.

Kathe Kollwitz gave birth to two sons, Hans and Peter, in the 1890s. They would frequently be subjects of her work. Karl Kollwitz dedicated himself to taking on enough housekeeping and child-rearing responsibilities that his wife would have time to pursue her art.

The Weavers

In 1893, Kathe Kollwitz saw the play "The Weavers" by Gerhart Hauptmann. It was a life-changing experience. It told the story of a failed 1844 revolt by weavers in Silesia, an area of mostly Polish people conquered by Prussia. Inspired by the oppression experienced by the workers, Kollwitz created a series of three lithographs and three etchings that told the story.

The public exhibition of "The Weavers" by Kollwitz took place in 1898. She received widespread acclaim. Kollwitz found herself suddenly thrust into the ranks of the top artists in Germany.

kathe kollwitz the end
"The End" (1897). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Peasant War

Taking her inspiration from the German Peasants' War of the 1500s, Kollwitz set out to create another print cycle in 1902. The resulting etchings were considered by many to be an even more significant achievement than "The Weavers." Kollwitz felt a personal affinity for a legendary character from the peasants' rebellion named "Black Anna." She used her own image as a model for Anna.

kathe kollwitz whetting the scythe
"Whetting the Scythe" (1908). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Later Life and Work

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 resulted in a tragic event for Kollwitz. Her younger son, Peter, lost his life on the battlefield. The experience sent her into a period of deep depression. Near the end of 1914, she began to design a monument to Peter as part of the grieving process. She said that "making" is one way that we cope with great pain. After destroying her work at least once, she finally completed the sculptures titled "The Grieving Parents" in 1932. They are installed in a Belgian cemetery where Peter is buried.

kathe kollwitz the grieving parents
"The Grieving Parents" (1932). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1920, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Later in the decade, she began working on woodcuts instead of etching for her prints. In a two-year period from 1922 through 1923, Kollwitz produced a cycle of woodcuts titled "War."

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in 1933, they forced Kathe Kollwitz to resign a teaching position for her past support of an "Urgent Call to Unity" to stop the rise of the Nazi party. The Gestapo visited the Kollwitz home in Berlin in 1936 and threatened the couple with arrest and deportation to a concentration camp. Kathe and Karl threatened to commit suicide if they faced such action. Kollwitz's international status stopped the Nazis from taking any further action.

Kathe and Karl Kollwitz declined multiple offers to leave Germany out of fear that it would provoke attacks on her family. Karl died of natural illness in 1940, and Kathe left Berlin in 1943. She moved to a town near Dresden and died just over two weeks before the end of World War II.

kathe kollwitz uprising
"Uprising" (1899). Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images

Legacy

Kathe Kollwitz made 275 prints during her lifetime. Her ability to convey the power of grief and other intense human emotions is unsurpassed by any other twentieth-century artists. Her focus on emotion caused many observers to identify her as an expressionist artist. However, her work ignored the experiments in abstraction and exaggerated depictions of anxiety common among other expressionists. Kollwitz considered her work unique and believed that it landed somewhere between naturalism and realism.

Kollwitz was a pioneer among female artists. Not only did she reach achievements never before attained by a woman, but she also refused to abandon a family life as a wife and mother. She credited her experiences raising her children for making her work more passionate, sensual, and emotionally resonant.

Source

  • Prelinger, Elizabeth. Kathe Kollwitz. Yale University Press, 1994.