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The life and work of Käthe Kollwitz were singularly integrated. She was a human being in the fullest sense of the word, and she was a true artist, again in the real meaning of the word, as one who had something to say and said it with memorable power. In her expression she was always true to herself and to her time. Her life was simple and dignified, guided by and dedicated to moral principle. She never compromised her ideals for expediency or monetary success. Her development as an artist was consistent and continuous. She was a searcher to the end. Printmaking was her major interest, sculpture a later and secondary activity. Her drawings, masterly and complete as they are, were always a means to an end, studies for the ultimate print. They were numerous because her own approach to the creative problem demanded preliminary groundwork and clarification. Her choice of printmaking as a vehicle came by inclination and conviction. She understood clearly the aim and purpose of the graphic arts, most democratic of visual media, as the widest distribution of original works at the lowest cost. She did not believe in artificially limiting her editions to give scarcity value. It is by her prints, then, that she is known: a body of some 270 etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs that has brought her international fame.
Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz was born on July 8, 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia. She grew up in an atmosphere of intense religious feeling, philosophical speculation, and revolutionary thought that left a lasting mark on her character. Her grandfather Julius Rupp, an ordained Lutheran minister, had been expelled from the state church because of certain avowed scruples regarding the Athanasian Creed, and had founded in 1846 the first Free Religious Congregation (Frei-religiöse Gemeinde) in Germany. These groups, in their rejection of the authority of a state religion and in their emphasis on rationalism and ethics, somewhat resemble the Congregationalists and Unitarians in this country. Käthe Kollwitz recalls his personality in a letter to Arthur Bonus: "My grandfather died when I was seventeen years old, and thus I did know him and have a vivid recollection of him. I respected him, but was timid in his presence because I was a bashful child. I did not have the personal relationship with him which my two older sisters and, above all, my brother experienced. Along with the other children of the congregation I had religious instruction under him, an instruction which perhaps passed over the heads of most of the children, myself included. The teaching consisted of religious history, discussion of the gospels, and commentary on the Sunday sermon. A loving God was never brought home to us. God is Spirit, I and the Father are one, such sayings of Christ made us aware of God. But I did not love God—He was far too remote. I venerated Him, but I loved Jesus. Later when I left the parental home and came under the sway of materialism, I rebelled against all that was called religion. Heinrich Heine's Here upon a rock we build the Church of the Third New Testament became for me a real conviction. At least for years. If I for a while believed that the religious force of my grandfather did not live in me, at least there was reverence for his teaching, his personality, and the whole congregation. I might add that in recent years I feel the influence of two generations in me: my father in close proximity, because he served to introduce me to socialism, socialism understood as the much desired Brotherhood of Man. Behind him stood Rupp, a being linked not to man but to God, the religious man."
From her father Karl Schmidt came, as she says, the impulse toward social responsibility. He had studied law and had practically passed his bar examinations when he came to the conclusion that he could not, with his radical views, hope for advancement in the legal profession as then constituted in Germany. He therefore undertook to learn the mason's trade from the bottom up and became a master-mason. After the death of his father-in-law in 1884, he succeeded him as leader and pastor of the Free Religious Congregation. Käthe Kollwitz made several portaits of her father: an early oil of 1890, a lithograph in 1915 (The Lonely Man, K.129), and a lithograph in 1919 of her father and mother (The Parents of Käthe Kollwitz, Plate 39). The ravages of time and suffering upon two human beings so graphically depicted in this last picture are pointed up by an early daguerreotype in which they are invested with all the beauty and idealism of youth.
Käthe Schmidt thus grew up in an atmosphere of social and moral idealism. There exists an early photograph of her which already suggests the bent of her character—a quiet, serious child with searching eyes and sad, sensitive mouth. The well-known Kant scholar, Dr. Emil Arnoldt, exerted a certain influence on her spiritual development. She read avidly. Her elder brother, Konrad, introduced her to Goethe and the revolutionary poems of Freiligrath. The chief urge, however, was to art. She later told Max Lehrs that she had been destined by her father even as a child (for she had shown marked aptitude) for an art career even though "unfortunately" she came into the world as a girl. She recalled the impression made upon her by a volume of Hogarth's engravings—which has a certain significance in view of her later devotion to printmaking. At the age of thirteen she received her first formal instruction in drawing from Rudolph Mauer, an erstwhile pupil of Mandel, the old reproductive engraver, and it was Mauer later who first initiated her in the technique of etching and intaglio printing. A year's trial at art school in Berlin was decided upon. In 1885, at the age of eighteen, she went to Berlin in company with her brother, who was studying literature and political economy at the University. It is related by Kämmerer that one of the first places to which her brother took her was the burial place (Märzfriedhof, Friedenhain) of those killed in the "March Revolution." The Revolution of 1848 was a great tradition not only in her family from grandfather Rupp on (who had preached a memorial in 1848) but also among the workers of Berlin. She made two lithographs of the subject in 1913 (K.123, 124) and mentioned how she often visited the scene.
She studied with Karl Stauffer-Bern, and through him she first discovered the prints of Max Klinger, whose naturalistic dramatizations of contemporary life in print sequence form, A Glove, Dramas, A Life, were much discussed. On the whole, however, the art life of the German capital was far less lively and stimulating than that of Munich, to which she went in 1888 after an interval of two years at home. In addition to her studies at the Herterich Academy, there were exciting discoveries in literature and drama: the impact of Zola, Ibsen, and Björnson. Her brother recalled that Arne Garborg's From a Man's World made a specially deep impression on her. She herself has spoken of a lecture by August Bebel which prompted her to read his book, Women, Past, Present, and Future, and which was the beginning of her conscious interest in social democracy and the related feminist movement.
In 1891 she married Dr. Karl Kollwitz, a boyhood friend of her brother, and settled down at 25 Weissen-burger St., Berlin, N.58, the house in which she was to live practically all her life. Dr. Kollwitz was a Kassenarzt, a title for which there is no English equivalent. He maintained a kind of clinic or dispensary, open to subscribers of a small weekly sum. It was a form of medical insurance, developed in Germany far in advance of other countries. Needless to say, a doctor who practiced socialized medicine in a workingman's district had no ambition to amass a fortune; Dr. Kollwitz shared his wife's dedication to social service. In 1892 her first son Hans was born. She had by no means, however, given up her art. For several years she had been drawing and painting independently, and was becoming more and more attracted to etching. Line, and not color, was to be the keynote of her expression. The graphic arts seemed most appropriate to delineate the social flux in which Germany found itself. She had already learned the rudiments of the craft. She now set about, from 1890 onward, to acquire a mastery of etching technique. The first prints were largely fragmentary, a study of a hand or face, based upon herself as a model, following Rembrandt's practice. She was learning the use of ground and needle and acid, the wiping of ink, the mysteries of aquatint as in the Self Portrait at Table, 1893 (Plate 2). She was perfecting herself in observation, the rendering of flesh and form, the interplay of light and shadow, studies in unflinching realism, Female Nude (K.3), Male Nude (K.4), studies in expressing feelings or grouping figures, as in the charming little etching Greeting of 1892 (Plate 1) or in Tavern Interior (K.12). She exhibited publicly for the first time in 1893.
Having attained some degree of control over the means of expression, she began to explore subject matter in what might be called studies in social drama. Käthe Kollwitz was, I believe, fundamentally a dramatic artist who dealt in human emotions and who evoked them with great subtlety through gesture and facial expression. She had the power of suggesting overtones, of rendering feelings corporeal. Her conception often overflowed the bounds of a single print into a cycle of related prints unfolding a dramatic sequence. In this connection her early liking for Hogarth is illuminating because he too made such use of interrelated series in Rake's Progress or Marriage à la Mode. In her earlier phase she sometimes used a book or a play as the springboard for her creative idea. The pictures thus indirectly inspired were not really illustrations of literary themes. It was rather that she used the dramatic idea or situation as raw material which she transmuted into pictures in her own plastic terms, just as Rembrandt used the Bible story as the stimulus or source of his own imaginative reconstructions. The first of these dramatic renderings was a scene from Germinal of 1894 (K.21) inspired by Zola's novel, and depicting the fight between Lantier and Chaval at the inn.
A far more powerful stimulus to the imagination was the production of Gerhart Hauptmann's play, The Weavers, first performed at the Berliner Freie Bühne in the winter of 1893. The play dramatized the desperate plight and revolt in 1840 of the Silesian weavers, who earned a precarious living with hand looms. These disturbances in the 1840s were really part of the great industrial revolution which swept Europe, a conflict between the factory and the home, the power loom and handwork. Inspired by the play, and possibly by additional study of historical sources—for her conception differs somewhat from Hauptmann's drama—she undertook to create her own dramatic sequence. She worked on it from 1894 to 1898, a period of intense creative activity. Study after study was made, etching after etching was completed only to be rejected and done over again, until her conception, now refined and clarified, found concrete embodiment in the set of six prints, the Weavers (Plates 3–8). The episodes follow a dramatic pattern of provocation, angry reaction, and tragic end: poverty, death, conspiracy, procession of angry weavers, storming the owner's house, death by soldiers' rifle in the weaver's home. It was a landmark of class-conscious art: for almost the first time the plight of the worker and his age-long struggle to better his position received sympathetic treatment in pictures. The set was first shown in the big Berlin Art Exhibition of 1898 and caused quite a sensation. The artists' jury of award, including the aged Menzel and Liebermann, proposed it for the gold medal, but this honor was vetoed by the Emperor. The Berlin Print Cabinet purchased a set, but the sale was not publicized in deference to the Emperor, who was violently opposed to all art of social content—"gutter art" (Rinnsteinkunst) was what he called it. Nevertheless, the Weavers set, exhibited in 1899 at Dresden, was awarded a gold medal there, and also received a prize at London in 1900.
Käthe Kollwitz was now established as an artist to be seriously considered. While she was working on the Weavers she had also produced in addition to many drawings several self portraits, a symbolic plate with two completed studies thereto (rejected, and rightly so, for the final subject of the Weavers cycle), a Portrait of Her Son Hans (K.30), the first lithograph, and the powerfully realized etching of the Woman with Folded Hands (Plate 11). This creative activity is rather amazing when one considers that her first son Hans was born in September 1892 and her second son Peter in February 1896. She successfully resolved the dilemma which confronts every woman artist. She produced both children and works of art; and both were good. A family servant made it possible for her to work every morning in her studio. As her niece, Mrs. Kortner, wrote: "Please stop this legend that she had no servants. It would hopelessly discourage those women who struggle in vain to manage husband, children, household, and do something besides. By the way the household was not at all bohemian; it was clean and very tidy, almost puritanlike."
From 1902 to 1908 she worked on her second great print cycle, the Peasant War (Plates 15–21). But before and during those years she also produced a number of other works: Gretchen, the pregnant girl who sees shame and death reflected in the water below (K.42, 43), The Downtrodden (Plate 13), her second and last excursion into the obvious symbolism of Klinger, and La Carmagnole (Plate 10), the dance around the guillotine, a historical reconstruction inspired, it is said, by Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. This last etching marked perhaps the height of her realistic phase; in fact it was too realistically elaborate. The detail which she lavished on the buildings in the background and on the cobblestones in the foreground tended to detract from the central drama of character, which in turn seemed almost too strained and melodramatic. In contrast to this was the monumental Mother with Dead Child (Plate 14), a shattering study of a mother's grief on its most primitive and savage level. During this period, too, she made various experiments in lithographic effects with tusche, crayon, scraping, and transfer, including the sensitive Working Woman's Profile Left (K.67) and several lithographs printed in color, most striking of which is the Woman with Blue Shawl (Plate 12).
The dramatic curve of the Peasant War cycle corresponds almost exactly with that of the Weavers. In each there was a statement of the provoking causes, a reaction to them, an outbreak of violence, followed by defeat and death. The two great classes of the downtrodden in the past, the peasant and the worker, were thus shown to have had a common pattern in their groping toward a better life. She probably obtained her historical documentation for the Peasant War from Zimmermann's and Bebel's studies on the subject. In Germany during the early sixteenth century, there was considerable oppressive exploitation of the peasantry, and the ensuing revolts, marred by excesses on both sides, were eventually crushed with savage brutality. From this turbulent picture Käthe Kollwitz built up a sequence which portrayed the peasant's lot. The seven plates, all of them intaglio and with complicated techniques, were larger than the Weavers set, the canvas broader. Yet not all were equally successful. The first, Plowing (Plate 15), is almost too melodramatic, yet possibly in no other way could the poverty of the serf be so graphically presented. The second Raped (Plate 16), is unconvincing, almost Klingeresque, and suffers from a fatal elaboration of background. The third, Sharpening the Scythe (Plate 17), in which the peasant woman broods over her wrongs, is a masterpiece of psychological suggestion. The fourth, Seizing Arms (Plate 18), is a masterly exposition of violent action, as is the next print, Outbreak (Plate 19), in which the angry peasant woman is shown inciting the mob. The sixth, After the Battle (Plate 20), in minor key, shows the stoical search of the mother for her dead son. The final episode, The Prisoners (Plate 21), wherein they await their doom with varying degrees of resignation, is the tragic anticlimax of the Peasant War.
Excerpted from Prints and Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz by Kathe Kollwitz. Copyright © 1969 Carl Zigrosser. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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