Kathe Kollwitz(1867-1945)
by Robert Ellsberg

Photo: Käthe Kollwitz+It is easy to feel grateful when we stand before a piece of art like Michelangelo’s 'David,' or Van Gogh’s 'Sunflowers.' But it is also easy to forget the sufferings of the artists who produced these works, as an oyster produces a pearl. Käthe Kollwitz suffered much. Her heart embraced the poor of the world, as if they were all her children. This makes her work so passionate. The poor in Jamaica use a proverb that applies to this great woman, both as an artist and as a mother: “The bestest passion is compassion.” — Br. David

"One day, a new idea will arise and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much hard work, but it will be achieved".

Käthe Kollwitz, one of the great artists of the twentieth century, was an avowed socialist and pacifist. In her artistic vision these words were not mere ideological labels. They represented a moral and spiritual affirmation of the preciousness of human life and a spirit of resistance to all the idols of death.

She was born in Konigsburg in East Prussia in 1867, the daughter of a minister. She lived most of her life in Berlin, where she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor who practiced medicine in a working-class section of the city. She drew on his patients as models for many of her drawings and lithographs. Few other artists have been so committed to representing the private struggles and suffering of the poor. Her depictions of hunger, unemployment, domestic violence, and the oppressive burden of despair are among the most poignant images in all of twentieth-century art.

Kollwitz was particularly sensitive to the experience of women, especially the aspects of maternal love. Many of her drawings depict mothers delighting in the presence of their children. But she also depicted a mother's fierce determination to protect her young, and the corresponding potential for devastating loss. Kollwitz herself was no stranger to such loss, In World War I her youngest son, Peter, was killed at the front. His death struck "like a thunderbolt," for a long time crippling her ability to work. "Peter," she wrote, "was seed for the planting that should not have been ground." Eventually she transformed her grief into a passionate commitment to peace and the struggle against all the causes of war.

She had sympathized with the communist revolution in Russia as well as the parallel revolutionary struggles in Germany. In a powerful sequence of engravings she celebrated the doomed Peasants' Revolt of the sixteenth century and its mythic embodiment in the peasant mother, Black Anna. But with the death of her son her commitment to socialism became intertwined with a resolute pacifism.

"Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations. If everyone recognizes and fulfills his cycle of obligations, genuineness emerges. The culture of a whole nation can in the final analysis be built upon nothing else."

After the war she was commissioned to design a war memorial at the Soldiers Cemetery near Dixmuiden. She worked on the statue for many years. When it was finally unveiled in 1932, it revealed a scene entitled "Mourning Parents," its figures plainly modeled after herself and her husband, Karl. It remains a devastating image of sorrow over the waste of life.

In the years to come Kollwitz continued to put her art at the service of her conscience and her spiritual vision. With the rise of the Nazis, however, her work was banned and could not be publicly shown. She managed to remain in Berlin throughout the Nazi era and the devastation of the war. Her husband died in 1940. Two years later, her grandson, another Peter, was killed in action.

Still, driven by her sense of personal responsibility, she continued to draw as long as health permitted. As she wrote, "Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations. If everyone recognizes and fulfills his cycle of obligations, genuineness emerges. The culture of a whole nation can in the final analysis be built upon nothing else."

In April 1945 her granddaughter asked her if she was a pacifist. "Yes," she answered, "if you understand by pacifism more than just antiwar. It is a new idea - that of the brotherhood of man." She died on April 22, a few days before the Armistice.

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

See also:

  • Renate Hinz, ed., Käthe Kollwitz: Graphics, Posters, Drawings (New York: Pantheon, 1981);
  • Mina C. Klein and H. Arthur Klein, Käthe Kollwitz: Life in Art (New York: Schocken, 1975).

  • Prints and Drawings of Kathe Kollwitz by Kathe Kollwitz, Carl Zigrosser (Editor)Dover Pubns. 1969)
    — Available from Amazon.com via this site.

    Drawings from top to bottom: The Children of Germany Are Starving!, The Mothers, Volunteers, The Call of Death.